When I was young, my mom would drive me to the airport for my return flight to California after a visit. The trip to the airport was about 20 minutes.
Inevitably we would get into an intensely personal conversation where I would share whatever fears and insecurities I felt. At that time in my life, I was troubled and confused.
My mom would sometimes comment on how we talked more in the 20-minute car ride than we did over my whole visit. I noticed this, too, and I found the conversations in the car to be satisfying but also unsettling. I enjoyed feeling closer to my mom, but was also aware that I felt vulnerable.
The intensity of these conversations was scary. The expression of intense feelings wasn’t commonplace in my family, so the talks in the car were atypical.
As I became more psychologically aware, I realized that what allowed me to feel safe enough to share was the fact that our contact was limited to 20 minutes. We each processed the experience in the safety of our solitude, me on the plane and her in the car.
As a therapist I have had the experience where my client will spend the first 40 minutes relating details about what happened that week. Then, with only ten minutes left in the session, without warning, the client will drop down into a deeper part of herself or talk about difficult feelings.
At the next session the client might comment that “we didn’t get to the good part until it was time for me to go!” Sometimes there’s an implicit or even an explicit plea to help her get to “the good part” sooner in the hour.
The phenomenon of getting to the good part in the last few minutes of therapy is commonplace. Some therapists call this “doorknob therapy,” where clients express important material just as they are walking out the door.
Therapy clients often come to therapy with a conscious agenda of what they want to talk about, but there is always an unconscious agenda as well. The top item on that agenda is the preservation of safety.
Some people find it difficult to feel safe in the presence of another person. In their experience, closeness and intimacy lead to shame, rejection, punishment, or domination. Even the most empathic therapist can feel like a formidable obstacle to a person whose vulnerability has been exploited or disregarded, particularly in their earliest relationships.
The invitation to allow oneself to be known is like a double-edged sword. We long to express our deep, personal thoughts and feelings, but we dread the negative consequences we’re used to experiencing when we do so. The psyche protects itself by only allowing access to material that has already been processed and is therefore safe to be known.
However, as the process of therapy continues and the client repeatedly experiences the therapist as caring, understanding and nonjudgmental, the psyche’s self-protective defenses begin to loosen. Sometimes it may only feel safe to “know” certain memories and their attendant feeling states for short periods of time, like in the last few minutes of the therapy hour.
I have heard “doorknob therapy” spoken of as something that should be avoided, as if it’s not good for clients to leave the therapist’s office in an emotionally raw state, or that it’s an indication of the client’s “resistance” to the therapeutic process. Clients may feel they are wrong to leave important material for the end of the hour and that they should try to access it earlier.
But the value lies in trying to understand what it means in terms of a particular client’s psychic landscape. It can be a barometer of the client’s developing trust in herself and in her therapist. It can be an unconscious way of testing the therapist to see if she can handle the client’s scarier feelings.
Observing and exploring the phenomenon fosters a sense of safety in that there is no need for the client, or the therapist, to “do” anything other than what is already happening.
Once the meaning is better understood, client and therapist may come to some agreement on how to deal with it. Or they may simply anticipate that it will happen again, respecting the client’s need to protect her vulnerability.
When therapist and client can be curious together when important material comes to light at the end of a session, there’s a lot to be gained in terms of trust, understanding, and tolerance of intense feelings. It’s important for clients to be able to progress at their own pace, because while risk-taking is an important aspect of therapy it can only occur in an environment where the client feels safe enough to take a risk.
Sometimes we can only experience “the good part” for short, infrequent periods of time. The therapeutic pair — client and therapist — both trust that the good part is always there, waiting to be discovered and processed, and there’s plenty of time to get there.