I’m playing “Bananagrams” with my daughter and, in what now feels like a rash move fuelled by early game bravado I have “dumped” too many of my opening letters and find myself with a swathe of tiles in front of me and unable to make anything of them.
Serenely fashioning “Paradoxical” on the table, my daughter says,
“How was your day?”
I am irritated and relieved by the distraction.
“It was good. I started with a new client.”
“How was that?”
Before Covid, when the majority of my work was done in person, I’d collect a new client from reception and lead them up the three flights of stairs to my room in the attic imagining myself beginning the painstaking ascent through the foothills of a vast mountain onwards to an inevitable long and challenging climb to the summit.
These days, I sit looking at myself on Zoom thinking about that same journey until my client appears on the screen.
“Because I do mostly long-term work so I suppose I wonder how arduous the climb is going to be, and whether I’ll even be able to help.”
She nods without looking up, adding “Perplexed” to her grid.
“Maybe my clients stay with me for a long time because I’m just not very good and so they never get any better.”
Amongst some good points, it implied that the therapist must always be to blame when things go wrong.
Jonah Hill’s controlling behaviour towards his partner under the guise of establishing healthy boundaries was cited as evidence of how something learned in therapy can be used destructively.
Is that really the therapist’s fault?
If I were a tennis coach and you beat your partner to death with the racquet, would that be on me?
It’s a hard enough job as it is without making us responsible for every way in which clients might use what they learn about themselves in destructive ways away from their sessions, and if you don’t think so, maybe that’s your boundary issue.
I have spent many hours in supervision wondering whether I’m missing something or getting it “wrong” in a way that perpetuates my client’s “stuckness” but I’m most often led back to a piece of advice a therapist friend gave me soon after I completed my training.
“Never be more ambitious for your clients than they are for themselves,” he told me.
Over the years I have often heard myself say to someone, “It feels as if I might be more interested in your happiness than you are,” and it strikes me now that this might be a way of keeping myself in check as much as highlighting a painful anomaly to my client.
I am not responsible for my client’s behaviour any more than they are responsible for mine, which is sometimes a hard truth to remember.
Staring back at the random selection of lettered tiles in front of me I sense a familiar feeling in my chest.
I have taken on too much, imagined myself more able than I thought and, consequently, too wearied to continue even before the journey has begun.
“Start small,” I tell myself, shifting letters around in various combinations hoping something will miraculously appear.
When it doesn’t I still hold my gaze, waiting.
If there is one thing I have learned as a therapist through countless periods in which nothing seems to be shifting it is that trust in the process is usually the foundation of success.
My breathing slows.
I let go.
Pulling obstinate letters into position I find my first word.
Nobody knows what comes next, for either of us, but at least we’ve made a start.