I have found that people often hold one of two fears about counselors:
(1) Counselors exist to tell me what to do and what not to do. (In essence, the belief that counselors exist as advice-givers i.e., An extension of your parent, spouse, or boss.)
(2) Counselors just sit in silence, nodding, and writing notes while I spill out my heart and then hand over a check at the end of the session. (i.e. The belief that therapists are mysterious and aloof, adding little to the therapy session.)
Coming from a person-centered approach, I believe both of these approaches to psychotherapy can be largely unhelpful. Thankfully, I work with a team of counselors who similarly believe in a different way of meeting with clients…
The kind of psychotherapy that I personally and professionally believe in involves cultivating a place of safety, freedom, and honesty. Meeting with another human being and providing both empathy and sensitive challenge to their unique way of being requires more humility than advice-giving and greater mutual cooperation between counselor and client than “lounging and listening”.
As human beings, we as counselors naturally carry our own experiences and perspectives with us, which color they way we see circumstances and those people we sit with each week in session. However, we are also trained to acknowledge “our stuff” and strive to discern when it is appropriate and helpful to vocalize our insight (for instance, offering tools and strategies to help clients in dealing with stress and managing moods) and when it is necessary to “get out of the way.” “Getting out of the way” simply means to ethically allow the client time to explore the spaces of their mind and heart, which often go ignored or avoided until an opportunity of safe silence is afforded…
“Sitting with” Silence
In a culture & time in which there are endless distractions, readily available to sweep us away from emotional discomfort, it can become rare that we are faced with moments of “sitting with” our stories and acknowleding how we feel about our relationships, our jobs, our past, our future, and simply stated-our lives.
Do any of these behaviors sound familiar?:
Immediately turning on the radio when I get in the car. // Flipping through Facebook when I’m stressed and take a break at work. // Swiftly changing the topic of conversation when someone asks how I’m really doing.
I have been guilty of allowing some of these behaviors to become distractions. How about you? Do you find yourself escaping, minimizing, or numbing emotions?
How about the times when you don’t – when you allow yourself to feel and sit with the reality of the moment. What is it like? Until we allow ourselves to sit with and process our feelings with a safe person & in a safe place, it can be challenging to accept the reality of the struggle, problem or loss we have experienced.
…And this is exactly why I believe that silence can be “golden.” I notice that when silence is constantly “rescued” by my noise, that clients can become stuck in the therapy process. Further, their story is not being told if I fill it with my own opinions. Opening up space to think, evaluate, feel, and deal is not only helpful, it is healthy. However, it is not necessarily natural in a world in which so many interferences reside. Therefore, we must be intentional in seeking it out.
As someone who can attest to the deep value present in allowing silence to produce natural and authentic expressions of true feelings, I am ready to begin banning the presence of “awkward” before silence, and instead allow for silence to be exactly what it is: a needed, quiet space that offers the chance for honesty and freedom.
Learn more about Lydia Minear, MA, LAPC’s counseling practice @ East-West Psychotherapy Associates here.