‘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 do not owe me, even if you think you do.

You pay me to draw on all my experience, knowledge, skill and insight, which lets 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 realise its value.

You pay me to know, until we first meet.

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

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 sometimes 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.

Although free charging for therapy keeps it and me honest.


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.

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.

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