The Therapist’s Office as a Refuge

Therapy sessions have changed. Or perhaps I should say, they are the same as always, but the world isn’t. The consulting room remains a quiet place for quiet conversation. Everywhere else is noisier and more crowded, with fewer spaces of refuge and much distraction. Almost nowhere are you (and you alone) the sole concern of someone who is not your small child.

You are worse for this, but something can be done. More on taking action later.

First, let’s look back before the advent of cell phones. I’m speaking of the days prior to elevator music (unless you brought a violinist with you), TV, and radio. In other words, less than one hundred years ago.

If you don’t live a rural life or reside away from flight paths and railroads, you probably don’t know what has been lost.

Where else, other than in therapy, do you obtain the undistracted concentration of another? Not over dinner if the TV is on or music is playing. Not if your phone is on. Not if you or your partner are reading or looking out the window.

I recall a single-cell cartoon showing a middle-aged couple over coffee. He is reading the newspaper and his partner is talking.

“I’m sorry dear, I wasn’t paying attention. Can you repeat everything you’ve said since we married?”

The draw of the personal phone is powerful. According to a 2013 survey, “At least 9 percent (of those surveyed) admitted to grabbing the phone while having sexual relations. Among those 18 to 34 years-old, the number climbs to 20 percent.”

This finding gives new meaning to the word “threesome” and the phrase ménage à trois.

Some patients might benefit from a public address announcement requesting them to turn off electronic devices. Would they want their surgeon to take calls while operating on their brain? For much of my career I made sure I couldn’t be summoned instantaneously. Patients understood I checked messages a few times a day. The ER was available if they needed urgent care. Nobody died.

Many of us complain of lacking intimacy, but the little bugger in our pocket mocks those complaints. Should you wish someone’s full attention, start by giving it.

Why must the TV be on during dinner, creating a hurdle to conversation? How many TVs do you own? The husband of a friend installed a television in every room of their home, including the bathrooms. He was neither a patient nor a patient man, by the way. I recall a famous therapist who carried two cell phones. I once saw him holding conversations on both simultaneously.

I’d guess, for some of you at least, the unconscious draw of counseling is not only your therapist’s help, but that the time is yours, yours alone, without disturbance: a refuge.

I realize a few of you need noise — the hum of things — to distract you: the radio or TV chatter makes you feel secure and reduces your loneliness.

However, if you don’t fear the stillness, and want greater relationship intensity and intimacy, here is some guidance: an antidote for the monstrous, electronically hectored life you live.

First, acknowledge that your life is partly of your making.

Then, take control. Make the days what you wish them to be, don’t simply endure them.

You need not tolerate people who invite their phone to dinner with you. You can say, “I thought this was for the two of us alone,” nodding in the direction of the inanimate third-party on the table. Smile sweetly when you do.

Sell or junk all but one or two TVs. Exclude electronics from dinner at home.

The family will not cheer this: “Mom! Dad! This is the 21st century! Everyone else does this. Why are you punishing me?”

Turn off the music. Sound proof your room. Get ear plugs. Go to quiet restaurants. Spend time in the country. Alert companions that you are no longer a slave to your phone, the Twitter account, and the latest update on their visit to the w/c.

If you struggle to do these things, perhaps you need to talk with a therapist about self-assertion.

Whose life is it? Who’s the boss, applesauce?

Have a nice day!

No. Make a nice day.

Rant over.

14 thoughts on “The Therapist’s Office as a Refuge

  1. Two weeks ago on vacation in Ogunquit, Maine, on the beautiful Marginal Way, I was walking and saw a couple sitting on a bench with his arm around her. I thought it was sweet until I got closer and saw that she was checking her email and Facebook I’m sure…funny a special time together became a “cell phone moment” instead.

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  2. Ha! I love this line: Almost nowhere are you (and you alone) the sole concern of someone who is not your small child.
    What an odd experience that must be!

    But, on to the main topic…. Rant away! Maybe if more people would rant, we would get a little more quiet in the world. I, for one, prefer silence to most forms of noise. I know that many people enjoy background music or having the radio or television on for company and that’s okay for them. I, however, will take silence over any kind of background noise. My rant would be yard tools! Those blasted leaf blowers (how about using a rake and making the chore a contemplative task or – perish the thought! – let the leaves lie undisturbed!) irritate the heck out of me. In my neighborhood (which admittedly is fairly dense as suburban neighborhoods go), not a weekend goes by w/o a chorus of leaf blowers, mowers, chain saws (lots of mature trees in the neighborhood), carpenter’s tools (lots of DIYer’s too), and … the crowning glory? Barking dogs! I am okay with a bark or three here or there but the incessant barking is not okay. Okay, enough of my rant!

    I do agree as well with the electronics. I am pretty good at leaving the phone off and out of the way except if I am expecting some call or message. Phones are not invited to dinner but I will say that the daily newspaper is invited to breakfast. I’ve been thinking lately about disinviting him (yes, it is a him) b/c he really upsets me these days but other people at the table need their morning fix of the comics so I am just trying to make myself stick to articles that don’t make my bloom pressure go up. Hard to do.

    Let’s hear it for refuges! Mine happens to be the beach. I can get to the Pacific Ocean in about 20 minutes and even the drive there is peaceful and beautiful. An hour or two at the beach with no electronics is probably as good for me as a therapist’s office would be.
    Thanks for a fun piece!

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  3. I’m enjoying the irony that I read this on my IPhone. 🙂 All too true though. I’ve recently started spending just five minutes a day mediating by focusing on my breathing. (My brain is noisy!), but just five minutes of quiet is making a difference (I am working long hours for a deadline but am trying to approach it with some level of self care). So thank you, but to quote yourself back at you, this doesn’t sound like a rant, it just sounds like good sense. 🙂

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  4. Well said, Dr. Stein. When I go out with my sons, I have to compete with their smart phones. At this rate, we’ll soon lose the art of conversation.

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    • Thanks, Rosaliene. I wonder what might happen to the world if everyone took a day off from the phones — kind of like a religious day of fasting. Unfortunately, it is an impossible experiment, except if done as a matter of personal choice.

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  5. Surely one of the joys of being a retired (as opposed to a currently practicing) therapist is the right to revel in a rant on occasion? 😉 I know I rather enjoyed it 🙂
    As for cellphones at dinner – there is the often suggested ploy of ‘first one who cracks and checks their phone, pays the bill’. Though amongst partners who share bank accounts, this one isn’t quite the threat it could be! Perhaps it should be ‘…takes the bins out’, or ‘cleans the bathroom’, or suchlike…! Thank you for a great post which made me smile….

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  6. It has always been important to me to keep this sort of stuff in balance. It was something I started consciously doing when I became isolated and my method in the madness was to make the secluded lifestyle as pleasant as possible. Radio in the afternoon, quiet in the morning and afternoon and whenever I am writing or reading and just a little telly at night. Oh and I no longer own a mobile phone. It happened by accident a few months ago and I liked it so much, I haven’t bought another one

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