Investing in the Therapy Relationship, Part I

One of the best investments I ever made was in going to therapy. I was in my late 20s; I was disillusioned with my career, my mood state, and my relationships, among other things. I needed a safe place where I could describe this experience out loud.

I didn’t know why or how this would work. My mind was littered with Hollywood and literary depictions of the therapy relationship and I didn’t much enjoy imagining the stereotypes: stuffy,  stodgy men in tweed sitting in judging silence; new-age cornballs pleading that their patients simply understand; and antagonistic it’s-NOT-YOUR-FAULT know-it-alls who poke and prod simply because they like to poke and prod.

I tried out a few therapy relationships on for size to see if they worked. One man was a bit too polished – I can’t see Dr. Drew on TV now without thinking of him. The next one felt like his attention was divided, and I found an easy out when he no-showed for our regular appointment in the basement of his home. Maybe it was them, maybe it was me — probably a bit of both. Neither relationship worked. Then there was “Dr. R.”

Probably one of the easiest connections for me to make with him was our ethnic similarity. We both came from Irish and Sicilian ancestry, so there was no need to explain the way I talk with my hands or speak with a certain emphasis and inflection. He was adept at building our relationship, helping me to feel understood, expressing my disillusion as if he was experiencing it. He challenged me on my dedication to the process we had undertaken, asking me repeatedly, ‘what’s gonna get you off the dime?’ He personalized and softened our interactions, asking me why I so formally referred to him as ‘Doctor,’ when his first name would do just fine. He shook my hand after each session, acknowledging my apparent need to add some sort of punctuation to the end of our hour.

Three-and-a-half years later, I was in the place I needed to be: healing, moving forward, now ‘off the dime.’ I embarked on a career change – out of magazine publishing and into psychology with Dr. R’s blessing and encouragement. I started to become who I am still becoming: a person who sees an art to relationship, that fickle, often frustrating — and always temporary — way of being in the world. Our strengths and our most problematic ways of being are almost always best understood in relation to the people around us. I find the meaning of my life lies in relating effectively to the people who are in my life.

Sometimes this means examining how we end relationships – one of the primary tasks of the therapy relationship, which is built to end.

Dr. R helped me access and know these simple truths. As a psychologist today, I often hear his voice in mine as I relate to colleagues, clients, friends and family, relating to them all – and myself – as I do. This is one investment that has paid off.

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