Therapy is weird. It is so naturally human: it’s connection, conversation, contact. Therapists and clients alike are engaging with intense emotions, digging into the deepest recesses of the human experience and seeing what they come up with in the end.
Yet it is also so . . . unnatural. The therapist comes to know the client perhaps better than anyone else—intimately, analytically. It is their job to know. But the client will never learn much about the therapist. This imbalance of knowledge—and, thus, in some ways, power—is inherent to the process of therapy as we know it.
I have been in therapy for over a decade, on and off. The therapist-client dynamic has never been particularly comfortable for me; I never can resolve it in my head. When, at 14, deeply depressed, I found myself looking forward to my weekly therapy appointment, I felt shame. Even now, at 25, I wrestle with that same shame. Recently, in a meditation, my past (deceased) and current therapist both “came up,” both holding me, providing safety and rest for my anxious self. But trying to bring this experience up in therapy had me writhing, trying to shake off the shame that coated me. It feels like unrequited love—or, if not unrequited, at least unequal. It’s that suspicion that someone is more important to you than you are to them. The natural response to that suspicion is to hedge, to downplay your investment.
But “hedging” and “downplaying” aren’t encouraged when you’re sitting on the couch in your therapist’s office. And, besides, it’s not like the nature of the relationship is a secret. We’re all aware that one of us is paying the other. How do those assholes put it? “I don’t need to pay someone to listen to me.”
Here’s the thing, though: all of this is total bullshit, lacking nuance, grace, and understanding.
I am a teacher. I get paid to teach my students. I am paid because I possess the knowledge and skills in demand. I am paid because I am effective. One of the reasons I am effective is that I love my students with all I’ve got. I love the straight-A perfectionists who need to be taught to chill out. I love the troublemakers who are begging for the affection of structure and discipline. I love the kid who hugs me every time he sees me. I love the kid who refuses even to give me a high five.
Am I paid to love them? Kind of. Does that diminish the truth of my love? Not at all. Will I continue to love them when they leave my classroom, when my livelihood is no longer in the mix? Of course.
Love, compassion, care—these are all in a teacher’s job description, though usually unwritten. They’re also in a therapist’s.
My therapists care about me. Whether they’d use the word “love” or not is up to them. That’s just semantics, though.
When my previous therapist died unexpectedly of cancer, I was destroyed. I grieved hard—and, compoundingly, I felt like I didn’t have the right to grieve her. I didn’t even “know” her. Was I grieving her, or merely who she was to me?
But is “knowing” a person really about knowing the details? I did not know about her childhood, or her career path, or her future goals. But I knew the way tears would well in her eyes when I would say something heartbreaking. I knew the wisdom she held in her bones. I knew the way her spirit gripped mine, grips mine even today.
At her funeral, her husband knew who I was; he had, as she lay dying, read her the letter I’d written her, knowing that I shouldn’t take physical space but that I absolutely had to tell her goodbye somehow. He told me she cared about me. He would later give me some of her things. “She would want you to have these,” he said, handing me a few books and a deck of meditation cards—treasures.
We can throw around words like “transference,” which surely have their place, but we can also acknowledge that clients and therapists are human, and they love. Therapists may not always like their clients, just as teachers don’t always like their students, but they do love. Or at least the good ones do. It would be weird for them not to.