I often start sessions by saying to my clients, "so tell me about you, what's been going on?" As I start this blog post, I
find myself yearning to ask you, the reader, that but this isn't the most practical space for discourse. I hope you'll allow me some time to, instead, tell you what has been on my heart as I consider the relationships I've formed with my clients.
When I reluctantly entered therapy in my adolescence, I had no idea what to expect of the next sixteen years (and counting)! I wasn’t sure what I was “allowed” to say or do. I only vaguely grasped my therapist’s responsibility to me. And the work itself seemed amorphous… I had a sense that it was helping, but I couldn’t articulate how or why.
It wasn’t until I, in my own time, learned to sink more comfortably into her couch and trust the process; that the nature of the relationship started to make sense to me, but it was still a “felt sense” - or bodily awareness - more than a cognitive one.
Now, having the privilege to step into the role of therapist, I’ve been able to translate that awareness into language, making it more concrete.
Here are some things I want you to know:
Therapy is not something that we can do to you. It is the passing of energy between us, the conversation (verbal and nonverbal), the partnership. It’s actually quite common for clients to believe that because of our training, experience, etc. we must be the Keepers of Absolute Truth or else completely impervious to pain, failure, unhelpful patterns of behavior, and so on. When this assumption underlies the therapy, clients may feel that the therapist is in control of the hour, that we are harboring the “right answer,” and/or that your struggle does not resonate with us. In fact, you are in total control of what you share, how much you share, and when you share it. You are the best equipped, most highly skilled person in the room to explore your inner world. I may use my knowledge to prompt, but I use my humanness to connect.
The therapist manages the boundaries, not you. It’s our job to create an environment that protects your emotional, psychological, and physical safety. This is good news for you because it means you can say or express anything freely and ask anything of or about your therapist. Social niceties and the particular roles we play outside of the therapy office can make it really hard not to censor ourselves. Get angry! Get weird! Get needy! Therapy is a space (sometimes the only space!) where we have full permission to be totally and completely authentically ourselves when/if we choose.
It often gets worse (i.e. more painful) before it gets better. When I started therapy, I, like many, had become incredibly adept at managing my emotions by minimizing/depressing, scrutinizing, and rationalizing them. These are just some of the ways we learn to survive our environment. And they work…until they don’t. As we learn to relate to our emotions differently, we begin to truly experience them. We develop the self-trust to tolerate them and can consciously choose how to respond to them. So, if you find that your feelings are bigger and louder in your first weeks or months of therapy, this does not immediately mean that the therapy isn’t working! It could very well mean that it’s working exactly as it should.
You impact our lives outside of the hour spent together. Clients are sometimes surprised to hear that I’ve thought about them between sessions. If you were to keep a standing coffee date with a highly respected friend or colleague each week, would you reflect on your time together? My guess is that they would linger in your mind after parting ways. If I’m perusing Netflix for a show to watch and I happen upon something a client raved about in session, I may watch it. If I’m reading something and a particular passage echoes a client’s sentiments or experience, I may think to offer it to them the next time we meet. If I hear of social discourse or new legislation impacting a community that my client identifies with, I feel for them and with them. If a client mentions an approaching event that elicits fear, excitement, or grief, I will hold them in my heart day of and send them well wishes. I genuinely care about you.
My hope is that this will be a helpful reference, as I know I’ve had to remind myself of these points throughout the years. Therapy is a process; we’re learning and leaning into each other, and really, the relationship is the therapy. It’s okay if just knowing isn’t enough, feeling comes with time.
Still feeling my way through it,