I’ve been studying psychology and counseling for the better part of 10 years now. And when I say “studying, ” I actually mean “have been consumed by.” It’s prone to happen when you’re a full-time student, I suppose. What I’m finding in my not-student life since graduation, though, is that old habits die hard. I’ve wandered back to books I read for class and re-read them with a more dedicated eye, looking to engage with the ideas presented rather than skimming for answers to exam questions or discussion board posts. And I’ve spent a lot of time just thinking, remembering really, class discussions on a slew of issues that are really only interesting to people who study counseling, like the ethics regarding dual relationships, or the merits of psychoanalysis versus cognitive behavior therapy, or the generic names and dosages of antidepressants. Fascinating, right? I bet you wish you spent HOURS in your head about these things. But, sometimes in the course of these hours, I’ll have a flash that hits on a much deeper level, a flash that affects not only how I counsel, but also how I live my life.
Another prof in the department came into our seminar class last Fall to deliver a guest lecture about working with clients who are delusional. I’ll admit, I didn’t go into that class poised to pay a whole lot of attention, partly because I’d been up since 5:30 and had already put in a full day with clients and was feeling pretty brain-dead, but mostly because I didn’t envision my path crossing with delusional clients and I didn’t think I needed to pay attention. Mark another tally in the “Things I Was Wrong About” column, because there was indeed a flash that got into my heart and changed me.
This prof was sharing a story about a client she’d worked with for years, starting in her own internship. This client was delusional and would only have 30 second snippets of lucidity in a given session. That means this prof had half of a minute in a 50 minute therapeutic hour with a person checked into reality. 3o seconds! She was finding herself frustrated and questioning whether there time together was, well, worth it, so she did what any responsible intern does and talked to her supervisor. When she had finished saying her piece, her supervisor asked her, “Can you be another person in the room with her for the other 49 and a half minutes?” “Yes,” she said. And he said, “Then that’s enough. Just try that.”
I think what’s most brilliant about her supervisor’s response is its simplicity. I know that I’m guilty of thinking too much about my skill set and techniques and making sure I hit them all well that I forget that one of the coolest parts of therapy, and one of the reasons that it works, is the relationship that develops between therapist and client. The person-to-person contact when someone’s in a state of vulnerability. The being another person in the room.
I think the “being” piece is what’s most critical. What does it mean to be with someone? Is it as simple as just sitting in the same space? Yes. And then it’s about letting the space fill with conversation or laughter or tears or silence. It’s true when I’m in session, and it’s true when I’m sitting at dinner with my friends, or in the car with my mom, or having coffee with a youth. And for me, I think it’s also about shutting down the analytic stuff that I’m apt to let my brain do and relaxing in the relationship. For me, it’s about taking the pressure off. It’s about thinking less about how to connect and just letting the connection happen. It’s about spending less time in my head and more time with the people in the same space. Because when I come to the end of my days, I want to look back at my life and say that I was engaged with people, that I enjoyed the favor of them, and that they knew that they were loved. And ultimately, I think that’s what being is all about: love. Sharing your time and your laughter and your tears and your silence, sharing yourself, I think that’s “being.”
So then, can I be another person in the room? Yeah, I can do that. And I hope not just with my clients, but with my family and my friends as well.