The Power of Shared Experiences: Shifts in the World & in the Room

Photo by Jamie Kreiter

Photo by Jamie Kreiter

Last Thursday, thousands of Yemeni bodega workers and fellow supporters protested against Trump's "Muslim Ban". This occurred right outside of my therapy office. My clients passed  by protesters on their way to our session and many expressed feelings of sadness, admiration, fear, powerlessness, bravery, anger and vulnerability. I found myself also mirroring some of these emotions.  

The therapy space can hold a range of emotions due to the relationship created by therapist and client. The therapeutic relationship is not inherently equal, nor is it intended to be. The client-therapist relationship is non-reciprocal, meaning that the client's needs and feelings are the only ones addressed in the room. The therapist's needs are suppressed so that the therapist can maintain the role of the objective expert. As a therapist, I make space in the therapy room for new insights to emerge and new perspectives to form. I am able to do this because there is a certain level of neutrality that I maintain during these sessions. While I empathize with my client’s struggles, they are not my own.   

That was until last Thursday. What my clients felt and experienced walking by the protest was similar to what I was feelings and experiencing. It was difficult to ignore the happenings outside as the sounds of chants and prayers could be heard from my office window. Whether welcomed or not, the outside world was inside the therapy room. 

I reflect on Steven Kuchuck's book Clinical Implications of the Psychoanalyst’s Life Experience: When the Personal Becomes Professional (2014) when he discusses how a shared experience can shift the therapeutic space. He recalls the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 as one of the first times that his patients and him were experiencing trauma and retraumatization at the same time (xxii).  “We were all mourning, and I could not always stop myself from crying for—and with—some patients” (Kuchuck, 2014 p.xxiii). 

Over the weekend, I participated in a group discussion with my colleagues to identify and explore our feelings of vulnerability, powerlessness, fear, danger and even privilege given today's political environment.  What are our clients experiencing in these moments that are similar or different to what we are feeling? What are we focusing our energy and thoughts on and what are we choosing to ignore?  How do we normalize what we are feeling even in abnormal times? 

As a therapist, I try to create stability amidst ambiguity; right now this seems difficult. I appreciate the space that both my colleagues and clients provide for me. I am humbled by how human this work can be, how it forces you to reflect, change and grow, sometimes alongside of your clients and indeed, fellow citizens.  



Reference: Kuchuck, S. (2014) Clinical implications of the psychoanalyst’s life experience: When the personal becomes professional. New York, New York: Taylor & Francis.