On Hovering and Following
What does one expect when they arrive at the waiting room?
What will my therapist look like?
Will he talk or will he just ask "How does that make you feel?"
Will I get Robin Williams from Good Will Hunting?
Or will he even have a personality at all?
Often times we think of therapists as elusive and mysterious, silently analyzing everyone around them. I am aware of this fact as this morning I found myself at a breakfast meeting and, unintentionally, sitting in the back far-left corner where I could see the entire room. Part of me wanted to make a light-hearted comment about how one's minor mistake had spiked everyone's anxiety and OCD. But, I stopped myself as I imagined the speaker, whom knew my profession, might have jokingly said something to the effect that of course the therapist was watching everyone in the room. Would everyone laugh or would there be those that wondered?
I am aware that the image of myself contradicts what I am saying thanks to the stereotypical tweed jacket that every therapist receives when they graduate, I say tongue-in-cheek.
The therapeutic relationship is a complex relationship, but does not require much on the part of the client. The job of the therapist is to connect the dots between what happened in the past and what is happening in the present, and how that disconnect could affect the future. For the client, it is a sacred relationship where all that is required is the willingness to be open. Notice I do not outright say "open", but imply that there is a growth process inherent that must be recognized. We as therapists do not take the relationships with our clients for granted, for the relationship is not limited to what is in front of us.
Consider three takes on the therapeutic relationship. The first one is tabula rasa, latin for "blank slate", referring to the idea that something starts as an unmarked canvas and over time becomes something entirely new. This notion can apply to therapy when considering the newness of the therapeutic relationship. Secondly, for Freud, he preferred the phrase "evenly hovering", describing how the therapist merely follows the client as they articulate their life. It is the idea of not having any preconceived notions and being entirely open to what comes up. Thirdly, Stephanie Brody mentions the use of a "subtle knife" in her book, Entering Night Country: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Loss and Resilience. She likens this knife to a tool that opens the divide between the present world and past worlds. It crosses the "boundary between conscious inhibition and unconscious expression." Entering this night country, as Brody describes it, allows both therapist and client to go beyond the therapist's experience of the client and begin to experience how the client experiences themselves (Brody, 8). In this book she compares the therapeutic relationship to the journey Odysseus takes home in Homer's Odyssey. The subtle knife is the tool used to have one foot in the present relationship and another considering the client's past.
I imagine many would expect the first situation-the therapist does not allow themselves a personality or influence in the relationship, a mirror. The second one, while it does good work for promoting open-mindedness, does not speak far into what that looks like. I advocate the third approach. As I said before, I hold the relationships with my clients in high respect, but I also know that the work we are doing goes far beyond just myself and the client. I know it references different expectations and anxieties as one enters into those other worlds of the past and revisits how people once related to us.
It is a curious thing to realize the work that is done through a relationship. If you were to delve into research on therapy today, you would see a multitude of different researchers and interdisciplinary fields trying to make sense of the relationship-as this has been the cornerstone and the mystery behind therapy since it's inception with Freud. So how come this relationship is worth a blog post?
The question of whether or not my therapist has a personality is a legitimate question. It is not one I want to dismiss or feel I have to overly defend because of my own possible insecurities. To speak to a blank slate, some might say a wall, would be cold and frankly dreadful. We want someone that can empathize with us and someone that will be honest with us. At the same time, there is a task in therapy-that both client and therapist will work together for the betterment of the client. So what impact should the therapist have on the relationship? Should it go beyond questions, suggestions, and interpretations?
Where I see myself, I am appreciative of the role I serve in the relationship. It takes great courage to share one's story with someone else and to be vulnerable. At the same time, I know it is not about me. I am constantly observing how I might enact a previous relationship or the client might expect me to respond in a particular way. That is not to say the client is without insight, but that the therapeutic relationship serves as a microcosm for outside relationships. This notion of a microcosm has come to help me appreciate the fact that anything can happen in the relationship. And at the same time, what they learn in this relationship can have lasting effects on their outside relationships. I am interested in what other worlds I will be privy to in the relationship and how the uniqueness of what we have can alter or even suggest a new possibility of relating with, and seeing, oneself.
And that goes back to the questions at the beginning. This relationship is about me but it is not. I play a role in it, but only to the extent that I notice patterns. So I will give my personality and my humor (relative depending on whom you ask), I will share moments with you, and we will learn more about each other in our relationship. And that is not to be diminished as for some that is huge. At the same time, it is my job to help you go into the past worlds and work to heal the hurt in those past relationships. Where individuals are hurt by men, I am honored when they can come to me and cry. Where individuals are taught not to show emotion, I allow the space for those emotions and empathize with the hesitation. Where others are terrified to share secrets, I let them know it is safe here. And when it is difficult to do so, I will be there right next to them. And perhaps for some the idea of going into past worlds terrifies them. The idea that they might have guilt or shame prevents them from sharing. For some the idea of someone being there with them terrifies them because no one has been there for them before.
So what do I ask of my clients? It is I who is bound to this hovering and with that I will always be right there with the client. I again only ask for the willingness, not the openness if it is not yet available. In that willingness, there is room to grow and change. At the same time, the space between willingness and openness is something to be honored.
Just as the name of this blog describes, these are merely my thoughts so you can know where I am coming from. I do not give an outline of what the relationship will look like, I only come to it with questions and curiosity. No two relationships are the same and each is a new journey.