ALTEREGO: Who is this person I call my therapist?
About twelve years ago I went for my first session with a new psychotherapist, who worked in a large psychotherapy centre. The chair wasn’t good for my back and I asked him if he had a cushion I could use. He said he didn’t and so I asked him if he could get me one from somewhere else in the centre. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but essentially he replied that it wasn’t possible, in what I remember as a brief and seemingly indifferent manner. I felt surprised and irritated but also curious – why wasn’t he willing to go and find me a cushion, didn’t he care about my comfort, what therapeutic rationale informed his response, what sort of person was he? My questions remained un-asked and unexplored, and whilst I wondered about him in this way, my therapist showed no interest in my curiosity about him.
In any therapy room there are at least two people intensely interested in and wondering about what’s going on inside the other, but only one of them gets paid for it, and they’re called the therapist. The client does it for free, which is maybe why it’s generally given relatively little attention. The therapist’s curiosity is called diagnosis or attunement for example, whilst the client’s is usually labelled projection, transference or script.
Stephen Mitchell tells a story of a female client and her curiosity in what was going on for her therapist. Since he was never particularly forthcoming about himself she became increasingly interested in his squeaky chair. She imagined, probably with some degree of accuracy, that the squeaks betrayed the therapist’s discomfort. She used the squeaks to guide what she said, or didn’t say, sometimes changing what she was saying when a squeak occurred or, alternatively, defiantly continuing! These stories – mine and Mitchell’s, illustrate the therapeutic significance of the client’s irrepressible curiosity in the therapist, even if ignored.
I hold Sigmund Freud responsible for this state of affairs. In the late nineteenth century beginnings of psychoanalysis he was very keen on his new method being seen as scientific, and in distinguishing it from its precursor, hypnosis, in which the influence of the hypnotist was fundamental. To accomplish both these aims the influence of the analyst had to be minimised, but along with the bath water of the therapist’s unwanted influence out went the baby of the patient’s interest in the analyst. He, as a person, was supposed to be irrelevant, hidden.
I’m talking here about the client’s interest in, and perceptions of, the therapist not just in terms of the client’s transference onto the therapist, but about their interest in the person of the psychotherapist, including of course the therapist’s script, defences, transference, and in the role of the therapist as the initiator of interactions in the co-created therapeutic relationship. From this perspective we can understand the client’s process, resistance, games etc as an attempt to manage the relationship with this particular therapist. From this point of view the client’s interest in the therapist becomes central.
We learn about ourselves, from birth, through our interactions with others. It follows that we are fundamentally interested in what’s going on inside the other, and particularly in how they are impacted by us. For example, effective empathy is not simply about the giver, but also has to include a recognition in the receiver of how the giver is impacted – their emotional resonance, understanding, fellow-feeling. As Carl Rogers puts it, for constructive personality change to occur it is necessary that the client perceives the acceptance and empathy which the therapist experiences for him. In TA language, for recognition hunger to be received it has to encompass a recognition of the giver’s subjective experience, ie it has to be mutual recognition.
Likewise, intimacy is partly co-created out of the repair of inevitable ruptures in relationships. This happens, for example, where we can be fully, angrily, differently ourselves and experience the other as responding without withdrawing, collapsing, retaliating, or placating.
In retrospect I wish my therapist had shown an interest in what I had made of his response to my request for a cushion. I would have liked him to have been open to exploring his part in our interaction, and to have accounted my reluctance to initiate that exploration - could he deal with it, crossing a boundary, too exposing of his vulnerabilities? Writing about this now I wonder what his attitude was to self-disclosure, although now I would be less interested in him verifying or refuting what I imagined about him, since it would most likely have simply closed off both a mutual exploration of what happened, and how I made sense of it. And anyway his self-disclosure was inevitable, in his actions and ulterior transactions. In responding in the way he did to my request for a cushion he revealed himself, but something got lost in that we just didn’t get to talk about what was hidden.
Who knows now but like many therapists he probably struggled with intimacy and being known. We spend most of our time with clients listening and exploring their experience whilst remaining relatively silent and hidden. Our clients’ interest in us can raise our anxieties about being seen, and touch our struggles around longings to be known and defensive temptations to hide.
However, as is often the case, paradoxically, I have learnt a lot with him, not only from who and how he was but from who and how he wasn’t. Thanks Alan.