Calisthenics in Front of the Fun House Mirror By Catherine Ambrose, LCSW on 9/19/13 - 12:52 PM

Sometimes my days bring to mind a funhouse mirror. I stretch, collapse, widen, or shrink depending on the clinical demands of the moment, fundamentally changing and fundamentally remaining the same, moment to moment and hour to hour.

Yesterday in my first session of the evening I was speaking with a young woman about the reasons for her recent spotty attendance. I fielded an interpretation that I know in every molecule of my being is correct, that she is trying to convince me of her essential badness and test if I will give up on her. She looked me dead in the eye and said “that is probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.” I had to laugh. I can’t in all honesty say I delight in being called stupid, but I do enjoy her feistiness. And I know I have spoken to a part of her, a part she thinks is stupid and vulnerable and wrong: she will show up next week.

In my next session, a client is debating having an extended family session that would include several out-of-town siblings, including a brother who happens to be a psychiatrist. I’m a little excited and more than a little intimidated by the prospect of this highly trained and reportedly difficult fellow professional in the session. My client is talking about who she would like to have present in the session, and I am feeling uncomfortable because I don’t know the answer. Partly I just don’t know, partly my own anticipatory anxieties are getting in the way, and partly I am feeling her anxiety. I feel myself stalling out, but then remember with a sense of relief that I don’t have to know the answer. How is it possible to forget this so many times? We explore her feelings, and the answer reveals itself.

The next session I’m feeling a bit tired, and I don’t know if it is because of the couple I’m about to see, or the time of day. Normally, it would be dinner time, and a handful of almonds and an apple weren’t the dinner my body had in mind. My body clock and the darkness outside are telling me it is time to settle in at home. So I’m not sure if it is my tiredness or my sense of the emptiness between these two, the complete absence of anything that to me feels like love, only the graying embers of duty and convenience, that makes me say “you are trying to live in a house without a roof.” He is sad, she is angry. They leave my office no closer than before. I feel like a dejected salesperson with a useless little pile of tools and skills they don’t want to buy.

I have a second wind for my final client, thankfully, because she is ferociously smart, and not a bit hesitant to call me out on any foolishness, inaccuracy, or inattention. I worry sometimes that the sheer intellectual pleasure of a conversation with her can be a distraction for me, diverting me from the emotional issues that she needs help with. Tonight we talk about lies, and the truth in lies. It is a conversation that seems to twist and skitter with a life of its own; I feel like we are both following this path together, uncertain of its destination. These are the sessions I like the best, when I feel fully engaged as both participant and observer.

By the end of the night, I feel good. It was a satisfying night; I feel like I did my work well. But I’m tired. Really tired. I think to myself, how can it be so tiring, just talking to people? Then I consider: in these four sessions I felt foolish, anxious, sad, excited, inadequate, engaged, uneasy, tired, impatient, admiring, relieved—and that’s just for starters. I have been stretched and twisted and pulled in many different directions. I have had my own feelings, I have had feelings in response to another’s, I have felt the feelings of others. I have seen myself reflected back in many shapes and forms: stupid and clumsy, idealized, frustrating and dangerous, for a beginning but by no means complete list. Odds are I haven’t identified or sorted half of the feelings or realities that have floated through my little office tonight. Four hours of emotional calisthenics in front of a fun house mirror. Oh right, that’s why I’m tired.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, A Day in the Life of a Therapist