Perceiving the ‘Real’ Therapist
Now that I’ve mostly recovered from the last few stressful weeks, I’m able to see more clearly how my stress affected my behavior and emotional presence during sessions. I like to think I’m more self-contained than I obviously am; recent experience has shown me otherwise.
The first indication was the email I received a few weeks ago from Adrienne after one of our sessions. She didn’t mean to be intrusive, she said, but was I all right?
Amidst the end-of-school-year chaos, I’d been feeling stressed. I thought first about asking what she’d noticed, but felt that would be a deflection. So I wrote back and briefly told her the truth: that there were a lot of things going on at the moment, most of them good, but that all in all, it felt like a lot and I was feeling a bit under stress.
I also told her that I thought she was afraid I would fall apart or drop her as a result, as everyone else in her life has always done.
Then came the session with Janice when she seemed so angry and deadened. She told me she felt hopeless about her state of mind; it seemed impossible to have any contact with me during session. I found myself remembering how remarkably intuitive she can be about my emotional states and wondered whether she might be sensing something about me now.
On a hunch, I finally told Janice that I thought her anger and deadness were her way of pushing aside the awareness that I was feeling a bit overwhelmed in my personal life, because it frightened her. She instantly softened and told me that, during the week, an image of me had come to mind — a sad face — and she recoiled from it in fear. The anger and deadness had completely disappeared. As with Adrienne, we had to work through her fears that I would disintegrate under the emotional pressure and drop her.
Finally, I received an email from Matthew earlier this week, confirming our appointment the following day. He’d been traveling for a few weeks and wanted to be sure of the time. He also commented on our email exchanges during the break. He said that he felt we were “fighting” in a way, though he didn’t understand it.
He thought about how I struck him and at first, he thought I’d seemed angry. That ultimately didn’t feel right, however, and he settled on “tense.” He felt confused about what it meant. Then he read my last, rather personal post over at After Psychotherapy and it all made sense to him.
As with Adrienne, I acknowledged his observations about our email exchange. I think it can be crazy-making for clients to perceive and remark on something about their therapist, only to have it “interpreted away.” I also told Matthew that I thought I’d been feeling “defensive”: it seemed as if he felt that I’d pushed him into making a precipitous decision (though I hadn’t really) and he was blaming me for a choice he was coming to regret.
It’s all humbling. I like to think that I successfully shield my clients from the inevitable stress of my own life — after all, it’s their time and they’re paying for it! — but sometimes, despite my best efforts, the “outside me” seeps in.
Man drinking coffee photo available from Shutterstock.
Burgo PhD, J. (2012). Perceiving the ‘Real’ Therapist. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 9, 2016, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/case-notes/2012/06/perceiving-the-real-therapist/