• Dr Hugh Willbourn

#12 What if the World needs Therapy?

Updated: Oct 13


As a psychotherapist I ask myself,

“What would I do if the world came to see me now?”

Firstly, I think I'd say,

“Well done. It takes courage to admit that you need help, and more courage to go to see a total stranger and talk about it. So, well done.”

Then I would ask,

“What prompted you to come to see me?”

And the world might say,

“I’m frightened. I’m frightened of so many things. I’m facing a terrifying pandemic and I am also terrified by the response to the pandemic. I’m not even sure what to do any more.

Whatever we do, this virus keeps threatening us. Now there are even more problems. There are other sick people who are not getting help. The economy is in big trouble. Most of me wants to do proper protection, for everyone, until we can get a vaccine or a realistic, safe strategy to control this virus, but another part of me wants to stop all these restrictions and protections and just offer isolation to old, sick and vulnerable people.

I can’t stop arguing with myself, and whatever we do I don’t think I can face another six months of fear and half-baked solutions and social isolation and anger and fighting and people dying and bad arguments and putting the economy to death and taking away hope .. and purpose … and connection …”

Pause.

Me: “That sounds pretty bleak.”

World: “Yes.”

Long pause.

World: “I really, really want to do the right thing. To stay safe. To protect other people. But I want there to be something worth living for at the end of it. They are doing really strange things to children in schools, you know…”

Me: “I’ve heard...”

World: “And children … well, children aren’t really at risk, are they?”

Me: “No, they are not at risk. But we are told that they could catch the virus and pass it on to their grand-parents.”

World: “Then their grand-parents would die, wouldn’t they?”

Me: “Well, it’s not guaranteed. But you know everyone’s grandparents die. Humans die. That’s a fact.”

World: “Of course I know people die!”

Me: “I know you know. But it is one of those things we would rather not think about. We would rather focus on the positive. Life. Love. Beauty. Adventure. Creation.”

World: “Yes! Oh, God, I wish we could all focus on that stuff again!”

Me: “Well, on average we all have about 81 years to focus on the good stuff.

Then we die.

Strangely the average age of death is almost identical to the average age of people killed by this virus.”

World: “What?!”

Me: “Can I ask you a question?”

World: cautiously “Yes…”

Me: “Can you remember the last time you were absolutely, catastrophically, appallingly, embarrassingly wrong?”

Pause.

World: “Sorry, could you repeat that?”

Me: “I just asked, can you remember the last time you were really, really, appallingly, embarrassingly wrong?”

World: “Why do you ask?”

Me: “Well I find it painful to remember the times I have been really badly wrong. I have screwed up rather more often than I would wish. And it feels awful. Even now, I wince when I remember making an idiot of myself with the mother of a friend of mine as a drunken teenager. And even worse, ten years later when I was so sure that I was doing the Right Thing I caused a lot of pain. I was courageous and well-intentioned and I went the extra mile to make myself clear. And I was wrong. Naïve, blinkered, persistent, loyal, hurtful and wrong. I have apologised since then, but I can’t make the pain vanish.”

World: “I don’t understand.”

Me: “There is one thing I have gained from making all these mistakes. I know I can survive being wrong.”

World: “Of course I’ve been wrong. I’ve never scored 100% in an exam. I’ve lost bets. I chose the wrong subjects for ‘A’ level.”

Me: “Have you ever felt so bad about being wrong that you wanted to just disappear?”

World: “I don’t know what you mean.”

Me: “I’d rather not know as well. I remember a long, long time ago seeing two very beautiful women at a party. One of them was so beautiful. It took me half an hour to find the courage to approach her. I asked her some lame question just so I could talk to her. Her friend turned to her and said,

‘I think he fancies you.’ Then they laughed.

Have you ever been there?”

World: “I didn’t come here to get embarrassed. I’m already scared. I came to get help.”

Me: “Someone came to see me a while back and told me about how she and her partner were stuck in an endless argument. I commented that she seemed to need him to agree with her about everything.

‘Yes’, she replied, ‘but I thought I had rationalised that years ago!’ "

World: “I’m lost. What are you trying to say?”

Me: “Too much probably. But that client’s problem was not a matter of rationality. Her problem was emotional but she couldn’t see it because her mind kept butting in with ideas.”

World: “And your point is?”

Me: “I asked you a question about a feeling.”

Pause.

Me: “And you avoided answering it.”

World: “Oh, for God’s sake.”

Me: “Exactly. Some of the feelings that matter most are the ones we really, really don’t want to feel. Which is horrible. But true. It is amazing just how much we defend ourselves against the embarrassment of being wrong…”

World: “Why the fuck are you banging on about me being wrong? What if you are wrong?”

Me: “Well, I might be. It wouldn’t be the first time. But at least part of you is wrong. Because one part of you wants to be more protected against this virus and one part of you wants to stop almost all the protection. So, in reality, at least one part of you is wrong.”

Pause.

World: “What has my opinion got to do with it? I just want to know the facts.”

Me: “Your opinion is a fact. In fact, it is a very influential fact.”

Pause.

World: “Now I don’t know what to think.”

Me: “Excellent!”

World: “Are you taking the piss?” Me: “No, not at all. All new understanding starts with not knowing. We need some new understanding, and now you don’t know what to think. So we are in the right place.”

World: “You are very annoying.”

Me: “Sorry. Well, not very sorry …. maybe if I could do my job without being annoying I would .. but there again…”

World: “Stop it!”

Me: “Ok.”

Pause.

Long pause.

World: “How come you are so sure of yourself? How do you know you are right?”

Me: “I don’t.”

World: “Well, how can you help people if you don’t know whether you are right or not?”

Me: “I help people because I don’t know I’m right. I think perhaps I may be right-ish sometimes…”

World: “Don’t you think it is important to know what you are talking about?”

Me: “Life is way too big and complex to know we are getting it right. It is all about deciding what to do when we don’t know we are right…”

World: “We know people are dying.”

Me: “One of our biggest problems these days is the delusion that we already know enough. If we believe we know what is going on, it stops us from learning more …”

World: “But what if we get it really wrong? What if we are all making a huge mistake for months and months and months?”

Me: “What’s the mistake?”

World: “This. This pathetic response to a virus. No lockdown. Late lockdown. Too much lockdown. People who don’t care. People who don’t follow the rules. People who do follow the rules. The whole bloody mess. It’s a nightmare.”

Me: “Whenever a client tells me they have had a truly nightmare week – or month – or year – I ask myself,

'How can this situation be the first step on the road to success?' ”

World: “That sounds like pathological optimism.”

Me: “It does, doesn’t it?”

Pause.

World: “How does this therapy stuff work?”

Me: “That is a very good question … and I have to say, you are the first client I have had who has asked it. Which is strange isn’t it?”

World: “Have you got an answer?”

Me: “Well, yes. But I don’t expect you will believe it.”

World: “Try me.” Me: “We change when we tell, and hear, our stories told properly.”

World: “Why?”

Me: “I would have to teach you some rather arcane philosophy to explain that and it still might not work. Alternatively we could both try to tell, and hear, our stories properly and see what happens.”

Pause.

Me: “Freud apparently thought that if we talked enough we would gain insight, and thus be able to change. My experience is the other way round. If we change our behaviour, then little by little we gain insight.”

World: “Now you are contradicting yourself.

You just said we change by telling stories, now you say we need to change behaviour first, then we get insight.”

Me: “Yes. It sounds contradictory. But it isn’t. Sometimes stories inspire us to change our behaviour. And anyway, stories are not the same as insight. One of the curious things about good stories is you can tell, or hear, the same story many, many times and yet you hear it one more time, and all of a sudden you get a new insight….”

World: “I’m not sure I get what you are driving at.” Me: “Here’s another thing about stories…. some of the greatest stories in the world contain utterly terrible events – yet they are great stories…”

Pause.

World: “Is this a great story?”

Me: “Maybe it is. It is certainly very terrible. Maybe the worst is yet to come. Maybe it will be a great story… maybe …"

Long pause.

World: “Can I come and see you again?”

Me: “Sure. It would be a pleasure.”

World: “Thank you.”

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