Why Clients Choose Online Therapy By Anastasia Piatakhina Giré on 2/9/17 - 2:26 PM

When I think about why clients choose online therapy, the first intuitive answer that comes to mind is about convenience: the comfort of being in your own office or home, no travel necessary, the time saved, and the possibility to have sessions during a work trip or a holiday.

For many of my clients online therapy was the only practical option. For example, I have worked with refugees or expats unable to find a therapist speaking their language within reachable distance. I have other clients who are constantly on the move, and don’t stay in one place long enough to engage in a stable therapeutic relationship (their peripatetic existence may indeed be a topic to explore in the therapy). I also work with women from some very conservative parts of the Middle East, for whom a therapist outside their country is the only way they are willing to open up and explore their religious beliefs, or their experience of oppression, without the risk of being judged or possibly persecuted.

In other, less dramatic cases, online therapy becomes the best choice for certain deeper psychological reasons. One such underlying reason is shame.

A feeling of extreme shame, of not being enough, freezes us, and makes reaching out for therapy nearly impossible. When the potential support is just one click away, and there is no physical exposure involved, we can take that step more easily. There is always the option to keep the camera off, which already reveals a lot to the online therapist.

Tim, a policeman from Ireland, had always suffered from shyness. He had grown up in a narcissistic family, which had left him with a deep sense of not being good enough. His father openly referred to him as a “failure” and the “biggest disappointment of his life.” He had sought traditional face-to-face therapy before, whilst struggling with drinking and depression, but hadn’t trusted the therapist enough to open up and expose himself to his potential judgment. He felt that his parents never really saw him, and any close emotional or physical contact seemed unbearable for him. Bound by shame, he had retreated into loneliness, which was his only safe space.

In the early sessions he would talk “at” me, and seek little input. His camera would easily get wobbly, focusing on a far corner of the room, avoiding his face: it seemed to enact his hidden desire to flee.

Later on, we explored the deeper reasons for his choice of online therapy with a foreign therapist. Tim reckoned that he felt safer this way: the distance between us and the differences in our cultural backgrounds made him feel more relaxed, allowing him to grade his exposure.

Another case, which comes up often with expats, is their tendency to develop extreme self-reliance.

As for Lucy, a Canadian aid worker based in Rwanda, she felt disillusioned by traditional face-to-face therapy. She had never been able to trust any of her therapists. All her previous attempts to get some support had only confirmed her belief that she could only “make it on her own.” This time, in the middle of an extremely unsafe environment, rigged with the weight of huge responsibilities, added to loneliness, she decided to give it another try and reach out to an online therapist.

At times, Lucy’s extreme self-reliance and difficulty in trusting others made our work challenging for both of us. But she gave it a chance. Letting a face on her screen slowly become a person, she allowed our therapeutic relationship to develop. She eventually learned how to trust again and receive external support. Paradoxically, a virtual online therapist facilitates the development of trust, especially when it seems nearly impossible. Turning potential obstacles into advantages is one of the creative challenges of online therapy.

In the same way as our clients do, therapists may display the avoidant attachment style and be uncomfortable with too much intimacy. Carl Rogers admitted that the intimacy he was able to develop with his clients in the therapy room "without risking too much of his person" compensated for his inability to take such risks in his personal life. I guess he would have become a keen online therapist…

The requirement for therapists to have an experience of personal therapy is an important one. I argue that any therapist offering his services online should go for an online therapy himself, experiencing the process “from the other side of the screen.”

My own personal therapy online helped me enormously to offer a better service to my online clients. The sensitivity and generosity of my “virtual” therapist also has continuously guided my work.

My choice for online therapy must have been influenced by my own displacement, and I often recognize in my clients who have left their country of origin, a familiar self-reliance.

Therapy is also about letting somebody else give you a hand.

Giving people who experience shame or extreme self-reliance the option of a seemingly easier way into therapy is not a trick; it is a gift to those who may otherwise never take the hand that is there to help them work on improving their lives.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections, Therapy & Technology, Online Therapy