I was doing some breakfast reading recently when I stumbled upon Mariella Frostrup’s advice column in the Guardian. She was replying to a letter from a woman who was presented as having a problem with chocolate. In fact the desperate cravings, secret eating and division of days into “good or bad” (depending on what she had eaten) shouted disordered eating. I read through the response waiting for the bit where Mariella addressed this and gave out details of where the writer might get help – but no, nothing of the sort. Instead there was a rant about the confectionary industry and an example of Mariella’s personal victories in this area, finishing with some gentle encouragement towards exercise.
But then I reflected, why should I expect anything different? Mariella is a TV presenter with a reputation for brains, beauty and having George Cloony’s number in her contacts list. None of that qualifies her to address people’s problems, so I got to thinking about the whole business of agony aunts.
Writing to someone you’ll never meet, so that they can tell you what to do, is an excellent way of ensuring that you never have to take responsibility for the problem. Sometimes a client comes to see me, settles themselves on my sofa, looks up expectantly and waits for me to start “therapizing”.
Which is not how it works.
No problem, issue, breakdown, call it what you will, is solved by another person. Those of us in the helping professions can only walk with our clients in support as they find their own way into the light. Which brings me to my next point – life’s problems take time to work through. If the answer could be put on a post card, it probably would be, but trust me, it can’t. What time gives you is the ability to build a relationship, which research is repeatedly showing is vital for a successful therapeutic outcome. The letter in the Guardian told me very little about the person writing it, and the response did nothing to speak to her directly – how could it?
And there’s my other concern. Counsellors and therapists work to a code of ethics, of which a supporting pillar is non-maleficence – do no harm. Mariella’s response had nothing in it with which I disagreed, but it’s brisk air of pull your socks up and be a bit more disciplined may have felt hugely shaming to the recipient. If you don’t know the person you are talking to, you can’t know what will upset them.
The more I think about it, the more uncomfortable I become. To write to a stranger suggests to me that there is no one else in your life that you feel safe talking to, which in itself is isolating and distressing. To have that letter dissected by a non-professional, for what is, lets face it, essentially the reader’s pleasure seems to be at best unhelpful, and at worst harmful.