Cleverness matters, but not as much as kindness.
Charlotte Fox Weber is a psychotherapist and founder of the School of Life psychotherapy service. She has a profound interest in emotional issues, working relationally with clients where they feel stuck, lost or without meaning. In this interview, Charlotte shares her story, as well as her views around the need and use of therapy.
What were the main influences drawing you into the world of psychotherapy?
I started off with a deep interest in Freud, literature and philosophy. I was always curious and desperate to understand the inner lives of people. I found that novels and literature contained more clues than most other places, and I still think that literature can be deeply illuminating for psychotherapy.
I’ve got an insatiable curiosity about people’s motivations, intentions, feelings, desires. I always want to know more so becoming a therapist gave me permission to find out what people are willing to explore.
Are they the same influences which keep you in the field today? How have they evolved?
I find myself returning to certain influences again and again. I love Yalom, Winnicott, Bowlby, Camus. I like re-reading and revisiting ideas that have consoled and guided me in the past. And keeping up to date as well.
The thing I love most about this profession is that we never stop learning and growing. So going back to old sources and embracing new ones is a constant thing. There’s always more to find out and discover.
The thing that continues to influence me the most are my clients. They grow and change and evolve, and help me expand my thinking just constantly. It’s the therapeutic encounters themselves that teach me the most, more than some abstract theory or approach to human beings.
When working in the NHS, what did you notice about general attitudes towards mental healthcare?
When I was working in the NHS, I did some brilliant placements, with some razor sharp supervisors and I encountered fascinating clinical issues, but there were constant budget cuts and reconfigurations. Plus ça change! The system is always so squeezed, and there’s a sense of threat throughout the NHS that unfortunately permeates most everything.
I felt very upset by the fact that we were dedicated trainees, unpaid, and yet we still didn’t feel sufficiently valued or supported by the larger system, even though we worked so hard. Given how hungry psychotherapy trainees are for work, it’s appalling that the national health system doesn’t nurture and cultivate professional growth more.
That said, in the past few years, attitudes towards mental health issues are improving and there’s less and less shame. We still have a ways to go as a culture though, and I find that there’s a lot of lip service when it comes to mental health issues.
What was the journey like that led you to starting the School of Life psychotherapy service?
I was hugely excited to start working as a psychotherapist, and I felt a strong wish to connect therapy to real life and not just keep it as a dusty hidden pursuit. I started the psychotherapy service at The School of Life in a small room behind the shop, and now we have 22 therapists and work with clients around the world. It’s been a hugely exciting project that has taken an unbelievable amount of blood, sweat, and tears. I felt determined and passionate that it could work.
It’s required a lot of perseverance, which is a quality I wish I’d valued in myself earlier. I was told by one therapist that I was like a ram with horns. This can be a bad thing but also a good thing, and I think that being a ram gave me the tenacity, and again, the perseverance, to start the service and grow it to where it is now. What I’ve loved, among other things, is bringing like-minded therapists together, and having that peer support. It’s also been wonderful to be part of a therapy service that attracts clients from all over.
Who or what inspires you the most in the world of psychotherapy today?
Yalom is my hero. He’s retained his kindness and empathy, and joie de vivre. People inspire me. My clients. When I see them look at themselves with unflinching honesty, I’m deeply admiring of their courage and their capacity to grow. I feel very privileged to be let into their inner worlds.
Feeling stuck, lost and without meaning are experiences we all face as human beings. Why do you think that is?
We want to make links. We want to feel that our existence matters. It’s part of being conscious and having memory. We aren’t just experiencing life in a random, fragmented way. I think what makes us human is our capacity for connection, both with ourselves and with others, and that means making stories out of our own existence so that there’s a kind of arc to our lives, a coherence.
How might you approach those feelings in your work?
I think the wish for meaning is noble and understandable, but also, there’s no there there. We are meaning making creatures, but that doesn’t mean we arrive at some ultimate meaning. I think we can live meaningfully, and that’s a worthwhile pursuit. But ultimate meaning is the horizon we’ll never reach.
As my father often says, the meaning of life is life itself. So we can live meaningfully, and I love helping people look at their choices and examine their lives closely so they can figure out where they’ve been and where they might go.
What are the greatest lessons you have learned as a psychotherapist?
Paying attention is a form of love. It goes such a long way. We need to be sophisticated and insightful and deeply intelligent, but we also, as psychotherapists, need to be kind and receptive and engaged, and warm. Being decent. Being attentive. Caring. These rudimentary things don’t stop mattering — to the contrary, they matter just so incredibly. Cleverness matters, but not as much as kindness.
Why do you think we suffer with a lack of meaning?