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What I have learned about psychotherapy from considering the Brazil-Peru border tribe

Since last weeks news regarding an isolated tribe on the Brazil-Peru border making contact with the outside world for the first time in an attempt to acquire help (, I have been thinking about what there is to learn from such isolated communities.

My western instinct tells me that such people live a simpler and therefore less fraught existence. That our highly developed world, with its abundant technology and lack of community and real social network is what gives rise to most of the distress I see around me. Could we learn how to be more content, more self-sufficient and more tribal? In considering these thoughts, I found myself wondering how members of this tribe would react to an explanation of common experiences such as depression, anxiety and stress. Would they laugh? Would they have their own version and therefore understand? Or, would they think it bizarre that we even had time to contemplate such things, let alone sit around talking about them?

This then got me thinking about how they might react if they were to be told about counsellors and psychotherapists. I am not suggesting for one moment that I imagine that such tribes do not communicate or desire emotional or social connection, it is more a contemplation about how they would react to the notion that we pay strangers to sit and listen while we talk about our lives. Would they find it incomprehensible that firstly we feel the need to talk so extensively about our inner thoughts and feelings, secondly we wish to do this with a stranger and last but not least pay this stranger often a considerable sum of money for the privilege?

I wonder how I could explain it to them. Perhaps I would need to begin with the disparate nature of our western society, the fact that not everyone lives in the same country, let alone the same town as their close family and friends, and therefore do not always have an obvious place to turn in times of distress. Or, maybe I would begin with a brief history of psychology, go back to Pavlov, Freud, Klein or Bowlby in order to explain how we now understand that experiencing trauma, abuse, neglect and challenging life circumstances can result in lives devoid of enjoyment, meaning or satisfaction. Perhaps I could describe the middle/upper class; how without food and shelter to worry about we turn to bigger questions around meaning, mortality and freedom and feel overwhelmed with the inevitable anxiety such considerations throw up. Moreover, I could describe 9-5 work culture and how many develop something called ‘stress’ when they feel that they need to ‘achieve’ more than they are capable of achieving and lead lives devoid of ‘down time’. Perhaps I would go into all of the above, set the scene and explain where I come from.

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Yet, I would still be left with the difficult task of imparting an understanding of how talking to, and often paying a stranger to listen can add something positive to our lived experience. It was at this stage that I read an article in The Guardian last week by a student blogger entitled: “I couldn’t stop crying, then counselling changed my life”. In this article the writer suggests that: “sometimes we just need to talk to somebody that doesn’t know who we are so that we are able to learn more about ourselves”, and it was then that I felt I had a way to explain it to the tribe. Something clicked for me about the vital role that counselling and psychotherapy can play in people’s lives.

For many clients I meet it is precisely the “stranger” role that I offer that allows them to open up about things they may never have spoken to anyone about. I have no vested interest in one particular outcome or another and no preconceived notions of who they are and what they are like. For many, speaking to people in their everyday lives does not and cannot provide the space to step back, reassess and consider distress or life dilemmas from a different perspective.

Friends and family often have an opinion on what we should ‘do’ when we are faced with difficult decisions, these opinions frequently say more about them, their lives or their place in our dilemmas than what they really believe is best for us. Additionally, they may have knowledge about our repetitive patterns or ways of dealing with things that either do not apply in this particular circumstance or we would rather forget at this point. Being able to speak to somebody who is new and open to how you want to express yourself now can be invaluable in addressing life dilemmas and general dissatisfaction. Moreover, I have clients who value speaking to me once a week as part of their weekly routine, who value having 50 minutes each week where they step out of the everyday and reflect with someone outside of their ‘normal’ life. This space provides the opportunity to remain aware of choices they are making, reflect on the impact of past experiences on challenges they are facing now, and constantly reassess their place in the world.

So, were I to be so honoured and get the opportunity to meet the tribe on the Brazil-Peru border, I think for now I have a good starting point. Anything else I could add?

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