About a month ago I attended a wedding in Sonoma, California. Before the ceremony, I made random small talk with one of the other guests. We covered occupation and connection to the bride and groom, moved on to comments about the beautiful setting, and then parted ways to continue with the obligatory mingling process.
Strangers’ responses to learning that I’m a therapist are varied, and it’s not uncommon for them to be loaded in some way or another. “You’re analyzing everything I say, aren’t you?” many people joke. “Mmhmm,” I’m tempted to respond, with a raised eyebrow and Mona Lisa grin. “Oh,” others murmur, before the conversation trails off into stilted silence and the person starts surreptitiously glancing over my shoulder for someone else to rescue them.
The wedding guest’s response to learning I’m a therapist was of the “Oh, that’s cool” variety. I didn’t think anything of it. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t really “analyze” anyone, let alone people I’ve just met.
Later in the evening, after a lovely dinner, people started migrating to the dance floor, and I followed. I love to dance at weddings and I can dance well enough. By which I mean I don’t call attention to myself with my awkward moves. Often.
As the strains of Hava Nagila faded and the music shifted to more contemporary dance fare, the wedding guest I had previously chatted with caught my eye and shouted above the DJ, “I can’t even imagine my therapist dancing!” Incredulity and an afternote of the freely flowing wine (we were in Sonoma, after all) rang through his comment.
I laughed and shouted back, “Yep, we’re people too!”
After the wedding, I smiled to myself again about the encounter. The wedding guest’s exclamation was a reminder that clients vary broadly in their views of my role as a therapist. Some, like the guest, seem prone to thinking of me existing solely within the confines of my office. Like the students who believe their teachers live at school, these clients keep me in a safe box. They don’t imagine me dancing at weddings, or in other “real life” activities because it doesn’t really occur to them to do so. Sometimes it’s easier to disclose vulnerable material to someone whom you imagine, consciously or not, is not quite real.
There are other clients who keep me boxed up, but for different reasons and in a different way. These clients view me as a professional with a capital P, much like they might view their dentist or accountant. In these clients’ minds, I am the keeper of important information about things like how to intervene during a panic attack or how to skillfully communicate with a partner. These clients want to talk about symptoms and solutions. They don’t care about my dance skills or lack thereof, or at least not any more than they care about whether their accountant plays baseball.
There are, however, some clients who are curious about who I am outside of the consulting room. They want to know more about me as a person, apart from who I am as a therapist. Of course these two things are inextricably intertwined, but not often in ways that are clear to clients when it comes to the specifics. These clients want to know if I’m married; they ask whether I have children; they’re curious about whether I like the outdoors or scrapbooking or cooking. Sometimes they want to know if I have struggled in ways similar to them. Probably most important to the therapeutic endeavor, they wonder about how I see them, what I think of them, whether I am judging them.
Like many therapists, I am eclectic in my approach. I believe strongly that therapy is not a one-size-fits-all process, and that I need to tailor not only my technique, but also the therapy relationship to each client based on his or her needs.
Multiple theories inform my practice, one of which is a relational, or interpersonal process approach. One of the philosophical underpinnings of this approach is that the therapeutic relationship is a real one, and that here-and-now interactions between therapist and client can serve as powerful tools for promoting insight and catalyzing change.
The therapy relationship becomes an experimental forum in which I can provide interpersonal feedback to clients, they can process their role in the dyad, and they can test out new ways of relating. Some clients struggle with eye contact. We talk about why. Other clients are hesitant to disagree with me. We discuss what it is like to feel the need to continually acquiesce to others. On the flip side, other clients seem primed for an argument and take issue with just about everything I say. I share my experience of what it is like to be on the receiving end of their unrelenting criticism. And so on.
Over time, clients begin to view their interpersonal ways of being from a new perspective. They translate an increased awareness of thoughts and feelings about how they are in relationships, and new interpersonal behaviors into relationships outside of therapy.
Regardless of how clients initially perceive my role as a therapist, I am bound to reflect out loud at some point about the here-and-now dynamic playing out between us. Whether or not they want to know about my dance skills, clients hopefully learn that they can count on me for honest, genuine feedback about how I (as a therapist and a person) experience them. If they want to continue believing that I sleep on the couch in my office, that’s fine, so long as they take what they have learned in therapy with them into the world at large.