Therapist Tommy Hellsten believes in openness as a counterweight to shame

Therapist Tommy Hellsten, an alumnus of the University of Helsinki, gained tools from the Faculty of Theology for an impressive career, during which he has helped thousands of people. His studies also provided him with the important experience of being seen.

“A grand old therapist” is one description attached to Tommy Hellsten, who has carved out a long career.

The title is valid: the well-known therapist has written nearly 40 non-fiction books and worked as a therapist for 45 years. Hellsten is still working, even while drawing a pension. His latest book was published this autumn.

However, it was not always clear to Hellsten that his career would go precisely this way.

He graduated with a master’s degree in theology from the University of Helsinki in 1982. Originally, he pondered whether to apply to the Faculty of Medicine to become a psychiatrist.

“Reading chemistry, I realised it was not my thing. A quick decision was made, and I applied to study theology. I had a friend at the Faculty, so I thought I could go there too,” Hellsten says.

Another reason for applying to study theology was personal distress, a difficult period of life that Hellsten lived in his 20s.

“I lived a lifestyle that I didn’t even accept. I got the idea to drive myself into a crisis by going to study theology. That way, something has to happen.”

There was a third motive for the studies, an interest in spirituality.

“My grandmother was spiritual. It was joyous everyday spirituality that attracted me.”

An interruption and a new beginning

Hellsten was admitted to the Faculty of Theology on his first attempt, thanks to his highest possible grade in the Finnish matriculation examination. However, his study motivation gradually started to wane.

Hellsten grew up in an alcoholic family. According to him, his mind was imbued with insecurity and distress in childhood. A lack of connection to others and himself. He had the same feeling in the University community.

“I didn’t have the ability to join groups. In other words, I was pretty much alone. I also had great difficulties in motivating myself. I didn’t take my examinations. After a few years, I quit.”

Hellsten went to work in Sweden for a year. Returning home, he asked himself a question: Do you wish to graduate?

“I said yes. I realised that I had to start reading and taking my examinations. For two years, I sat reading and then writing my master’s thesis in the boiler room of my childhood home.”

Memorable feedback

It was there that his mind became unclouded. Studying developed and expanded his own thinking. In addition to knowledge, the University provided experiences of being seen.

The studies included a long course in pastoral care. The young Hellsten thought that the other students on the course were terribly smart and skilled. As for himself, he felt inadequate: he tried his best but did not quite succeed.

The course was given by Docent Lauri Kruus, a trainer in pastoral care. The teacher’s positive feedback on the reports written by Hellsten on the course left a vivid imprint. Kruus said that Hellsten’s output was the best of all. The contrast with his own thoughts was considerable, completely surprising Hellsten.

Hellsten also remembers the feedback on his master’s thesis on the eve of graduation. When he was writing the thesis alone in the boiler room of the childhood home, the raven of shame was cawing at his shoulder. According to Hellsten, the raven said: “Quit, give up, it’s not going to work out.”

Professor of Theology Heikki Räisänen, who was Hellsten’s thesis supervisor, disagreed entirely on the outcome.

“In his concluding statement, he wrote ‘a clear scholarly approach’.”

The raven of shame had entered Hellsten’s life in childhood. Hellsten was not seen or heard.

“Shame gains ground where love and connection retreat. A deep conviction of my inadequacy was cast into my being.

“This is why these two experiences at the Faculty, where I had experiences of being an outsider and inadequate, came as a surprise. They encouraged me and brought comfort to grappling with the raven.”

“You are not bad, you are human”

Hellsten’s major subject was New Testament studies, which provided tools for his career – especially for his own thinking.

“The most important question is how to express that this, what we see, hear and touch, is not all there is. How can we make our gaze reach where it cannot reach?”

The question would be central to the ministerial work Hellsten would also have had the opportunity to embark on thanks to his degree. But therapists too, ultimately, grapple with the same question.

“Spirituality and psychology stem from the same root system.”

Hellsten’s first book, Virtahepo olohuoneessa, was published in 1991 in the middle of a recession and a societal atmosphere where it was not the custom to talk about mental health issues.

Since then, the world has changed rapidly. Today, young people talk about mental health quite openly.

Hellsten believes that people’s frenzy of building their identity only through external means has decreased over the years.

“These days, people don’t care as much about appearances as my generation did. People are increasingly open to their own concerns. If, for example, my books have contributed to this, that’s a good thing. These things are legitimised in my books: you are not bad if you struggle with shame. You feel unwell. There is a significant difference.”

According to Hellsten, shame turns weakness into badness, which it is not. In turn, shame is eliminated by openness.

“That’s why the media has also had an impact, and the fact that well-known people also discuss their problems in public, presenting their genuine selves. It creates a space where others too can be their genuine selves.

“But if no one speaks or shows their vulnerability, it increases shame, as shame leads to isolation, which increases the feeling of being unwell.”

Science, research and education are the building blocks of our wellbeing. Investing in them is crucial for our future. Read more about how research and education affect society and get to know our vision for the next Finnish government term 2023–2027. #Researchmatters