Art and design

Books

Culture

Environment

Fashion

Film

Life and style

Money

Music

Politics

Science

Technology

Travel

Television

US news

World news

How can a therapist get the most out of therapy?

therapist listening to her client
‘A hallmark of a therapist’s feelings will be curiosity and interest.’ Photograph: Alamy

The goings-on in the consulting room have become more transparent of late. Thank goodness. We know more than the hackneyed clichés supplied by the movies in which the therapist knows all and bestows wisdom on those who, prone on a couch, consult with them.

Therapists are interested in how the individual, the couple or the family experiences and understands their difficulties. That has to be a starting place. We can be of value if our first port of call is to listen, to gradually feel ourself into the shoes of the other, to absorb the feelings that are being conveyed and to think and then to say some words.

The thinking and talking that I do inside the consulting room is at odds with many features of ordinary conversation. Not that it is mysterious, but it isn’t concerned with conventional ways of sharing or identifying. The therapist makes patterns and theorises, but they are also reflecting on the words that are spoken, how they are delivered – in a staccato fashion, or flatly, or stop and start – and how the words, once spoken, affect the speaker and the therapist themselves.

Words can give voice to previously unknown feelings and thoughts. Words can illuminate. That’s why it’s called the talking cure. But just as words reveal so, too, can they obscure, and this gets us to the listening and feeling part of the therapy. Whatever and however the utterances are delivered, they will have an impact on me as a therapist. I might feel hopeless, I might feel energised, I might feel pushed away, I might feel demanded of, I might feel pulled to find solutions.

The influence of the other is what makes any relationship possible or impossible. A therapist is trained to reflect on how those who consult with them affect them. As I try to step into the shoes of the analysand and then out again, my endeavour is to hold both those experiences, plus an awareness of my ease or discomfort with what I encounter in the relationship.

Of course, a hallmark of a therapist’s feelings will be curiosity and interest, but when my feelings are inflected with what can feel like foreign emotional hues, I wonder whether this is a useful reflection of the analysand’s psyche. Is what is conveyed at a feeling level a clue to the difficulties that beset the individual seeking help?

While we can only do an approximation of stepping into another’s shoes and their story, we do a rather more surgical discussion inside ourselves with the feelings that come upon us. I once felt I was covered in dandruff in a session, but not the session before or after. Another time, I was heavy with depression and yet five minutes after the person left, I was enlivened. A few sessions later, I felt like a purring pussy cat, a feeling I was to have with that person and no one else. These feelings were incredibly helpful intimations alerting me to aspects of what the individual was burdened by or what they craved. Their desires and difficulties did not come in words but through feelings which, when I could find the words for myself, could be shared and made sense of.

Feelings are the bread and butter of our work in the consulting room. They inform or modify our ideas and they enable us to find an emotional bridge to what can so hurt for the people we are working with. Along with the more commonly thought-about theories and ideas we have about the psyche, they are an essential part of the therapist’s toolkit, certainly for me. The talking cure means talking, yes. It also means the therapist is listening, thinking and feeling.

In Therapy by Susie Orbach is published by Wellcome Collection & Profile Books at £8.99. To order a copy for £7.64, go to guardianbookshop.com

This article titled "How can a therapist get the most out of therapy?" was written by Susie Orbach, for The Observer on Sunday 14 January 2018 06.00am

Life and style

A cold nose shows you’re stressed – what else does?

Touch your nose. If it is cold, you may need to calm down. Science, by using thermal imaging… Read more

Why I refused to make friends with my vagina | Michele Hanson

When I attended antenatal classes, I had no partner around and so I had to go alone. It was 1978,… Read more

Paul Bocuse obituary

For many people around the world, Paul Bocuse, who has died aged 91, was the incarnation of French… Read more

How to drink from a water fountain – without catching something

Wonderful news! Water fountains are coming back. In an attempt to tackle plastic waste, the old… Read more

‘​I’d have gone back to him’: why women’s refuges can’t afford more cuts

Fifteen years ago, when Lynn fled her abusive partner with her six-month-old baby, she was housed… Read more

Why has no one invented a clothing material that repels pet hair? | Notes and queries

Why have scientists/innovators still not created a clothing material that does not attract… Read more

Rachel Roddy’s winter tomato sauce recipe

For several years now, I have used an empty tomato tin as a pen holder on my desk. Even though it… Read more

How can I be allergic to shiitakes, but fine with other mushrooms? | Notes and queries

A few years ago I discovered that I’m extremely allergic to shiitake mushrooms (don’t ask) but I… Read more

Yes, Jacinda Ardern can combine work with a baby – but it’s not for every woman | Chitra Ramaswamy

The reaction to New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s pregnancy in office is two-pronged.… Read more

Anna Jones’s kale recipes

I am in a green phase, and drawn like a moth to sea-green velvet cushions and dresses, while the… Read more