I have a therapist who is highly ethical and vigilant of boundaries. He has shared next to nothing about his personal life with me, unless it was somehow necessary to divulge something for therapeutic purposes. An example of this was telling me the reason why he has to reschedule some of our upcoming visits. He knew I felt jerked around (I told him so last session) and he was empathetic enough that he felt he needed to tell me it was due to his mother’s recent death, in which some financial matters need to be resolved, which require him to leave town to take care of these matters with other family members.
I was grateful to him for being sensitive enough to consider my feelings, and empathetic enough to know I needed to “have a reason” for the sudden schedule changes. In the months I’ve been seeing him, it’s been almost uncanny the way he seems to know how I am feeling about something, even sometimes before I’m aware of it. This shows me he has a high level of empathy, and I think high empathy is a requirement for the type of therapy we’re doing to be really effective, because it requires emotional attunement.
A few people have told me they’ve been concerned because of a recent post where I said my therapist has told me he likes me and looks forward to our sessions. Of course, I like it and find it highly validating that he said those things, but popular thought has it that to be “professional,” a therapist must be cold and detached and that any admission of personal feelings for a client, no matter how benign, must be somehow suspect.
That’s the stereotypical view of what a therapist must be like. A cold, detached, Cyborg in a white coat, writing everything down in a notebook and remaining stony faced no matter how emotional the patient gets. Maybe he rubs his beard and murmurs “very interesting!” while writing down everything.
I would do terribly with such a therapist. I would never get any better. Because I suffer from bad early attachment and a lifetime of trauma beginning in infancy, I have trouble trusting anyone or allowing myself to get close to anyone. I entered therapy for many reasons, not least of which is my difficulty in feeling my emotions fully and my near inability to connect with anyone in a meaningful way. Being so emotionally detached from others and myself has turned my life into a sterile, joyless desert. It’s sapped all the color out of my life, to the point where every day seemed much like the last, without anything to look forward to, or anything really even worth remembering. I wanted to change that. I wanted to be able to feel again, only tempered by the wisdom of my years so I wouldn’t have to shut myself off again. Only someone who could serve as a kind of surrogate parent and renurture me to a point where I could begin to trust again and share my deepest feelings, using the therapeutic relationship as a kind of template, would be able to help me achieve this.
Can you imagine a baby being “nurtured” by a cold, detached parent, who never mirrored them and stayed six feet away from them at all times? Who never cried with them, laughed with them, or picked them up and held them? That child would probably grow up to have PTSD or a personality disorder. Well, if my therapist is acting as my surrogate parent (and I am VERY much a small child and even a baby in my sessions), being cold and detached would just re-traumatize me! Of course he isn’t going to pick me up and hold me against him (as much as I sometimes might desire that), because there are certain boundaries it would be unethical for him to cross. But he is sensitive and empathic, and doesn’t hesitate to use these qualities to facilitate my healing.
During our sessions, he has done the following things (besides the compliments described in an earlier post) that some might think are “unprofessional”:
He moved about three feet closer to me at a point where he correctly perceived that I needed to feel closer (he sits about three feet in front of me now instead of the six feet at first, and leans forward when he thinks I need more closeness. He has never physically touched me.
Once or twice when I described a very upsetting incident from my past, he got teary eyed. In one recent session, he rubbed his eyes (discreetly) and I noticed they were damp. This was barely noticeable, not over the top so it didn’t make me uncomfortable or make me feel I had to “take care of my therapist.” (crying openly or sobbing would NOT have been appropriate and would have weirded me out in a big way). But it was noticeable enough that I felt mirrored and empathized with–and cared about. This was immensely helpful because it was only one session after this happened that I was finally able to let go and cry in front of him (which is necessary to my healing). I haven’t been able to cry in front of another person, even a family member, in years. I almost wonder if he did this on purpose, to “model” that sort of emotional expression for me so I could do it myself. But even if it was, I know it was based in actual empathy and not just an act.
He’s said things like, “I feel angry at him right now for hurting you that way” (referring to my narcissistic abusive ex) when I was describing the ways he’s abused me. He said this in an angry way too, and I felt enormously grateful to him for being so empathetic and feeling angry WITH me instead of letting me feel it all alone. Again, I doubt this was “acting.”
He laughs with me all the time, which I find beautiful and validating.
He may have an emotional, sensitive temperament, but if that is the case, I don’t find anything wrong with him using that to facilitate therapy. Almost all of the things I described are just him mirroring my own feelings, sometimes anticipating them before I can feel them consciously, and that gives me the courage to explore them further and let myself experience them. Not once has he violated my boundaries because he’s also empathetic enough to know how far he can go with this without going too far. It’s a delicate balance. This fine-tuning to my emotional needs makes me feel safe. I’m a young child in session and I’ve noticed my voice even takes on a childlike cadence. As my surrogate parent, he is simply doing what should have been done by my own birth parents: mirror me, validate me, and empathize with me. He’s teaching me that exploring my feelings is not only okay, but it’s beautiful.
We have a strong connection, but I realize it’s only a template. Just as a child growing up will eventually leave home and find others to connect with as an adult, eventually I’ll (hopefully) be able to transfer my new, healthy attachment feelings (it’s been theorized that even in adults, such mirroring by the therapist actually helps the client build new neural pathways) onto others and finally achieve genuine and mature emotional closeness with other human beings. I’m still just a little kid who’s trying to grow up. I need a detached, chilly therapist like I need a hole in the head.
So there are two possibilities for what’s really going on here: (a) I found a nearly perfect therapist who suits my needs; or (b) my therapist is a raging narcissist who’s also an actor worthy of an Academy Award and is just doing these things to gain my trust before he proceeds to turn it all against me. I think I’ve become good enough at noticing red flags that I’d suspect something fishy or feel uncomfortable if that were the case.