A group of white people sit around some foldout tables in a community hall. One looks uncertain, another looks combative tho

"Wow, that was really therapeutic!"

On people finding research and facilitation sessions 'therapeutic', and why we might want to focus on 'integration' instead.

Frequently, I finish a research workshop, an interview, I close a group I'm facilitating, and people say "Wow, that session was really therapeutic!" It's a compliment, of course; something about the way I was (co-)holding a space led to some kind of transformation in experience for people. That's great. But I'm always a little troubled by the therapeutic label.

I know what they mean—having been part of sessions as both researcher and researched, facilitator and facilitated, there is often a strong... relief? to it. But for those of us who are doing this work who aren't therapists, the 'therapeutic' label can feel wonky, or can might lead you to say for the fifth time "Just so everyone knows, I'm not a therapist and nothing I say should be understood therapeutically".

My sense of what people mean when they say this is that they feel... better? That participating in a space or process we've held has helped them to connect with some part of themselves, to voice something they'd been holding, to connect with others who feel the same way, to recognise their experiences aren't isolated. Mostly, I think they're identifying the feeling of having a protected space for reflection as similar to the feeling you might have from therapy. Where else in our lives do we protect time and space for reflection, except for in therapy (or coaching)?

So much of this 'therapeutic' feeling is even more foundational than just protecting time and space for reflection, though; for some people, research or facilitation processes are some of the only times that their emotions feel permissible—in work or even in their broader lives! I'm not trying to present everything as a hellscape, but it's worth acknowledging that despite how far we've come with attuning to emotionality, logic and reason are seen as inherently more valuable.

The language we use matters, though. I'm glad when people have a good, relieving, or transformative experience through my practice. But I don't want my practice to be misunderstood as therapy. It doesn't take the place of therapy, I don't want the idea projected onto me that my spaces are therapeutic, because then people might bring different expectations with them. And I don't think therapists want people to think of un-therapeutic activities as therapeutic, either, as it devalues their profession. Knowing how to foreground emotional experiences or create a reflexive environment doesn't make me a therapist.

How can we reframe?

I'm wondering if 'integrative' might be a better way to describe that feeling. In psychology, integration is a process of reconciliation, of bringing together different parts of ourselves and being able to notice that they're all just parts of a whole that might have slipped into conflict with each other (I'm representing just one view of integration here: remember, I'm not a therapist). Therapy is an example of an integrative activity, but so are many other things: meditation, reflection, physical activity... research and facilitation? Our research and facilitation sessions could tune into this integrative process without making them therapeutic. Therapy engages with the process of integration in a much more intentional way than we might as researchers or facilitators.

I ran a project in 2019 that supported some care-experienced young people to reflect on their experiences of life story work and help them to develop the audio, video, and storytelling skills to make a short film about this. Turns out, they mostly didn't have experience of life story work, and the experiences they did have weren't great. Instead, we supported them to reflect on their experiences of finding out information about their past that they might not have known, and discovered that most of the group had experienced that through receiving their care records. Far from the integrative process that life story work is intended to be, receiving your care records is a legal-bureaucratic process that results in reams of redacted paper and (often) being confronted with the stigmatising language that has been used about you.

By supporting these young people to reflect on their experiences and make a film about it, our research and facilitation practice deliberately attuned to integration. We wanted them to understand themselves better, to think about things they often don't have an opportunity to think about, and to make something about those experiences. As such, a lot of people had transformative experiences. By transformative here I mean that their experiences were centred on change, not that everything changed. And in that transformation is the possibility of integration.

A table filled with post-it notes and index cards that describe the audio, video, and story elements of the film.

For example, by participating in research about your experiences of an issue, you might make contact with some part of yourself that you haven't been paying attention to, and so gain a more granular understanding of yourself. By being facilitated around a particular topic, you might tune into parts of yourself that typically crop up only when there isn't someone there to hold and support the space. Through these structured interactions, research and facilitation can result in integration, or even focus on it. Unlike therapy, though, these are more likely to be incidental outcomes.

If we move towards calling this experience 'integrative' rather than 'therapeutic', it also helps to highlight some more system-centred issues. We're probably not going to imagine that an entire system needs to have a therapeutic experience, but we might recognise that there is a need for integration within the system. At fractals co-op, all of our work is designed with the principle of fractals in mind: how we are at the smallest scale is how we are at the largest scale. If we could benefit from integrative experiences, then the systems we are a part of could to.

As with all things that come up as we reflect on our practice, this is tentative. I'm sharing it because I think it's interesting, but next week or even tomorrow I might think I'm talking crap. For now, though, I'm interested to see what shifts when I start foregrounding the idea of integration in my work, and see how that changes what's possible.