On the way out the door, a client starts grilling me:
“Do you have kids? Are you married?”
“No, not yet. We’ll get there one day.”
“But you’re still young. How old are you?”
“I’m old already. I’m 38.”
“Oh well, you live your life the way you want,” she says, delivered with an airy flourish.
Oh great, I think. Another patient who thinks I’m gay.
Remembering this exchange today, I can’t help chuckling at my client’s curiosity. And it also gets me thinking about psychology and power. I often think that psychologists love being the ones asking the questions rather than receiving them. One psychologist I knew always answered a question with another one. [A handy tip: So what makes you think that?] It’s not so great when we’re on the receiving end of prying. Put another way, we like to be the ones wielding the power, putting the patient under the microscope and analysis. Analysis after all comes from the Greek work “analyein” which means “to break up”. The dictionary gives as one definition: “The abstract separation of a whole into its constituent parts in order to study the parts and their relations.”So what do we (as therapists) do when it is the client who wants to break us up into little bits and to study our parts and relations? Well, we tend to become a bit defensive. We devise useful ways of deflecting the question such as: “We can talk about me if you like, but I’m wondering what that’s about for you. Are you wondering if you can trust me, if I will understand where you’re coming from?”
No, I was just curious.
What were you thinking?
No, I just wanted to know. You don’t have to answer the question if you don’t want to.
I envisage the conversation going round and round until the therapist answers or deflects the question successfully. In my own therapy, I have found it liberating to be able to discuss my reservations about the therapeutic relationship. Having inside knowledge about the process helps but also hinders here since I know it’s a bit of a game on my part. Trying to outsmart my therapist by making shrewd interpretations. I am quite restrained in telling my current shrink why it’s just not working for me and the poor man has to sit through at least another three sessions of this before I break up with him. He is at least getting a decent fee for it but it is also a bit disconcerting sitting there and talking about how he just doesn’t quite “get” me.
Most South African men I know are just not that sensitive, I tell him, so you’re starting from a difficult position. I also have a natural suspicion of doctors and therapists since I’ve been exploited in the past. (Litlove’s hospital experience also springs to mind as a good example of how medical practitioners can, perhaps unknowingly, be insensitive.) But part of me also wants to hang in there for a bit. If a lot of these feelings arise from my own projections (of previous insensitive males), then can I change the projections by working on them?
Lastly, if there are any clients out there who are wondering if they should confront their shrinks with their reservations, my advice is: Absolutely! Talking about the therapeutic relationship can be wonderfully liberating if it’s done in a helpful way.