Psychotherapy Blog

 

The Socially Awkward Therapist

Posted by Margaret Arnd-Caddigan on 1/15/16 - 5:43 PM
Everybody knows: therapists are all crazy. Right?

Where did this idea come from? For some of us, perhaps it’s our social skills. Some therapists can come off a bit . . . well . . . awkward in social situations. Perhaps you know a Socially Awkward Therapist (SAT)?

SATs even find each other off-putting. I had a SAT friend who was talking about another therapist friend.

“She’s unsettling.” He shrugs. His eyes drift down and to the right.

I catch the glance. I automatically register what’s going on in his head. He’s remembering a conversation he had with her. I’m processing the fact that he probably can see it in his mind’s eye, and hear their conversation.

He looks up at me. His eyes, slightly squinted, zero in on mine. “She looks at you too intently.” He nods slowly. “And she nods too much when you’re talking.”

He’s right. SATs have a hard time with casual conversations. We’re not simply noticing, but carefully weighing, evaluating, and interpreting facial expression, tone of voice, body language, rhythm, inflection, and word choice, all in minute detail.

We’re not diagnosing. We’re not pathologizing. We’re not judging. We are quite simply fascinated. We want to know what it’s like to be another person. Not just what they’re thinking or feeling, but to understand their unique experience of life.

So when you meet one of us at a party, we start out okay. But after the “where are you from?” and “how do you know the host?” and “what do you do for a living?” we run into trouble. We want to know how much you like your job, what really makes you happy, what kind of relationship you have with your mother.

And we do this while maintaining complete opacity. We don’t do the conversation dance. You know, where you tell me something about yourself, then I tell you something about me. We just keep asking questions, without any self-disclosure.

Anyway, if we did tell you what was really going on in our heads, it would just confirm how crazy we really are.

“How was your trip to New Orleans?” my neighbor asked me. The only reason she knew that I was going is because my husband asked her to pick our newspaper while we were gone. It would never occur to me tell anyone that much about myself.

Really, how was my trip to New Orleans? I saw some homeless adolescents in the French Quarter. One boy had a sign that read “I need $$ for booze.” I was transfixed by this kid when he made direct eye contact with me. His face was smudged with street grime. His hair hadn’t been washed in so long that the oily clumps didn’t move when a stiff breeze kicked up. His red-rimmed eyes held on to me and begged me for something more than money.

What’s it like to be that kid? How did he end up here? What did it mean to him to be sitting there with his sign? What did he see when he looked at me?

And I was equally fascinated by the couple who were right in front of me when I passed the kids. They were post-middle-age, carefully coiffed, dressed country club casual. They turned their heads and sped up when they noticed the kids.

What did it feel like to put so much effort into ignoring those adolescents? What did they think led to those kids being there? What’s it like to be their kid?

So, when my neighbor asked me about New Orleans, I know she wanted to hear about beignets and bars and bands. But that’s not what stayed with me from the trip.

So yes, some therapists are a little crazy. Their social skills are a bit off. How can it be that a person who makes their living talking to people doesn’t seem to know how to talk to people?

Really, SATs can’t chat. When we talk to people we want to know them. We feel the flow of their affect and then swim with their current. Unfortunately, if you’re feeling demoralized or detached, if you find yourself yearning for some kind of real connection in a virtual world, you’re not likely to look for it in some generic social situation. These days you’d probably go to therapy for that.
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