Demystifying therapy with Aruna Gopakumar and Yashodhara Lal

27 March 2023
Team MyndStories Written by Team MyndStories
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Are you considering therapy? 

Then, you must be curious to know what actually goes on in a therapy session. 

When we fall sick, we have an idea of the questions the doctor is liable to ask. But not many of us are acquainted with what really happens when we seek therapy. Are you expected to start talking? Would you be given medicines? 

It’s this uncertainty that Aruna Gopakumar and Yashodhara Lal try to dispel with their book “And How Do You Feel About That?: Breakdowns and Breakthroughs in the Therapy Room.” Both Aruna and Yashodhara are therapists specializing in Transactional Analysis, and their goal is to shine a light on how therapy works through a series of stories culled from their experiences. 

MyndStories had an interesting conversation with Aruna and Yashodhara to dive deep into the idea behind the book. 

“And How Do You Feel About That” is one of the first books that offer an ‘intimate’ look at what actually happens in the confidential space of therapy. How did this book actually come about? 

This book is the result of an idea that started a couple of years ago – as part of therapy training, we were discussing cases and stories about our clients, and we realized that there was just so much insight and learning that could be put out there, to show people that therapy is a safe, creative space and that those sitting on the fence should really try it.

We debated various ways of doing this, experimenting with videos, story-sharing circles, and so on – but our heart was soon set on getting an actual book out there. 

aruna gopakumar

Yashodhara Lal (L) and Aruna Gopakumar

After going back and forth a few times, we just decided to give it a shot. We started writing and sharing stories with each other, and they started to evolve, to take shape. Then we thought that since it’s non-fiction, it makes sense to get an editor on board as early as possible. So we made a proposal and were very lucky to have found somebody at Penguin who was looking for something like this. It then just took a life of its own. A year later, here we are, with the published book.

Our main mission with this book is to demystify therapy and show, rather than tell, how it really works; in these light but carefully written stories, we showcase what good therapy looks like; and how possibilities open up when we are in dialogue with another.

We hoped that relatable stories would help normalize conversations about emotional challenges, and encourage people to seek professional help. 

We also wanted to popularize Transactional Analysis. We believe it is a potent and under-leveraged framework. 

Why did you choose to write this as a series of “fictionalized” stories?

We chose stories because they appealed to us immensely. We had hundreds of them to share as well. We did think of a self-help book kind of format as well, where we left people with some questions to get to know about themselves or explain some ideas – but we decided against it and stayed with stories.  Stories are the easiest way to reach people. They are relatable and understandable. We can ‘show’ rather than tell.  It was also a challenge for us to convert our experiences into engaging stories. 

As joint authors, was there a process for defining the stories that followed? Tell us more. How did you decide who would write what story? And ensure that there are no significant overlaps?

We each wrote a story, shared it with each other, talked about it, then wrote the next story. That’s how this book came to be; it evolved together. The continuous brainstorming brought a richness to it.

Our process was initially very free-flowing. It was about what came naturally to us, the stories that were sitting inside us that we really wanted to share. But along the way, we got pretty systematic about it. We wanted to showcase a range of important techniques, concepts, and people from different backgrounds, contexts, and relationships, covering issues like being gay and being divorced. So then that started to inform the future stories.

Much of the book deals with Transactional Therapy (TA). It’s not something that Indians may be all that familiar with. Could you tell us a bit more about how this therapy works and who may benefit the most from it? And how does someone in India qualify as one?

Transactional Analysis (TA) is a less-known but very effective approach to psychotherapy. 

TA is a psychological approach to understanding individuals, groups and communities. It was created by Dr. Eric Berne in the 1950s. The theories of TA explain how we became who we are, how we started our life story very early on,  and how, outside awareness, this continues to influence our lives despite painful consequences. 

“I’m OK – You’re OK” is probably the best-known expression of the purpose of transactional analysis: to establish and reinforce the position that recognizes the value and worth of every person. Transactional analysts regard people as basically “OK” and thus capable of change, growth, and healthy interactions.

Eric Berne’s goals were to make complex ideas more accessible. He said, “TA must be understandable to an 8-year-old, a midwest farmer, and an MIT professor.” So, in short, TA is an easily understandable yet sophisticated theory that can help us understand deeply entrenched patterns and also offers us a way to transform. 

Training in TA is very systematic too. You start with TA 101 – the introductory course to Transactional Analysis. Then you could join the advanced TA training, where after the first year, you write the Diploma exam on how you have used TA to understand and enhance your own life and relationships, and after that, you qualify as a practitioner.

The practitioner training takes three to four years and involves personal therapy and supervision as well. The regional body that manages standards in the South Asian Region is SAATA (South Asian Association of Transactional Analysts), and the international organization is ITAA (International Transactional Analysis Association). The SAATA website gives details of upcoming TA 101s.

“This book saw those parts of me that I didn’t even know were there. At times, I had to put the book down and just reflect on what it said or let myself shed a tear or two. A few stories felt like they were about me, like I was the one talking to the therapist. This book made me feel vulnerable, emotional, and hopeful.” – This seems to be a common thread through most of the reviews for the book. Why do these ‘fictionalized’ stories strike such a chord?

Because we are more common than we think. I (Aruna) work a lot more with groups than I work with individuals. Magic happens in groups.  In each person’s story – everyone finds some part of themselves. When one person does work in the group – everybody is working on themselves alongside them.

I love how safe it becomes to access your own self when another offers vulnerability – the pain that each person is carrying seems normal and manageable. It is when we deal with it alone that it feels overwhelming. 

How ‘true’ are these stories? We know this is based on actual practice in therapy, but how much of it is fiction, and how much ‘real’? Might sound like a trick question, but given that so many readers say they see themselves in these stories, we would love to know how separated this is from the actual client sessions. 

They are true. We have fictionalized them to protect the identities of the clients. We have changed the names, ages, sometimes gender, location, family details, etc. But the essence of the story is the truth of what happened in the therapy room.

We have taken permission from all the people whose stories we have shared, and they were very generous with us. 

And finally, if you could make someone’s mental health better for the day with just three lines, what would you say? 

Make friends with feelings, including the painful ones – they can reveal a lot about what is going on for you. 

Make time to reflect on and share what is going on for you – be curious about possible unconscious motivations.

Trust that you are OK. Even when you are feeling vulnerable.