Two of my clients released their secrets to me recently. Secrets that they had never told anyone prior. Secrets that they had been carrying like a overloaded backpack, stuffed with heavy supplies such as rusty metal stakes, all weather boots, for years. Secret holding is part of my job. Creating space to let secrets peek their heads out, check their surroundings, and slowly, cautiously, tiptoe into the open is a part, and not a small part, of what I do.
Both of these clients came to see me for therapy because they had read some of my writing. And because of this, they knew something about me. They knew, for instance, that I was a real person. A person with her own life experiences and perspectives on such, a person with feelings, ideas, beliefs, maybe even some secrets of her own. They could also, by reading my writing, tell that I was a person who was generally open minded. Who was most likely not going to cringe or redirect the conversation should they choose to unload their heavy stories.
In one case, the client broke open and talked and talked and talked, the relief of her words creating their own momentum. In another, months had passed before the client wrote down her secret and handed it to me on a slip of paper, unable to say it aloud. In both cases, their sharings were indeed large, unruly, heavy. To them. But what made them so is less the content itself but the interpretation of it. The shame surrounding it. The terror of what it implied about them as human beings and about what it might mean about their capacity to live a healthy and happy life now or sometime in the future. And if anything does ever unseat me from my therapist’s chair, it is this and nothing else. That wave of revealed shame and terror.
The reason for this is that at these moments I realize with brutal clarity the responsibility I have to human beings. It is at this moment that what I say counts most. When someone tells you something that they have not, could not ever tell anyone else and then looks at you, their secret expelled and in the air between you like a rain-full cloud, waiting for a response. Waiting to hear you say all out loud of the awful things they have been saying to themselves, waiting for you to confirm their fears. But then you don’t. You don’t. You don’t flinch or run out the door. You look at them and you say “Thank you. Thank you for trusting me with that.” Because that’s what you feel. These are the moments that change everything.
In graduate school, where eager folks full of their own self doubt and confusion go to learn how to be counselors, how to fix other people’s problems, they tell you that you are supposed to be neutral. That your posture and face should be open, relaxed. That your clothing should not distract. That you should not share anything personal about yourself when a client asks and instead ask them why they are asking. When it came to activism though, graduate school was a bit contradictory. In one class we were told that we had a moral and ethical obligation to point out injustice. To serve as people of influence with a capacity to create not such individual but social change.
It took me years to figure out my own beliefs about this. To find myself as a counselor. And what I found is that being neutral is bullshit. To think that everyone can and will like you, resonate with you, is presumptuous and unrealistic. Your clients choose you because you are you and they choose someone else because of who someone else is. And there are more than enough choices out there for everyone to find someone that is the right fit for them.
I understand and absolutely feel that as a counselor you need to know who you are and where you stand and how that is going to come out in sessions. You need to know how to back out of the way and make room for someone else to come to their own decisions and conclusions and support them in doing so.
But you also need to be authentic and real. If you are afraid to do that, how on earth can you ask them to? It wouldn’t be fair. It wouldn’t be right.
You are both essentially walking into a room to collaborate and trust is of the utmost importance. To earn trust, you need to be honest, transparent.
My own experiences as a client tell me this is true. I took away far more from my time on the couch with a counselor who wasn’t neutral. Was NOT neutral. There were two of them. Jane and Lori. The rest all fall into a chasm, shapeless and nameless, both the counselors and my time with them utterly forgettable.
I know who I am. The person that I am is fumbling and flawed and confident and lovely and smart and kind and moody. I’ve got traits I am super proud of and traits that I’d love to change. That sometimes I have the energy to work on and sometimes I don’t. When I sit in my chair, my counselor chair, my person of influence chair, I bring all of that shit with me. But I’m also totally and completely present. I am open, totally open, though my legs might be crossed, my face expressive, my arms moving this way and that, my clothing style uniquely my own. I’m going to give it my all, get right in there with you. Because if I can do it, so can you.
Alyssa K. Siegel, MS, LPC, CGAC II, The Dance of Therapy
First published on Alyssa’s counseling blog on April 3, 2012.