Nadine Moore discusses why not knowing that much about your therapist has its benefits.
It can feel a bit frustrating when you ask your therapist how they are, and they answer with just a nod and a smile. And it can feel strange to be the only one in the relationship that lays yourself bare.
"A lot of meaning can be found when your imagination is set free... The relationship is no less real."
But despite it feeling odd, this kind of dynamic in therapy is probably not such a bad thing. A relationship with a therapist is set up like this in order to be therapeutic. It’s not a friendship. And when you’re in therapy, although it is a conversation, it isn’t your usual to and fro in terms of sharing personal experiences and private details.
Here are five reasons why not knowing too many private details about your therapist’s life is probably a good thing…
1. A blank screen for a reason
Most therapists don’t share private details about their lives with their clients e.g. their sexuality, whether they have children, relationship status and personal experiences from their lives.
This is probably more true of therapists who practice psychodynamically and psychoanalytically. This is because the theory goes that when little is known about the therapist the client can more easily project onto the client-therapist the relationship experiences that they have had before. So the client-therapist relationship mimics a relationship that has happened previously, e.g. a mum-daughter relationship or a sibling relationship.
The relationship that is created - and the feelings that are felt by the therapist inside this relationship - can give clues to how people in the client’s life might feel and how the client themselves might feel.
For example, say a client has a relationship with their dad where they feel bullied by him and controlled. This relationship is one that the therapist and client start to talk about in their sessions. At the same time the therapist starts to notice that the client often doesn’t let her finish her sentences. The therapist begins to dread the sessions and feels like she is walking on egg shells, worried that something she says will cause her client to erupt. She begins to limit her approach and feels nervous about making interpretations.
The therapist then can wonder, what is happening in the relationship? Who has she become? Perhaps the therapist and client are experiencing a similar relationship that the client has with her dad. In order to communicate to the therapist how awful it feels – the client is, without knowing, taking on the role of the domineering dad and has begun to control and dominate the therapist.
The therapist can bring this up, talk about what she sees in order to show understanding and give insight into how the client might feel in her relationship with her dad.
This probably wouldn’t be as possible if the client knew a lot of personal details about their therapist because they would be less likely to imprint on the client-therapist relationship a previous relationship that had happened before.
2. A time for just you
When you talk with friends and you share something personal and traumatic – perhaps you had an argument with your partner and you’ve stopped having sex. It can be comforting and normalising when friends pitch in and say, me too! But it can also take over the air waves.
When a therapist does not share their own experiences, they are giving you a valuable 50 minutes to focus just on you.
And you are the most important thing here, not the therapist and what has happened for them – but what is happening in your life as the client.
Do you really want to use up your session hearing about your therapist’s weekend? You’re paying good money after all!
3. The power of imagination
When you don’t know personal details about your therapist, your imagination can run wild.
You may imagine that your therapist is a fantastic mother to five children. And perhaps this means something for you and relates to your own past and your own issues. Maybe it shows something about how you long to have children yourself. Or perhaps that you had an unhappy childhood, and you wish you had a mother like your therapist.
When your imagination is set free, because you don’t know the actual specifics, a lot of meaning can be found. And even more so if you can bring yourself to talk about your fantasies and discuss them with your therapist.
This is where the real work can begin and the relationship between you and your therapist can become more complex and meaningful.
4. Maintaining the client role
What would happen if you realised that your therapist was going through a divorce, or had lost a child?
Something would shift in the dynamic. Perhaps you wouldn’t feel as comfortable ‘burdening’ your therapist with your stuff when you felt they were going through a hard time too. Perhaps you would feel less able to completely crumble and be held together by your therapist. Perhaps realising that your therapist has had their own hardships, although in a way you probably know this in a less specific way, would mimic relationships you’ve had before when you’ve had to care for someone else.
Being able to come to therapy as the client, and keeping this role, is important in being able to gain therapeutic benefit.
You are the client here, not the therapist.
5. You still know your therapist, even without the details
When you go to therapy, even when you don’t go to their house, you are often sitting in a room that they have designed themselves. From this you pick up subtle perhaps unconscious ideas of who they are.
And from being in therapy you begin to know how your therapist speaks, their sense of humour, their mannerisms and the way they think.
So even though you don’t know anything of your therapist’s sexuality or their relationship status, you still know them. And perhaps more than you think. The relationship is no less real.
A good therapist, arguably, is one that doesn’t put on a ‘show’ of being a therapist. But is transparent, and quite themselves. They may not let you know which political party they voted for, but they are honest and give you a truthful version of themselves.
How can a therapist expect a client to be honest, confide and trust if the therapist themselves is putting on an act?
Five reasons why it’s probably a good thing when you don’t know that much about your therapist’s private life.
Nadine Moore is a psychodynamic therapist.