No longer just the reserve of rich people with leisure time on their hands, therapy is more popular than ever in the UK. It can force you to be nicer to yourself, make you want to brush your teeth in the morning and slowly transform your life, one uncomfortable realisation at a time. Sometimes you might get angry at your therapist, wonder how they could be so blunt, so demanding – but as long as your session feels useful, you’ll probably want to come back next week.
Therapy is innately weird though. Therapists have an endless preoccupation with how everything makes you ~ feel ~, and being honest with an enigmatic stranger, who won’t even let you know whether they like you or what their life is like, can feel the same way caffeine does on a hangover. But it’s no wonder therapy’s weird. Therapists have the near-impossible job of trying to convince us not to hate ourselves. If I had to do that I’d probably resort to strange methods too.
So I asked people about the weirdest things their therapist made them do. Not everyone had a great connection with their therapist, so the exercises didn’t always pay off, but sometimes, the most successful treatments were the most unexpected.
“I had to paint my cheeks bright red and walk around Sainsbury’s”
One day my therapist said: “I've bought some blusher. We're going to go into the Sainsbury's toilets to paint our cheeks red then walk around the store asking people where things are.” I really didn’t want to do it. I was about to back out, I was in the toilets saying: “No I can't. I have to wash this off!” But she forced me – she was nice but firm and I was scared of letting myself down. She also made me ask everyone stupid questions, for example we were in the bread section and I had to say, “Excuse me where's the bread?” She would be hiding in the background, watching, making sure I did it.
Apparently it was a CBT exercise. It was mainly about facing the fear of talking to people, but because I was also insecure about my rosy cheeks she thought we should enhance them, make them look as bad as possible. It wasn't actually that bad in the end. It was a little bit embarrassing for five minutes; strangers might think, 'Oh that's weird' but then they'd just move on and forget about it.
It helped because it makes you face your fears head-on and when it's done you realise it's OK: I'm still alive, the sky hasn't fallen in. I'm definitely less insecure now. I can go into a room or a shop and think, 'Okay, no one's actually looking at me. I don't look stupid.' I still think about my cheeks sometimes, but I know how to cope with it better. Scarlett, 27.
“She made me name my hallucinations”
When I was a child I used to hallucinate a lot, probably because of anxiety. I used to think there was always someone following me. I had this figure in my head, and my therapist always used to ask me to name the visions I had.
She always wanted to turn all the things I imagined into tangible objects. But she'd make up her own names for them like 'Bob' or 'Dave' and change the name each week in the hope that it would catch on, but I'd have no idea who she was talking about. She'd be like: “How is Dave today?” and I'd respond: “I don't know who Dave is hun.” She so wanted to make Dave happen. I think she thought that if I named them I could form some kind of cool clan and we'd be best mates, which I guess could work with children who weren't already extreme pessimists. After a few weeks of her doing it consistently I said, “Mum, I'm not going back.” Then I never saw her again.
It's a scary time when you're 11 anyway. I just thought I had something that everyone had but my mum thought I was fully mental after I told her these people would come around with me and make me do things. Gradually I stopped getting them and felt way better. I'm just your standard anxiety and depression person now – very boring. I've had therapy again at uni and would recommend it. They don’t try and make me do weird tasks like that anymore. If someone tried to make me do that as an adult, I wouldn’t have it. Elly, 24.
“My therapist told me to stop and meditate before taking a piss or poo”
My therapist told me to stop and meditate before taking a piss or poo. And then while I was doing that, I'd need to think to myself, 'Do I really need a piss or poo? Or is it just the active mind?' I suffer from high anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, which was very acute at the time. So whenever I felt like I should use the toilet, I really breathed into whether I needed a piss or poo before getting up and going. Sometimes the impulse was already there, so I meditated while I was on the toilet. And to be honest, it did work. So there you go – listen to these crazy doctors. Rebecca, 24.
“I wrote a 25-page letter to my dad then burned it”
I went to therapy because I couldn't commit to a relationship, which I think was linked to my parents divorcing. My dad had affairs and an abusive relationship with my mum. I lost contact with him 27 years ago. I'm always so envious of people who say they've got a great relationship with their dad. My step-mum ruined any relationship we could have.
It came to a head when I was at my sister’s wedding, and seeing my dad gave me a panic attack. After my panic attack my step-mum turned around and said, “That's it we're having nothing to do with her.”
I couldn’t speak to my dad, but I needed to get it all off my chest. My therapist said in order to move forward I needed to vocalise my thoughts. It was stuff that had been playing over in my head for almost 30 years. He said the way you imagine a conversation to go with someone in your head is never how it will end up happening in real life, and told me to write a letter instead. I wrote 25 sides of A4. I kept writing bits and putting it down because it was emotional. It took me a few weeks to write. Not all of it was deep, but it was draining.
After I wrote it, I read it a few times to the mirror (as my therapist suggested) because then it's more like having that conversation. It was therapeutic – I could say whatever I wanted and nobody butted in. I think it worked because after that I had better relationships. I don't look at people and think they're going to walk away for no reason and I don’t push them away anymore.
My therapist said I could send the letter or just bin it. There was a moment when I thought I might send it – I'd written the address and put a stamp on it, but I think it would have caused trouble. Instead I burnt it. Burning it made me feel really good too. Charlotte, 48.
“I had to stand in front of the mirror naked and compliment my figure”
When I was about 15, my therapist told me to stand in front of the mirror naked and say nice things about my body every morning. I did it for three months. Maybe not every single day, because some days I just couldn't lie to myself. It was very strange, but it helped when I did it for a while. I see the logic – if you're constantly telling yourself bad things you're more likely to believe it. It did stop me saying “oh I have fat arms” because I'd then think “no wait, this morning you told yourself you have nice arms.” After three months my self esteem did get a bit better, but as soon as I stopped doing it I went back to being shit.
It's not a permanent fix unless you actually believe it, which I didn't. I thought surely there's a better way of getting your self-esteem up. I'm not a psychologist so I'm not sure but I didn't feel like that worked. Most days I felt like I was lying to myself. It felt ridiculous, standing there after I'd just woken up, feeling like shit, having to say: “Nicole is beautiful, Nicole has great legs” or whatever. It had to be in the third person as well. I think it was meant to be as though I was hearing it from someone else. But I reckon I would have found it more effective if I’d said: “You are beautiful.”
She also gave me homework, which I didn't do. She and I didn't get on generally; our personalities didn't click. I never felt like I trusted her, or like she was listening. She also had me on a tonne of medication which I shouldn't have been on. It wasn't healthy for a 15-year-old. Eight months into seeing her I switched to a different therapist who reduced my dosage. She was my favourite – there was no bullshit with her. Nicole, 21.