Changing Places

Changing Places

by Maggie Mulqueen
Veteran therapist Maggie Mulqueen relocates her practice and unpacks surprising insights about change. 


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The Nesting Instinct

Thirty years is a long time. When I started my psychotherapy practice as a newly-minted licensed psychologist in 1986, I didn’t expect to spend my entire career in one office. But the brownstone building and the location were great, and the space felt comfortable. The office was part of a suite with five offices, a shared waiting room and a bathroom. It was a large room with windows overlooking a tree-lined street. I never felt the desire to relocate my practice. Recently, however, the noise from new tenants in the apartment above my office became intolerable. The landlord was unwilling to intervene and clients were starting to look up at the ceiling due to the sound of a toddler jumping out of bed overhead. Additionally, the condition of the waiting room and bathroom had deteriorated. My frustration finally compelled me to start looking for new office space.

Although psychotherapy is about helping people realize change in their lives, personally I am often resistant to change. I love to travel and explore new things, but ever since my parents’ divorce when I was a young child, I developed a strong nesting instinct. Creating familiar and warm surroundings is core to my well-being. I will venture out into the unknown, but I like my surroundings to stay the same.
Moving is not something I do lightly
Moving is not something I do lightly. During those same 30 years, I had moved homes twice, each time to accommodate a growing family. I was always grateful that my office stayed the same. It was the constant in my life, a proverbial “room of my own.”

There had been days when the comfort of my office extended to me as much as it did to my clients. Each time I was pregnant, I would nap on the couch whenever I had a free hour. The office was never cluttered with the accouterments of young children or the inevitable accumulation of “stuff.” Every night as I closed the door behind me, I knew I would find the office in the same condition the next day. The familiarity of the space was reassuring to me.

Time for Change

Therapists often admonish clients against “a geographical cure,” but sometimes relocation is the right decision. As I began looking for a new office, I knew I wanted to stay in the same neighborhood. Keeping my phone number and location was important to the stability of my practice. I was fortunate to find, just three city blocks away, an office with large windows and my own waiting room. The ceilings were higher and the building was non-residential. I signed a five-year lease, guaranteeing myself some permanence. I reassured myself that there were important lessons for me, as well as my clients, in this decision.

In the weeks leading up to the move, I was aware of feeling uncharacteristically unsure of myself. Finding a new parking space was challenging and I regularly forgot the code for the bathroom in the building as I checked the progress of the renovations in the new office. When I had the opportunity to meet the psychologist who was leaving the office, he reassured me that “The office has good karma.” He was retiring after 30 years and welcomed the opportunity to bequeath this important space in his life to another psychologist. He shared helpful insights about how the building worked and volunteered to introduce me to fellow therapists on the floor. His clear desire for me to be happy in the office eased some of my doubt about having made the right decision. The fact that he had had a successful practice in that space for thirty years seemed like a good omen.

In the weeks leading up to the move, I was aware of feeling uncharacteristically unsure of myself
It was critical for me to manage my own anxiety about unforeseen consequences of moving so that it would not be detrimental to my clients. Like all therapists, over the years I had weathered personal difficulties while continuing to work. During those times, I relied on a few trusted colleagues to support me. This time, through word of mouth, I sought out other therapists who had moved offices to learn from their experiences. It was enlightening to learn just how complicated most therapists find this decision. We all agreed that our attachment to our office was a by-product of our work. Opinions varied about how far in advance to tell clients about the move and whether or not it was important to bring anything from the old office to the new one. One colleague who had moved due to a fire in her old building, rather than by choice, spoke about how this trauma had been more than some of her clients could bear and consequently they did not follow her to her new office. Another colleague shared that after his move a few of his clients told him how uncomfortable they had found the previous office, something he had not been attuned to. In retrospect, he realized that his own comfort in the space had kept him from recognizing how dilapidated the surrounding neighborhood had become. These conversations, along with my own self-reflection, led me to wonder what was in store for me as I made my own move.

My Clients React

A therapist’s office reveals the personality of the therapist in subtle ways. Although family photos or other highly personal artifacts are typically absent, the color of the walls, the seating, and the artwork are chosen with care to convey safety and comfort. Indirectly, these choices do reveal something of our personalities to our clients. I had redecorated my old office a number of times over the years. Now, as I looked at the new space I was about to occupy, I wondered what to bring with me and what to replace. A complete makeover felt too unsettling. In the end, I decided I would paint the walls the same green I have loved for the past eight years and keep most of my furniture. I added an oak, two-drawer, lateral file cabinet and changed the artwork from Gauguin to Sargent. Having my own waiting room for the first time, I thought about how I wanted to present myself to potential new clients as well as my current caseload. It was exciting to have more control over my space. I doubt I would have felt comfortable in a professional office building at the start of my career, but now I was ready to leave the homey brownstone I was used to.

One long-time client, a woman who had a history of sexual abuse as a child, was very attached to my physical space
A month before my moving date, I informed my clients of the coming change. Relieved to learn I was not retiring, they had varied responses to the news of the relocation of my office. It was revealing to learn how deeply some of them were connected to the physical space, while for others the transition seemed seamless. One client enthusiastically said, “Where are we going?” Some were thrilled the new office would be closer to public transportation. Others talked about how much they loved the tree outside my window, and a few worried whether the new space would feel as comfortable as the one they knew. A couple of clients asked me directly what had led to my making this decision and when I shared my reasons about the noise from above and the general deterioration of the common space each one commented on how my decision to act made them feel cared for.

One long-time client, a woman who had a history of sexual abuse as a child, was very attached to my physical space. She revealed that, during many painful and uncomfortable hours of therapy, she had memorized the order of the books in my bookcase and counted the seashells on my windowsill when eye contact was too penetrating for her to bear. She took time to say goodbye to the office and to reflect on the hard work she had done over the years to voice her deepest fears. Her one request was that I put the books back on the bookshelf in exactly the same order.

Reflecting on the depth of connections with clients past and present reminded me anew of why I love being a therapist
One of the hardest truths for therapists is that we rarely get to hear the end of the story. On moving day I found myself overcome with an array of emotions, as I sat on the floor of my old office boxing up my files. Like long-forgotten photo albums dusted off only during a move, each file brought back the connection I had made with the person whose name it bore. There were some people I had seen for a single visit, but whose stories I had never forgotten. I’d known others for over twenty years. I grieved again the loss of someone’s son and the tragedy of a terminal illness. I calculated the current age of past clients and let myself wonder about them. Had he found love? Did she have children? There were clients for whom I was not a good match, a few who had left in anger. Reflecting on the depth of connections with clients past and present reminded me anew of why I love being a therapist.

Looking Back, Moving On

As I walked from my old office to the new one with boxes of files in my arms, I was aware that these were possessions too precious to leave to the movers. Of course, it is my duty to protect the privacy of my clients, but physically moving these files, my life’s work, over three trips, on my own, to their new home gave me confidence that this was a positive change. In a very real sense I was moving alone, but all the people I had known over the years were coming with me. I was no longer a brand-new therapist, but a seasoned professional eager to continue my work. Suddenly, the journey from my old office to my new one felt less like starting over and more like an affirmation that I was on the right path.

All of my clients chose to follow me which was a relief. I knew the move presented an opportunity for each of them to reflect on their commitment to therapy, and to me, at this point in time. For those where the connection between us felt more tentative, I was not sure if the disruption of the move would tip them toward terminating therapy. Other clients touched me by their vocal appreciation for my presence in their lives. A few even brought me “office warming” gifts and I was reminded that my ability to receive as well as give in my role as a therapist is helpful. I can model change, not just prescribe it. In fact, since the move, two of my clients who were unhappy with their living situations have made moves of their own. Perhaps this is mere coincidence, but I suspect not.

The office doesn’t make the therapist—the therapist makes the office
Change isn’t always for the better, but when it is, it is a great reminder that holding on for too long can be detrimental to growth. Initially, when faced with the need to move, I saw only the potential for loss. In fact, the opposite occurred. I am no longer distracted by unwelcome noise and the new space is beautiful. By listening to my feelings, but still taking action, I enhanced my own capacity to change. Undertaking this move at this stage of my career has reawakened in me the joy I felt starting my own psychotherapy practice so many years ago. The relocation of my office has affirmed for me the value of taking care of oneself. Unconsciously, I was overly attached to my old office and I failed to recognize that change could actually help me thrive. The insights I have gained from this experience will undoubtedly help me both professionally and personally.

Everyone loves the new office, particularly me. But the most important lesson I learned from changing places was summarized best by one my clients, “The office doesn’t make the therapist—the therapist makes the office.” After thirty years of practice, I have more confidence in what I offer my clients and I am looking forward to a vibrant next chapter in my career.

© 2019, LLC
Maggie Mulqueen Maggie Mulqueen, PhD, is a psychologist in Brookline, MA, where she has maintained a private practice for over thirty years. In her clinical work she sees individuals and couples with a focus on deepening self-awareness and building relationships. She is the author of On Our Own Terms: Redefining Competence and Femininity (SUNY Press, 1992). Dr. Mulqueen has published essays in The Boston Globe, AARP Magazine, Psychotherapy Networker, Boston Parents Paper, Brain, Child Magazine and Wellesley/Weston Magazine. She was formerly on the faculty of Lesley University in the Counseling and Psychology Division. Dr. Mulqueen graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1984 where she received the Phi Delta Kappa award for Dissertation of the Year.