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 or 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.

Why You Want “More” From Your Therapist (and Why He Can’t Give It)


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You think of your therapist as a special person, at least some of you do. His kindness and attention can not only generate gratitude, but affection. You are aware of his boundaries and you can be frustrated by a professional stance limiting the kind of contact you’d like: a favored position, not someone put into a time slot with a financial transaction attached.  Perhaps, however, there is more to this than an ethical code. Why might his viewpoint as a therapist make what you want difficult to obtain? And, no, I’m not talking about sex.

Consider the role you play and the role he plays. You are likely talking about emotionally charged issues. Your feelings are front and center. His are not. Indeed, he is thinking about what you are feeling and doing.

You come to the clinician because of problems on which you are intensely focused. Thus, you are internally directed to your issues. The counselor, on the other hand, is not attending to his concerns, but to yours. He is looking outward, you are looking inward.

The counselor is not exposed. While you can find out some things about him, the treatment is not about him. You do not keep his secrets, but he wants to keep yours. You are encouraged to open yourself in order to heal. He is closed, assuming a relative position of safety and authority no matter how much he tries to be gentle and helpful.

Your session is of singular importance to you. It is one of many sessions for him, focused on you and a full complement of other patients. That makes him more important to you than you are to him. It does not mean he is indifferent to you. The doctor may well have tender feelings for you and enjoy your company, care genuinely, and approach you somewhat differently from the way he approaches others. Still, he is your only therapist, while you are not his only patient.

The counselor spends a limited time with you. He will then meet with someone else and switch his concern to the newly arrived individual. In a sense, however much he is concentrating on you while you are with him, he must develop an ability not only to be “in the moment” with you, but switch to another person after a brief interval. You do not switch. When you leave, your concern is still on yourself and the relationship with the therapist. A mental health professional is like an athlete in this way. After the game is over, he quickly puts the contest behind him so he is able to bring all his skill and attention to the next game.

To the extent that the therapist makes himself a blank slate and reveals little about his life, it is thought you will play out your emotional issues in the form of transference: experiencing him, to some degree, as similar to an important person or persons in your life, especially if your parental relationships are unresolved. Your transference toward him provides important material which he will help you work through. In doing so, you cut the trip wires of the past that continue to harm you in the present.

The counselor, of course, can also have countertransference toward you: experiencing you and reacting to you as if you are someone about whom he has unresolved feelings. However, to the extent he gets to understand the intimate details of your life, he is likely to be less prone to such emotions than you are in response to him. You are not a blank slate to the therapist. Thus, his likelihood of projecting his issues on you is at least a bit less probable.

Now let’s switch focus. Imagine what therapy would be like if these conditions were not typical of a therapeutic interaction. In which case:

  • The therapist would reveal as many of his issues as you do of yours.
  • He would be focused on himself as much as on you.
  • He would have less control over his emotions in session.
  • You might come to know disqualifying things about him.
  • The counselor might break down in session when you are overwrought or because of his own life problems outside of the office.
  • Consolation from you may well be required to stabilize him.
  • When you are in session he could be preoccupied with the last patient he saw before you.
  • Your relationship to him would approximate the kinds of contact you have with friends and co-workers.

I wrote this essay for the purpose of helping you understand a therapist’s perspective, his limitations, and his boundaries. Without those walls, little benefit comes from treatment. This is not to say your therapist doesn’t care about you. It is to say his care must remain within limits. In the absence of those limits, no matter how much you believe you’d like something more, counseling leads to something less.

Sometimes in life we do not know what is best for us. Then we are lucky — very, very lucky — that our wishes are not granted.

The photo of the 45 rpm disc was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.