As therapists, we are taught to form a collaboration with a client free from bias; to dispel our own values, beliefs, and opinions in order to meet a client where he/she is, and to simply learn about him/her free from predetermined ideas and personal prejudices. We are also trained to put aside, during counseling sessions, those events in our own lives and the feelings they prompt that may consume us at other times. Often we seek help with this in consultation with a colleague or perhaps even our own therapist. Maintaining “therapeutic neutrality” as it is called, is a delicate balance.
To start, clients choose their therapists because of what they know or assume about them, not what they don’t know. They are drawn to a therapist by age, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, physical appearance, referral, or by reputation. Further, it is what clients learn about us in the initial meeting from how we shape our questions, our level of distance or intimacy, listening ability and style that gives them information about who we may be, real or imagined, and whether we fit their fantasy of what they need. It is what’s obvious to a client and how they interact with that information that fosters a working relationship, not what is hidden behind the veil of neutrality.
It is foolish to think as therapists that we can or should try to neuter who we are. On the contrary, a wise therapist learns how to use the elements of his/her own character to serve the best interest of the client, whether it’s through modeling, expert advice, or by simply providing comfort and sharing creative solutions that the therapist has found personally valuable.
Yet there are times when therapists encounter challenging events in their own lives which are filled with fresh and strong emotions that take time to sort out. Some therapists will take a leave of absence during such times because they are in a compromised state, while some may choose to continue to work while weathering through events, for a variety of reasons including that an interruption may not necessarily serve the best interests of clients.
In general, I am grateful about the ease with which I am able to let go of my own inner monologue when I sit across from a client. More often than not, it is a relief to shift my attention to someone else’s joys and sorrows and get outside of myself for a while.
But every now and then, events and emotions from my life so significant that they resist my most aggressive attempts to redirect myself, seep or slip into my work. Looking back, these are the dramatic life shifts that profoundly affect all of us. Love, birth, divorce and death.
Routinely, we are counseled as student therapists on how to manage emotions surrounding birth and death and advised when and how to tell clients about impending maternity or paternity leave. We are expected to provide options for clients in our absence and to allow them to process with us how this deeply personal experience affects them emotionally. We are told to prepare for some clients to feel abandoned. For some to feel jealous or resentful, especially those who have had struggles with fertility or are addressing their own challenges with parenting. For some to feel excited and joyous, their own positive response leaving more room for us on the other side of the room to imply our own.
Death is more complicated in that the path of grief is longer for some, shorter for others, and is never linear or predictable. When my step-father passed away and I took my mother in to live with me for a few months as she tried to regain her hold on a life, I cut back significantly on work. I was exhausted both from my own sadness and from the secondhand trauma I was absorbing from her. My home, once a sacred and calm place that I welcomed returning to at the end of each day of work, was now a place that felt perpetually shrouded in dark and heavy clouds. I felt fragile and vulnerable, extending every ounce of my care to attend to the needs of my mother.
I struggled during this time about whether or not to share with clients the fact that I was myself grieving. Some of my clients knew that I had a death in the family because I had had to reschedule appointments with them during the time that I was making frequent and long trips to the hospital in the next state while my step-father was dying. It presented an interesting dilemma because those clients who did know wanted to provide their own support and condolences to me, a turning of the tables that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with. I appreciated their good intentions but was conscious of wanting to not distract from the purpose of their visit, to process what was going on in their lives, not mine. I was also ready to once again immerse myself in a different story. It felt like each session was new a balancing act. For some I had prepared what to share ahead of time, and as long as nothing urgent coming from them changed my comfort level in doing so, I followed that. For others, I waited to see how the client presented upon arrival and improvised from there.
Over time my grief and exhaustion dulled, and I felt as if I had thoroughly processed the experience. But it had changed me in a fundamental way, as such things do. My perspective on things moved over a few steps, enough to be noticeable. I felt more driven personally to embrace life to the fullest and to evaluate more completely and intentionally my choices. I felt more willing to take risks, to shed what remained of my fears in order to present myself as being totally and completely open to gains. I felt more compelled to increase time spent with loved ones, to vocalize my affections. Given this, could it even be possible for me not to encourage clients to do the same? Should I try?
When I first decided to go to graduate school to study counseling, I was going through my own divorce. When it came time to decide what track I would take – community counseling, which represented to me a path that would involve more work with individuals and general mental health; or couples, marriage, and family counseling, which would be more likely to manifest as work with pairs around relationships – it was an easy pick. Believing myself to be fantastically unqualified to help others navigate their relationships, having just failed at my own, I picked community. I was sure at the time that my own negative experience in marriage and my impulse to guide everyone around me to run from it as fast as possible because it would surely end badly, would infiltrate my work.
But over the years I found that not only did my perspective on love and partnership evolve into something much healthier, I also learned that I was in fact quite good at working with couples and individuals on such themes. Of course both pre- and post-divorce, I knew that commitment was something that took work and that it was not always easy. I knew that not all couples were well suited and that determining compatibility involved a level of self-reflection and honesty that could be challenging. I knew that love changed for most couples from something fiery and bold to something simple and kind. But what I did not know years ago was how I myself related to love and partnership.
Whether I believed in it. Whether I wanted it. And because my own relationship with love and partnership was unexplored, I knew that my own questions could, quite possibly, resonate in the work I was doing.
Many clients come in to see me for the first time because they have lost love, or found it and are afraid of losing it, not sure at all of how to make it last, but knowing that they want to. I have seen a person in every stage of love, from start to finish. From a chemical intoxication implying a life of fantastic happiness to dull passivity to a despair so deep from the loss of love that it threatens to swallow them whole.
Of course this further prompted me to do something to better understand my own relationship with love. I started to write about it. I started to look at my choices more critically and to consider my relationship choices more holistically. I noticed themes and patterns and eventually came to understand what it was that I myself wanted. All of this, mind you, took place concurrently with the work that my clients were doing, the issues they were bringing in. Their content became adjunct evidence that fed into my not yet fully formed ideas. At times I asked them questions and their answers proved as enlightening to me as they were to them. In this way, we grew up together. Their relationships grew parallel to my comprehension of relationships.
And then I fell in love. Desperately in love. Smile-on-my-face, floating-on-clouds in love. Me. A grown adult. A professional. In graduate school, they do not teach you about how to be in love as a therapist. And I have yet to find a book that addresses such a thing.
I worried that my now lovesick state and my rose-colored glasses bias would infiltrate my work. That rather then advising clients to run for the hills I would this time encourage them to keep searching for love. That love was the answer! That they would know it when they found it and that it would be worth every risk. Because the thing is, not everyone does want love. Or the risk of heartache. Not everyone wants partnership. And that’s okay. It’s personal. A choice. Thankfully, I do not seem to have lost sight of that.
Remarkably, my internal state rarely seems to make its way out externally. If and when it does show itself visibly, what I have found is that my clients are more likely to assume it is due to a recent cup of coffee or being sick and not sleeping well then to their therapist being in love or having lost a loved one. Whether this is because they don’t recognize that as therapists we have our own personal lives or whether they have such utter confidence in our abilities to not be swayed or distracted in our work, I don’t know.
What I do know is that people and collaborative relationships are constantly changing and evolving. Without sabotaging a session with a personal agenda or even talking about myself, I know that everything about me – who I am, what I have experienced, and how I have processed it – will influence my work. The fact that I am a mother, that I have been divorced and again found love, that I have lost a loved one; those and a thousand other things make me who I am. A thousand things, too, define each client I see. We share many common experiences: life, death, love; and we diverge at times with others. But that doesn’t stop the sharing of it, the oral tradition of personal storytelling any less significant or the influence on others any less meaningful. Every individual is informed either directly by their own life experiences or indirectly by what they have observed or learned from others. It is the gift we share as humans. And there is nothing more comforting and profound.
So I have made my peace with the concept of neutrality. I know that it is impossible. That it’s not really even desirable. Human beings may be open-minded, aware of their own judgments and biases and willing to challenge them, but they are not neutral. Therapy is about having an authentic relationship with another person. It is about the sharing of ideas, of burdens, of stories. It is about coming together in time and space with the intention to experience the same life from different angles and to shine light on the shadows. It is about revealing the hopes that are too hard to look at alone, together, in order to learn something. Something that could make the life better. A therapist needs to be real in order to do that. Being present, being in it, going deep, is not something that can be faked or done with reservations or by holding back.
It is rare these days that I don’t feel grounded in my own self and solid in my life. But if and when something powerful enough shakes that and calls my ability to enter into a session with a client while I am distracted or unable to be my best, strongest and most integrated self, I owe it to the client to delay our meeting. Or, if it is useful – because it is parallel to their own struggles – to model the authentic and assertive expression of emotions and to tell them why. This, in the dance of therapy, is collaboration. Without honesty and equality, the therapeutic relationship is not really a collaboration. And without collaboration, therapy fails to be authentic, real and effective.