‘What am I paying you for?’

I have often wondered what you pay for, when you pay me for psychotherapy.


You pay me in the hope I cannot be bought.

You pay me since not paying me would seem even odder.

You pay me so you don’t owe me, even if you think you do.

You pay me to draw on all my experience, knowledge, skill and insight, which let me say the first thing that comes into my head.

You pay me for my ability to be distracted in ways that enhance our conversation.

You pay me to not know, provided I realize its value.

You pay me to know, until we first meet.

You pay me to help find your words and not end your sentences.

You pay to be seen and not to be seen to.

You pay to see me.

You pay me for my white male privilege as I cannot (must not) work without it.

You pay me to play, especially when you are being serious.

You pay me to be kind, and you pay me to be kind.

You pay me to be kind even when kindness is uncomfortable, and perhaps even painful.

In many ways paying for therapy is a masquerade. The fee and kindness, and the fee as a kindness, are freely given unless they are not, in which case no amount of money will make any difference. So if our kindness for each other can neither be bought nor sold, it has to be given away.

* * *

Paying for therapy is a paradox: everything in the session is free; it can only be free. The fee reminds us of this, while also putting a price on it.

Paying me is a ritualized enactment of the absurd; a regular reminder that there are some things money can’t buy, but are nonetheless worth paying for.

Our relationship is a big factor in how well we work together, and yet money can’t buy this. So what is it you pay me for that cannot be bought?

* * *

I used to think you paid for my time. However, time cannot be owned, bought or sold: it is always borrowed and it is only ever spent; even as we try saving time we spend it. I have since come to see there is a more fundamental problem with selling time: time does not exist, and so I cannot in good faith sell something I do not believe in.

Time is a boundary we invent in an effort to order our lives into manageable chunks. It’s a boundary we create only to push, remonstrate, manipulate, deny, cross, stretch, kill, avoid, bargain with, balk at and spill over into.

Time is a false economy we see no alternative to. There is always a demand for more or less and better quality time. There is never enough, unless there is too much.

So rather than selling time, I help people see it for what it is: an incredibly useful abstract concept that becomes real as we encumber ourselves with expectation, hope, fear, anniversaries, to-do lists, nostalgia, deadlines and thoughts about mortality.

Joy collapses time. If the idea of giving up time seems remote, there is probably too much time and not enough joy in your life. Imagine your life without time.

* * *

You do not pay to meet me. Though this is an important part of our work, since meeting allows me to entirely forget about you at least once a week.

Meeting is only the tip of the iceberg – or, to put it another way:

You pay rent to lodge in my psyche.

In fact we are both lodgers. The psyche has many mansions, and like two unruly tenants we freely wander in and out of each other’s thoughts, memories, dreams, reflections and associations.

Once lodged, you then seek asylum.

* * *

So-called good and bad therapy are very much alike: they are both priceless and often unboundaried. It’s not that the psyche doesn’t respect boundaries; it just doesn’t have any. In this sense the very best therapist and the very worst therapist are very much alike: they both take their lead from a part of themselves that has no boundary.

* * *

Even as therapy gets commodified, what is valuable about it cannot be, and so paying for it can bring up all sorts of thoughts and feelings. Where one person is resentful we might wonder what it is a resentment of, and where another has joy we might wonder what it is a joy of.

Of these two people, one wonders what the other is getting that they are not, while another wonders what the other is not letting go of. Whichever one you more identify with will say something of how you think and feel about paying for therapy.

Though it is possible to pay with joy, or resentment, you can’t pay for joy, whereas you will always end up paying for resentment.

Glenn suggests …

Asking yourself and your therapist, ‘What am I paying you for?’

All rights reserved © Copyright Glenn Nicholls 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

The creation of my life as death

I had the uncanny sense of having met my mother for the first time on the morning after her death.

I noticed how I didn’t knock before entering her bedroom; there was now no need. The curtains were open as though she were greeting the morning like any other. As I sat down between her and her view of the window I became aware of scanning her face without knowing why. My thoughts were saying, ‘This is your mother free from hope and fear.’ It was as though I were being introduced to someone I’d known all my life but had never met.

It seemed I now had two mothers: one whose life had been animated by hope, need, fear, drama and emotionality; and then another, a strangely unfamiliar woman unaffected by any of these.

For someone who’d just died she seemed very much alive. It was as though death had brought her into the present; like life, death is only ever in the present. It was as if her death had brought us together in the moment.

As I stroked her face I wondered when we’d last shared such intimacy. My mother looked beautiful, serene. I thought this must be what people call ‘resting in peace’, though I did not see peace; I saw an absence of the drama of life. It was as if she’d had to give up life to become present. Although my mother was gone, to me she had only just appeared.

I wondered what my mother would have made of this new development in our relationship …

I was mystified. Then I became aware that I’d noticed only thoughts, no feelings. As I arose I immediately felt a warm tingling tracking up through my body. My face became soft just as a welling sensation travelled from my stomach. It flushed through my chest and into my skin where it then transformed into a gentle and sudden outburst of tears. I felt immense relief as I became aware of a profound sense of aloneness.

It then struck me, who I’d been in relation to my mother was also gone. I was not now an orphan, as some insist with the death of parents. I knew this because who I was had also gone. I thought, ‘Who am I without the emotionality of my mother?’

From the womb and into childhood my mother not only shaped my world, she was my world: food, warmth, security, care, touch, language, values and relating. The world she’d brought me into was our connection to one another and it was eventually our point of separation. She’d shared many stories about herself, our family, and about how I grew up. I thought I knew her, and yet now looking down at her I realised I knew only her stories, beliefs, doubts, wishes, hopes, fears and some of her secrets. None of this now seemed relevant to the woman laid beside me; her face reflected none of the world that had slipped away the night before.

I knew now that it made no sense to grieve either mother; one had just appeared and the other never existed. Yes people grieve what they never had, and what never was, but this was not that. After all, I have two mothers. I realised that grieving either mother, or indeed the loss of myself, made as much sense as grieving the end of the world.

Even though deep down my mother knew she was dying, she had been praying to God for a miracle to save her from death. She’d wanted to be delivered from death, and I’d wanted her to embrace it. From my perspective death is the miracle. It’s an everyday miracle that releases us from the shackles of hope and fear.

I had wanted her to become intimate with death in life, although I’d long since got over any hope of this. But that didn’t stop me wanting it and, unfortunately, even a small want can fuel a drama. As it was, neither of us got what we wanted.

I now saw clearly how life is a particular kind of death. This thought, this perspective, cut through me like never before. Until now only my mind could grasp this; it had taken my mother’s death for me to see that being born of death is the second and final birth.

A memory of her drifted into mind. When I was five or six years old, she’d taken me snorkelling. We were way out of our depth. I remember holding tightly onto her hand as we looked down at the seabed. Shafts of sunlight danced among the giant fronds of seaweed as they swirled in and out to the power of an invisible current. Afloat in this strange new world I felt safe and awestruck. My mother’s shared sense of underwater wonder is still something that endures with me.

And so here we are again, floating together in silence, sharing another new perspective, a gift so much greater than the sea.

Glenn quotes …

‘Let us beware of saying that death is the opposite of life. The living being is only a species of the dead, and a very rare species’ (Friedrich Nietzsche).

‘I’m a Red Skin’

The man in front of me at the supermarket checkout looks up and says, ‘I like your mask; I’m all for a joke at this time – good man!’

He’d read my mask as a humorous comment on the current UK restrictions around lockdown and personal safety.

I smile, though he can’t see my smile. I’d expected some people to enjoy the mask’s irony, and yet his lightness left me with its other, heavier significance.

‘It’s not a joke,’ I pause, before adding, ‘They were George Floyd’s last words.’

‘Oh!’ he replies looking directly at me while simultaneously stepping further back. ‘He’s not a very good hero, though. He wasn’t a terribly nice man. But he didn’t deserve to die like that.’

How bizarre. Does he think George Floyd is my hero? And is he qualifying Floyd’s not deserving to die with the manner of his death?

‘He didn’t die,’ I interject. ‘He was killed.’ Even though he heard me, it was clear he’d stopped listening. It was as if I’d just pulled out a concealed weapon from which he couldn’t escape.

The mask had turned me into a walking placard: a solitary protest, an epitaph, a comment or joke. The genius of having ‘I can’t breathe’ printed on a facemask is that it works at many levels. It’s not a slogan, nor is it not an argument; it is a clear and unequivocal statement. It’s also immediately relatable: who hasn’t ever felt restricted or suffocated?

I thought again about my motivations for wearing the mask. As a white man, the onus is on me to confront my more or less invisible white privilege; this conflict is mine – it has nothing to do with the man at the checkout. This is reason enough, although I think there’s something more personal involved.

I remember my mother saying that when I was five or six years old I wanted to be an ‘Indian’, and would always side with them when I watched cowboy films. They were badly treated and, despite their integrity, were often demonised and portrayed as savages. Even at that age I could see the injustice and the projection (though I didn’t formulate it this way at the time). These were ‘Red Indians’ and I identified with them: I too was (and sometimes still am) a ‘Red Skin’ on account of having chronic eczema.

I remember, aged nine, being stopped by an attendant as I ran towards the edge of our local swimming pool. He shouted after me that I couldn’t go in the water. As I stood there I could feel the cold damp of the tiles creeping upwards through the soles of my feet.

‘Why not?’ I asked.

‘It might be catching.’

‘I have eczema – you can’t catch it!’

‘I’ve got to think of the other swimmers; you’ll need to go back and change – you can’t go in.’

There were many such occasions like this that made it difficult for me to feel at home in my skin. I longed for it to change, and though I didn’t realise it at the time, it was the desire for change that proved to be the real conflict.

The difficulty in any such challenging or painful situation is that it’s all too easy to assume knowledge of the other, whether that’s the other person or indeed the ‘other’ in ourselves. We can’t know the other and yet we get drawn into trying to change them.

Listening carefully to the other may elicit empathy; it’s sometimes possible to say, ‘I understand myself’ or ‘I understand you’, and yet we often go too far and say, ‘I know myself’ or ‘I know you’. While self-awareness is valuable, the Socratic imperative to ‘know thyself’ is an anxiety-provoking myth: it is overpromising something to someone you’re very close to. Not only does it engender the belief that it’s possible to know yourself, but also it claims a good life is dependent on it.

While these anecdotes (and this piece of writing) reveal something about my interests, commitments, prejudices and so on, they do not let me know who I am. They might help me recognise myself in a crowd. However, I am no more any of these things than I am a white ‘Red Skin’.

Despite our few shared moments of connection I knew almost nothing about the supermarket man or the swimming pool attendant. I now realise that I don’t want to change them or me: wanting them to change would be a mask for changing myself, which only feeds an ever-greater desire for change.

There must have been a part of the police officer desperate to change himself and the stranger under his knee; in their last few incredibly intimate moments together he changed both himself and George Floyd forever.

Glenn quotes:

‘If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together’ (Lilla Watson).

All rights reserved © Copyright Glenn Nicholls 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

Death is like …

Death is unlike a fear of death: fear of death can end …

Death is like nothing, so your relationship to it is everything.


Death is unlike an end in sight; the mind creates death to give it a horizon. For those who lack multiperspectivity, horizons appear fixed and finite – death might seem little more than a fear of missing out.

Death is like the disintegration of a body; it’s truly expansive. As discreet bundles of energy we become less discreet, eventually transforming into cloud and ash, or food for worms and weeds. We become the dispersed, not the deceased. There is, as it were, always somewhere else to be, or not to be.


Death is unlike anything that’ll ever happen to you: death is not an event.

Death is like a re-evaluation of all values, making it possible to see how and why the idea of death came into being. With new perspectives, we give ourselves – and death – a new lease of life.


Death is unlike an unrealised future: death only exists in the present. Everything is in constant flux; death is but one drop in the River of Flux.

Death is like the split second before a profound loss dawns on you. There’s an eternity in that moment – it’s timeless – and yet gone in an instant. The greatest loss is not of the moment itself, but of who you are in that moment.


Death is unlike salvific prayer; there’s nothing to save since nothing can’t die. If redemption were needed, it might deliver us from the misguided vanity that insists on having a soul.

Death is like a black hole: a beautiful idea that can swallow you up. It’s not easily refuted – its existence is inferred.


Death is unlike getting touched up by a mortician as she applies a final bit of make-up. The mourners blush at their vanity; their loved one all made up with nowhere to go.

Death is like dreaming of a recently dispersed relative; death is simply not in their orbit. Unlike their loved ones, they’ve already moved on – showing no interest in current affairs; they’re now peacefully busy in the afterlife of your dream.


Death is unlike the psychedelic experience of losing your mind, unless of course you’ve stopped identifying with mind.

Death is like a psychedelic confrontation with death; as the shaman guides you into the underworld, you begin to realise it’s not an experience since there’s no one there to experience it.


Death is unlike the end of time: time doesn’t exist – death is timelessness. Time-bound perspectives result in a dislocated life; they lead to a belief in the false dichotomy of life and death.

Death is like Shrödinger’s Cat – a most perplexing paradox, and yet we all relate to its central question: is a life lived inside a box really living? To answer this you must first recognise the box you’ve created for yourself.


Death is unlike the biblical verse, ‘the wages of sin is death’, which is better read as, ‘the wages of a belief in sin are an unlived life’. Those who believe in sin secretly yearn for death, not because they long for paradise; rather, they’ve so devalued life that an end to it would be a relief.

Death is like the ego and the soul; they are the Emperor’s new clothes: beautiful ideas to adorn ourselves with. People believe they see them, and then behave as though they exist. With careful attention it’s possible to see there’s nothing there.


Death is unlike the pantomime of confession; the penitent and the priest exchange imaginary gifts with the same meaning and predictability as a dog returning to its vomit.

Death is like saying, ‘I’ve had enough, I can’t go on’; it’s only once you stop cleaving to the escapism of hope that you can learn to live in the present.


Death is unlike right and wrong, or good and evil; it is the end of dualistic thinking.

Death is like a dream: you’re convinced it’s real and that it’ll end when you wake up. Once you see that dreaming neither begins nor ends, you realise death is just another dream image you’ve dreamt up.


Death is unlike the road to hell paved with good intentions. Since good intent is a symptom of dis-ease, it’s better to favour ambivalence and kindness over good intention.

Death is like the exquisite moment of giving up a sacred belief; the mind tries to process it as loss since it can’t yet process it any other way.


Death is unlike the drama of life. Eternal life begins when you die to emotionality and drama, and yet despite your heart not being in it anymore, you nonetheless return to them. It’s no wonder so many continue seeking – they don’t realise eternal life has already begun.

Death is like it never happened; it is that tree falling in the forest when there’s no one there to witness it.

Glenn observes …

Death is a complete surrender to life – it is the end of an argument; it has nothing to do with winning, losing or agreeing to disagree.

All rights reserved © Copyright Glenn Nicholls 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

BACP and the ethics of self-deception

‘I remember my training supervisor asking me if I’d read Melanie Klein. I said I hadn’t …

‘… And she said, “Really, seriously? You’ve never read Klein!” I felt ashamed,’ Paola explains as her eyes inspect the rug.

‘Why didn’t you lie?’ I ask.

‘I couldn’t do that!’ Paola exclaims incredulously.

‘Why not? You could’ve said, “I’ve read Klein and wasn’t impressed”.’

Paola blurts out a laugh, ‘No!’

‘Why not?’

‘Well, therapists don’t lie … it’s unethical, it’s incongruent.’

‘Anything else?’ I ask.

As though scanning the rug for an answer Paola adds, ‘I might’ve got caught.’ We simultaneously let out a laugh.

‘Ah, so you don’t think you’re a good enough liar?’ I query as impishly as I can.

‘No, it actually didn’t occur to me to lie; as I said, “Therapists don’t lie”.’

‘But that’s not true,’ I object.

‘How so?’

‘Well, part of our training – of having extensive therapy – involves looking at the beliefs we’re brought up with. Some are lies we’re told that we’ve come to believe, and some are lies we’ve told ourselves in order to believe. A large part of becoming a psychotherapist is recognising self-deception and then seeing if we can bear to live with it and without it.

‘Parents teach their children to lie – they tell them they shouldn’t, but even that’s a lie. Children have to learn to recognise their parents’ lies; they discover their parents’ hypocrisy and in time appreciate it for what it is. It’s the child’s task to decode “You shouldn’t lie” as “Be a good liar, and don’t get caught”.’

‘Hm, that’s true. But surely lying’s unethical,’ Paola insists.

‘What does your Ethical Framework say about lying?’ I ask.

‘I’m not sure, but it does talk about honesty.’

‘I don’t know either – I’m not with BACP, although I don’t recall any code of ethics I’ve ever read saying anything about lying. Honesty is a bit more tricky.’

‘In what way?’

‘Well, you were honest when you gave your reasons for not lying – it didn’t mean you weren’t lying. You’ve made your reasons, your beliefs fit the narrative of how you think therapists should be.’

‘Okay so I was worried about getting caught, but lying’s not congruent.’

‘As well as feeling shame, did you feel anything else?’

‘Well yes – I was really angry.’

‘So what else could you have done with your anger?’

‘I couldn’t’ve challenged her, she had power over me: she was writing my Supervisor’s Report.’

‘Hm, yeah you were in a vulnerable position.’

‘It would’ve felt good though – challenging her directly I mean,’ Paola licks her lips as though she could taste it.

‘Well, giving yourself permission to lie is empowering. The more permission you give yourself, the more likely you’d feel able to challenge her directly,’ I suggest.

‘I can see that, but I’m just not comfortable: therapists should be moral.’

‘Even when morality is born out of fear and lies?’

‘Hm, you’re not letting me off the hook,’ Paola smiles.

‘It’s your hook.’

Her smile disappears.

‘I’m advocating the rarest of lies – the lie you didn’t tell: the intentional one. Intentional lies take awareness, calculation and skill. The lie you told is very common: the one where you lie to yourself and then present it as truth or honesty. This type of lying has little or no awareness.’

‘Okay, I acknowledge I was deceiving myself. I should do better, but surely that’s the point; I mean, as therapists aren’t we meant to do better?’

‘Are we? Going back to BACP, did you know they accredit therapists who’ve had no personal therapy at all?’

‘Yes I did, and of course it’s absurd, but does that make them unethical or immoral?’

‘Maybe. But I agree, BACP justify an absurd position; it’d be like learning to dive with someone who’s never dived before.’

‘Sure I get that: I’m a diver.’

‘So you know it’d be crazy to go into the depths with someone who’s not spent a large amount of time there. You’d want a Dive Master; you wouldn’t trust someone who says, “I’ve read a lot of books on diving, but I’ve never actually done it”, or “I’ve been a number of times, I’m a confident swimmer, and, oh yeah, I’m quite good at holding my breath under water”.’

Paola beams with recognition, ‘Wow, I’d never thought about it like that. Yes to get the most from therapy you want a therapist who’s experienced full immersion in a therapeutic relationship, someone who knows how to explore relational depth and be able to get you both back safely to the surface. Being able to float on the surface is not good enough.’

‘Exactly. BACP say they promote ethics and professional standards but actually they’ve devalued them. I hope they’re lying to themselves because if not, well, then they’ve got serious problems.’

‘Hm,’ Paola murmurs.


‘They are the hypocritical parent,’ she replies.

‘Yes … “The eye cannot see itself”,’ I add.

Glenn quotes:

‘Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies.’ (Friedrich Nietzsche)

All rights reserved © Copyright Glenn Nicholls 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

Plumbing the depths of creativity

3monkeyGlenn‘Um, I’m a bit embarrassed – urghhh – I think I’ve blocked your toilet … I’ll check it again before I leave,’ Karl offers as he enters the room.

‘Oh,’ I reply.

‘I know I’m full of shit, and you’d probably say I’m just really “anal”.’ Unlike the toilet, Karl’s humour flows with the same apparent ease with which his lithe body moves from the door and into the chair.

‘You’ve been saying that for some time,’ I reply.

‘I have?’

‘Yes, you complain how shit your life is, about how you dump here and on me, you apologise and then you do the same thing the next week. Blocking the toilet was inevitable.’

‘So you think your blocked toilet is a manifestation of my internal world?’

‘Sure,’ I reply. ‘You’ve brought together two key aspects of your life: writer’s block, and how shit your life is. The toilet is a beautiful embodiment of your perspective.’

Karl thinks for a moment, ‘So I’m a blocked toilet? And I thought I was the one who’s full of shit!’

‘Maybe I am, but you often say how you’ve lost your creativity – then when you do create something you devalue it.’

Adjusting his glasses as though to emphasise his incredulity Karl asks, ‘You’re seriously suggesting I value a blocked toilet?’

‘Yes. You say nothing much ever happens to you; well this is it – it’s happening right now. Writers write from experience – so write about this.’

‘Great, I can just see my editor’s face when she asks what I’m working on, and I say, “The time I blocked my therapist’s toilet – oh, and yes, my writing really has turned to shit.”’

‘See, that’s good; you just don’t see it, or you don’t value it.’

Karl pushes back, ‘Seriously? Come on …!’

‘Why not? You’re not writing anything else. Besides, whatever your stuckness is it’s forcing you to be with yourself; it’s confronting you with yourself.’

‘You’ve said that before; maybe it’s you who’s stuck.’ He has a point.

‘You don’t trust your process; you restrict yourself creatively – you don’t risk being spontaneous.’

I’m not sure if Karl’s lack of response is a grudging acknowledgement. After a brief pause a thought appears. ‘What’s brown and sticky?’ I ask.

Karl looks quizzically at me, ‘What, really?’

‘Yeah, what’s brown and sticky?’

Karl shrugs, ‘A stick?’

‘No, you are …’ Karl’s face is expressionless; I suddenly feel very exposed.

‘Are you serious? You think it’s okay to say that to a black man?’

The moment steals my breath. Karl’s eyes look pained, then almost imperceptibly, the corners of his mouth curl up as uncontained laughter ruptures his serious expression: ‘I gotcha! Ha … I’ve never seen anyone whiter than you!’

Lost for words and unable to laugh, I utter, ‘Wow … that wasn’t nice!’ He laughs louder still. I want to laugh but I first need to breathe, ‘I don’t know about you being brown and sticky, but I think I’ve soiled myself!’ With this the tightness in my abdomen releases as laughter bubbles up; we’re now laughing together and wiping the tears from our eyes.

‘I’m sorry, but you did challenge me to be more spontaneous!’ Karl pauses allowing me to take his words in. ‘You thought you’d offended me?’ His voice has a tenderness that often comes through in his playfulness. ‘You know your joke could have backfired.’

He is acknowledging the risk I’d taken; perhaps it’s testament to our relationship that we are able to connect in a place where we’re both potentially vulnerable; it was this that set the context for our exchange. I began wondering about other times when I may’ve got it wrong; there are probably more than I’m even aware of.

Karl interrupts my thought, ‘Don’t worry; your joke was racial, not racist; there is a distinction – they’re not synonymous.’ Karl’s sincerity gives way to giggling, ‘I am sorry, but your face; you looked like a ghost.’

As our laughter subsides we sit in silence for some time like a post-coital couple enjoying the warm afterglow of a brief and intense encounter.

‘So you really think I should write about this,’ Karl concludes.

‘Why not? Treat it as a writing exercise – it might unblock you, and it might not.’

‘Hmm,’ Karl ponders, ‘But who’d read it?’

‘Write it for yourself.’

Karl laughs at a private joke, ‘“Write for myself”; I’m a professional writer.’

‘Maybe that’s where you’re stuck; you only ever write for other people.’

‘I might as well just flush it all away,’ Karl replies as though he hadn’t heard me. His words belong to another ongoing conversation; rather than deflecting perhaps he’s making a connection.

Glancing at the clock and addressing himself, Karl declares, ‘Times up, and time to face the music.’

‘If it doesn’t work I’ll deal with it; I work with people’s shit all the time.’ My words follow him out of the room.

Karl disappears into the downstairs’ toilet. A loud swooshing sound accompanies Karl as he emerges triumphant, ‘All good.’ Then with irony he adds, ‘Well at least the toilet’s not blocked anymore.’

Rather than criticism, I take Karl’s comment as a reassurance to us both that our work is not yet done. He was right about me being stuck – we are, as it were, stuck in it together.

Glenn recommends …

If as a psychotherapist you ask someone to do something, you either first have to have done it yourself, or be willing to do so.


All rights reserved © Copyright Glenn Nicholls 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.