Every client wants to live in the belief that he or she is the only client. Most clients realise that this is not the case, yet, somehow manage to hold on to the feeling of being the only one. It’s a very natural echo of how we as children wanted to have our parents’ full attention, to not have to share them with anyone, to be the sole centre of attention.
The therapeutic relationship is unique in the way it often allows the client to, if not completely then at least to rather a large degree, own the time, to not have to share, to be selfish in that childish way we were allowed to be as babies. For those magic 50 minutes, the time and the space – even the therapist – exists solely for you.
So what happens when that is threatened? When your space is invaded, when it becomes clear that you are not the only one? Well, usually very little, because of that knowledge at the back of your head that, realistically, you are not the only one, that you are – in fact – one of many. We may not like it, but we can deal with it. In much the same way that we learned to accept the introduction of younger siblings, or other people encroaching on our only/youngest child identity, we simply roll with the punches and adapt to this new reality.
Most of the time this is not a problem. Provided that we still feel loved by our parents, still feel important to them, we simply adjust, make way for different methods of getting what we need from them. To some degree we may even outgrow the need to be the only one.
But there are times when the intrusion is a bit too fast, a bit too invasive.
On my way to see A. I noticed a young man walking quickly past me. I recognised him as someone who used see A., but who I was reasonably sure was no longer seeing her. The reason I recognised him was that there have been a few occasions on a Friday when I’ve arrived for session, only to find that this particular client has not yet left and I ended up having to wait outside for A. to find a way to convince him that he really has to go.
Immediately my brain started trying to work out what was going on, and having grown up with a father working in the field I’m not entirely unfamiliar with the notion of clients – past and present – having a need to catch a glimpse of their therapist’s private self and family life. [In fact there is one of my father’s ex-client who still – over 10 years after my father moved out – walks slowly past our house, always stopping by our letterbox to give it a light tap, looking longingly at us if we happen to be out in the garden..]
It’s a natural curiosity, something most of us experience at one point or another during the course of therapy. Therapy is generally such a one-sided relationship in terms of overt self-disclosure that it’s only to be expected that we’ll have some curiosity regarding our therapists. Anyone who claims to not have this absolutely normal interest in their therapist I’d say was either lying or not genuinely engaged in the therapeutic process. And while most of us won’t keep going by our ex-therapist’s house ten years after they’ve moved, I’d be surprised if not most of us have at least googled our therapist. I know I have.
So, even before I got to A.’s house I had something of an inkling of what might be going on. As it turns out I was right. When I arrived this person was standing on the doorstep, ringing the bell repeatedly, talking through the letter box.
This is where it got tricky for me. I knew it was time for me to go in, yet at the same time I didn’t really want to go up to the door and knock with an ex-client standing on the doorstep, thinking it would put A. in a very awkward position. So for a little while I hung back.
I won’t go into detail of what happened next, but things escalated at the door and it became obviously that this person was not going to leave unless made to leave. A few times he walked back to me, partly apologising to me for encroaching on my time, but mainly just being intent on telling me his side of the story, of why he needed to see A. and why she was wrong to not let him in. I decided to not engage, stood firm, telling him that while I appreciated that he was having a difficult time I wasn’t prepared to have this conversation with him.
Needless to say, once I did make it in to session it was obvious what the session would be about. It would have been ridiculous to ignore what had just happened, as both A. and I had got caught up in it, and naturally had feelings about it. I did my best to talk about it, to say how it made me feel, how it had really taken me back to similar situations when I was younger, but in the end I had to stop and acknowledge that it felt really weird to be talking only about me, feeling very aware that this incident had also had an effect on A., who looked visibly shaken.
This is one of the trickiest things about the one-sidedness of psychotherapy; that the session is there for you only, to talk about your feelings, your experiences. As I wrote earlier, normally this is what makes the relationship unique and special, and it feels good to have this space where it’s all about you. But, when things like this happens, it can also serve to make you feel that you aren’t allowed to “check in” with the therapist, to ask how they are feeling.
As humans it’s perfectly natural to want to offer something to one another by way of support, especially when something like this happens.
The therapeutic dyad is first and foremost a relationship, and I’m sure that most people who have ever been in therapy will agree with me when I say that the relationship you have with your therapist often over-shadows other relationships in your life. You’re pretty heavily invested in it, and because of that you end up having very strong feelings about the therapist. The therapist’s opinions weigh heavily, their concern for you and their ability to empathise with you is like balm for old scars. And, of course, the nature of the relationship means that you care about them. Not just about their opinions or the support they offer you, but you care about them. Just like you would in any other relationship you’ve put a lot into.
So, to not be allowed to offer support can feel very very difficult.
Anyway, I think I need to stop here. Pre-Shabbat prep to do, and I’m off to one of my rabbis for dinner in a while..
Be good to yourselves.
Love, light and peace,