It may seem curious for a psychoanalyst to write a post about not helping but that is exactly what I am going to do here. Three weeks ago I wrote about how difficult it is to sit and wait from the patients’ point of view (Action, Thought and Change: What Do I Do?). This week I turn to the psychoanalyst.
While most of us in the helping professions choose them precisely because we want to help, we would do well to consider just exactly what “help” means to us and how we go about being helpful. As a psychoanalyst I am often reminded that what I must do if I really want to help is wait. Wait for (and with) my patient, allowing them (and me) time and space to process what has happened or is happening. Particularly when they are struggling with something. Wait with them. Wait for them to arrive at something while I attempt to shine a torch this way and that way, follow them and stay connected to them. Whatever I do I must not help. I must not jump to an interpretation, an explanation, a suggestion. I too must wait and sit with them and make room for their experience. It turns out that waiting is part of the experience of discovery for both patient and analyst.
My patients are the first to remind me of this even though they want me to help and come to see me seeking help. When I step in too soon, or go on about something I see, I often lose them. Or worse, I overwhelm them. This is because people know what is ailing them, and they also usually know what they can do about it, its just that this knowledge is often not available to them either because it has been exiled from consciousness because of trauma or because they have never had the chance to arrive at it without someone “helping”. Treatment provides the opportunity to share this with another, the analyst, who if he/she does not interfere with, but rather facilitates the space needed to talk about one’s life in one’s own way, can help one arrive at his or her own conclusions and decisions. In the best case scenario, the analyst facilitates growth by waiting for experience to unfold an by being present in each moment, aware of the shared mutuality it provides.
As psychotherapists it is easy to lose our way in our desire to help. Trained as we are to listen, tune in, wrap ourselves in the internal theater of our patients’ world while at the same time staying connected to ours and our experience, we may get ahead of our patients’ – anticipating, filling in, re-considering, re-narrating, all in our attempt to understand and help. Our trained sensitivity to the other aching to help them out. Relieve them of the pain. Soothe their discomfort. Show them the way. But wait, is the anticipation really impatience? Does it move us out of the discomfort of waiting, of sitting with them in whatever it is they need to sit with? Sitting in our not knowing? Hmmm. Sitting together saturated in emotion and in the moment is not always easy. Not moving until the other is ready to move, even though we may think we know the way, not so easy to do.
Here an analogy to the dance of Tango (Issue Six) may give more body to my thoughts. Please dance with me through this. Through its assigned roles for leader and follower, Tango provides the opportunity for true equality and mutuality in its dance. In order for the dance of Tango to proceed smoothly and fluidly the follower must wait (there’s that word again!) for the leader to lead a step or a sequence of steps. She must wait while staying connected to the leader, until something is lead so that she can follow it. Once something has been lead there are plenty of opportunities to add a flourish, an embellishment, a step of one’s own. When the follower rushes the lead, anticipating it, she acts with partial information and assumes what is being asked or said. She misses the invitation to the dance. In the anticipation one loses the connection to the other and in taking a step on one’s own the possibilities for mutuality are broken and the dance becomes a different dance, no longer danced in partnership. There are many reasons, all personal and idiosyncratic, to why one might anticipate the lead. The follower might try to “help” the leader, or try to please the leader, or possibly demonstrate her ability. While knowing the reason is important, to rush the lead curtails the infinite possibilities of mutuality and partnership involved in Tango.
And so it is in psychotherapy.
In therapy as in Tango, the roles that we embody and the power that they have – as leader and follower, as men and women, as masculine and feminine, as teacher and student, and yes, as doctor and patient – are different but equal. While they vary in terms of life experiences, knowledge, expertise, appearance, ability, and the like, what each person brings to the experience is different yet equal in creating the partnership and the potential for true mutuality. This is the space where discovery and growth take place.
Waiting for the other while remaining engaged is hard to do. Seeing and feeling someone else’s pain or shame or fear or anger and just being with it and them is hard to do. Surrendering to the experience of the other while remaining aware of ourselves and our desire to “help” is hard to do.
But that is what it takes to dance the dance of mutuality.
First published on Dr. Ceccoli’s blog, Out of My Mind, on October 08, 2012.