A Therapist Attends a Party. Does He Analyze Everyone He Meets?

Yes.

Not satisfied with my answer? Alright, I’ll say a bit more …

First, can you imagine a counselor going to a party? OK, I know it’s a stretch, but we do have lives.

Some of us, I’d say the best functioning souls in our profession, lead lives and need lives outside of the job. Still, if we are well-integrated, we’ve been changed by the work we do, by our experience and training, and we don’t (entirely) turn off our penetrating, “x-ray eyes and brains” when we meet someone new.

What do we notice? First, the usual things: how you look, dress, the sound of your voice, jewelry or its absence, any significant aromas (including too much aftershave or perfume), the “intelligence” in your face, height, weight, and – yes — sex appeal, at least if the diagnostician still lives by the pace of a beating heart. Crucially, too, your emotional state.

But there is a difference. We’ve seen, perhaps, thousands of patients and draw hypotheses about new acquaintances. We are the kind of people who – by nature – are more than usually fascinated by the process of understanding our fellow creatures.

Thus, to some degree, you (the creature) are slotted and categorized, pigeon-holed and measured against the silhouettes of innumerable people we’ve come to know in-depth. Nothing certain, but a formulation of ideas and character type that will, automatically, even without trying, be revised and refined if we get to know you better. Kind of like orchestra musicians who say – and I believe them – their experience allows them to size up a new conductor within minutes of the beginning of a first rehearsal.

Staying with music for a second, imagine a professional musician attending a concert. Would all his musical culture – his trained ears – vanish because he sits in the audience? Of course not.

The effortless, incomplete analysis of our party-goer is spontaneous because of who we’ve become. Ours is not the studious effort we make in the consulting room and we aren’t so rude as to ask the “personal,” penetrating, and imperative questions out-of-place at a party. Tentative assumptions just happen.

Another difference from a professional setting: we are now free to dislike the new person. We are not required to work hard to see the best in him. One can react to political differences, take issue with ideas, even walk away, as you cannot in your own office. Thus, there is a combination of automatic “evaluation” of the acquaintance as a function of the information we absorb and the reflexive processing we perform without intention, as well as freedom to act on all the human responses common to non-therapists and counselors alike.

Whatever “analysis” occurs is not methodical and therefore not as “expert” or expertly done as the “on-the-job” version. The impromptu assessment takes the form of informed opinion, not rigorous and thought-through. We are also dealing with first impressions, another reason for imperfect judgment.

Mental health professionals often get predictable responses in non-professional settings once a person finds out how we make a living:

“Ohhhh – I’d better be careful what I say to you,”

or

“Ahhh – does that mean you are analyzing me?”

One learns to take it in stride.

If you were at the imaginary social event, however, we might or might not meet your expectations. No boundaries exist when the doc is on the street or at the party; at least not doctor/patient relationship boundaries. You might be surprised to discover, too, how energetic or withdrawn the counselor is, outgoing or quiet. Remember, your therapist commands his domain, the little space called “his office,” but isn’t conferred the role of master of ceremonies anywhere else. Nor is he laser-focused on anyone he is talking to unless he wants to be. Again, unlike the consulting room, his attention can go anywhere he wants it to orΒ it wants to. Under these circumstances, you might find him less “sensitive” than you expect. Remember, he is “off-the-clock.”

He could be “the most interesting man in the world” or more common than you expect.

The counselor is permitted to be bored. He is allowed to become a bit “under the influence” of the local brew. He might even bore you, too.

Bored, he won’t be at his best in forming an impression of you. Intoxicated, he will be useless in that and other departments.

Could be he is just another guy, in this case, one too full of suds and his own bad jokes.

I’m reminded of the old Woody Allen story about how his first marriage collapsed. The problem was that he put his “wife underneath a pedestal.”

Some therapists, in some situations, belong there too.

The top plate is called Ubu, a 1974 work of Enrico Baj. The second image is Laughting, an 1898 painting by Filipp Malyavin. Both are sourced from Wikiart.org.

21 thoughts on “A Therapist Attends a Party. Does He Analyze Everyone He Meets?

  1. I’ve often wondered if doctors, firemen, policemen, soldiers, even plumbers can go to a party and listen to the rest of us complain about petty stuff without thinking: “if they’ve seen what I’ve seen.” I think they can have fun. But still . . .

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  2. There are a number of ways to think about the perspective that a therapist’s experience gives him. The contrast to his work when he is “on holiday,” usually makes “getting away” enjoyable. And, since we (as a group) are fascinated and engaged by the process of understanding people, that too can make a party enjoyable, in part since the pressure of a formal evaluation is off. Thanks for commenting, Joan.

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  3. I get it. As a retired nurse, I automatically check out the veins in people’s veins, my hands still itching to start an IV. The feel of that needle successfully entering the vein lives happily on in my mind.

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  4. I have always wondered about this. It’s part of my many curiosities about my therapist. And not knowing is part of the pain, but as you say, when we are in session, that is my time for his uninterrupted attention. It’s such a difficult feeling to bear, and yet it’s better than the alternative.

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    • It is difficult not to imagine the thing we don’t have. And that imagination, since it does not get tested by reality and day-to-day living, can exist in a state of relative perfection. Meanwhile, the “real” lives we live are never perfect, however good they may be. You have lots of company in the way you think. Indeed, perhaps all of us, at least on occasion, visit the imaginary world of “what if.” Thanks for offering your thoughts.

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      • Judy M. Goodman

        Excellent article, Gerry! It;s very much like a writer at a party — or at least, a GOOD writer! It’s true the old saw: be careful what you say and do around a writer–you may end up in their next novel. I have to wonder if a psychologist who authors papers is inspired in the writing, even tenuously or tangentially,, by the people he meets casually.

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      • Thanks, Judy. Most of the scholarly writing by clinical psychologists (not blogs), involves empirical research and therefore deals with groups of people who receive a treatment, comparing them to others who don’t, for example. Some case studies are published, but wouldn’t include people met casually. I think where psychologists might take a stab at fiction, however, anything (if carefully disguised to protect identities) becomes fair game. Of course, one might be “inspired,” as in your suggestion, to think about people differently. In that sense, the entire human experience encountered by a psychologist informs his view of the world, his patients, and himself.

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  5. This made me chuckle – especially the big about being intoxicated πŸ˜‰ They say you can tell a lot about a person by the sort of things they say and do when they’ve had too much to drink – would you agree? I had a friend who always used to ask people ‘will you be my friend?’ when she was drunk. I wonder if a therapist retains a greater than usual monitoring of his thoughts words and actions in such a state, than usual, just through force of habit? It is extremely unlikely, but what if a client happened to be present? There would then be someone who was doing more conscious and fervent analysis than the therapist…..this is a fascinating scenario and thought experiment, not least because I have imagined many times what it would be like to bump into my therapist outside the consulting room. Not at a party, but perhaps at a concert, a talk, or a church service….how would she behave? How would I?
    And finally, presumably if you do this at a party, you do it also in daily life, including with people you know, only then your judgment is better informed and it is not so much a snap assumption? And how does your therapist radar respond in situations where you might have encountered someone remotely, as you must often do (eg online) and then meet them in the flesh?

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    • I’d only agree with the value of seeing someone intoxicated to the extent that it provides something different, sometimes almost a different person; and/or evidence of a problem with alcohol. I don’t think therapists necessarily have more control of themselves when intoxicated. It is a kind of contradiction in terms, since enough alcohol tends to disinhibit and often, to depress, at least down the line. As the Chinese proverb says, “First the man takes the drink, then the drink takes the man,” suggesting the essence of a person is taken over by the drink. The only control might come in preventing intoxication, assuming the therapist is self-aware enough to recognize the danger in it for him. Indeed, seeing a patient in public is a different situation than the one I’ve described. Yes, in real life I can say that I have spent some time considering the strengths and human foibles of the people I know well. As you say, I then have more data. As to the last question, I haven’t yet met anyone who I encountered online in the kinds of interaction you and I are now having. I’m sure whatever impression I might have formed “virtually” would alter when faced with the living, breathing person.

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  6. It must be fun to do some analysing without the restrictions of the therapy room especially the opportunity to walk away if you don’t like the person. I find that having done so much therapy and had to look so much at my internal drives that I can’t help noticing people’s level of self awareness or lack of, and how it manifests in their decision making or behavior. Humans are endlessly fascinating

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  7. It might be fun, indeed, Claire. In a certain way, however, it is simply who we are or who we’ve become. Yes, we are, most of us humans, pretty interesting. Which is why I felt I was pretty lucky to do the work I did. Thanks for your comment, Claire.

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  8. Interesting disclosures of a therapist, Dr. Stein. We writers can be worse. We are capable of making up entire stories about a stranger who catches our attention, like two men who recently parked their SUV in front of our apartment building for an entire week πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

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  9. You’ve already captured my attention and desire to read the rest of the story! Thanks, Rosaliene.

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  10. I enjoyed this article. Learning some “behind the scenes” stuff, haha! πŸ™‚

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  11. Thanks, Rayne. Always more to come!

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  12. I recently disclosed to my psychiatrist that the reason I’m socially anxious has little to do with fear of being attacked (I have ptsd), and much to do with the fact that I feel a huge drain on my emotions when I am around people.

    I’m not a professional therapist of any sort, although I would have loved to have been if life had been different – but I am overly observant. I can only describe it as “sensing” people’s emotions, not in an airy fairy psychic type way, but by observing their body language, their eyes, the ease or lack of to smile or laugh, the way they hold themselves, and what they say.

    I see how lonely the old man sitting at the park bench seems, how he shuffles his body uncomfortably when he sees people walking by. I need to make eye contact and smile at him, to let him know he’s seen.

    I see the stressed mum, the angry or sad teen, the tired business man, i see them all and i want to help them. I want to give them the confort of knowing someone noticed them, I know what it’s like to feel invisible.

    I don’t just feel this, but I project it too, often without even knowingly doing so. I had a elderly stranger ask me to give her a hug and a kiss on her cheek a couple of weeks ago. My friends looked at me as if I had taken leave of my senses, but I did it without thinking twice. She was in need of a little care and human tenderness.

    My husband, friends, and doctor tells me i have a gift – I love my gift. But I hate it too. It drains me and even a year in therapy hasnt trained me to be able to learn how to control the volume of how much is poured out.

    I can only imagine that while your talent can be a great party trick to entertain yourself, that you must also become exhausted with your own senses professionally honed skills.

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  13. I’ll respond to the last portion of your comment first. Therapists are, by nature and by training, prone to observing, thinking about, sensing, and analyzing people – trying to understand them. We don’t, I think, do this to entertain ourselves, but the human condition IS fascinating to us. The danger of exhaustion comes if we don’t keep to a therapeutic distance and instead begin to feel more and more of what our patients feel, failing to maintain a limit on the extent to which we allow the patient’s suffering to invade and occupy our being, as the patients have been invaded and occupied (“occupation” being used here as an analogue to a military occupation of a city or country).

    Part of the dilemma you describe sounds like an exquisite and automatic openness to the emotional experience of others, a blade that cuts both ways. In my long practice I saw only a very small handful of individuals, (literally no more than four or five) who seemed to have the innate capacity to identify and absorb human suffering wherever they encountered it. I’m reminded of an episode of the original Star Trek series which, I believe, was called “The Empath:” about a woman who had the unique ability to heal others by, quite literally, “absorbing” and suffering their pain, rather like a transplant of their pain to her soul and body. As you say (and I can only imagine) a gift and a kind of curse, too. If that is correct, then I suspect your friends will have almost no idea of what it is like to be “you.”

    I hope that therapy can eventually help you manage this so that the difficult part is more within your control, without losing that portion of this special quality that makes you virtually unique in the best possible way, Kat Jayne. Your friends are lucky to know you.

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  14. I would like to receive your blog through email, and have attempted to sign-up five times with my iPad and phone to no avail. WordPress repeatedly says they do not have my email on file in order to send an activation email. Just an FYI for you as WordPress may have a glitch.

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