I once took an informal survey of clinicians to find out a) where in their office they keep their clocks and b) how they ended their sessions. I found out we are a crafty lot indeed. Clever too.
Some of us keep a big round clock somewhere behind where the client sits, so it can be seen either directly or with peripheral vision at all times. Some of us rely on our wrist watches. Some of us sport large analogues and others digital, depending on our vision. This enables seemingly nonchalant glancing at the time without being too obvious. And some of us try to glance at the watches of our patients if they are wearing one.

Others have clocks that are in the direct line of vision of the patient, and others have a clock (some digital and some analogue) that can be seen easily by both patient and therapist.

Some of us have patients who lie down on the couch, thus giving us carte blanche to not only look at the time as many times as we’d like, but stare at it the whole session. (Not that many of us do that.)
Some of us admit to looking at the clock not just for time keeping, but as an action of sorts. And we might be well served to study why, at any given point in a session, we are prompted to check the time. What feeling are we avoiding? What feeling are we having? What is or is not happening in the session that prompts us to look at the clock? And moreover, do we feel glad if there is a lot of session time remaining, or disappointed?

You are just keeping time, you say.

Not so fast.

I am always interested in what prompts my clients to check the time in session. When they check their watch (or my clock, which is irritatingly difficult for both me and them to see) I ask “too much time left or too little?” Some folks shrug. Others give credence to the question and we explore it a bit. What are they not saying with words that they said by checking the time? (Why have I not, in all my years in practice, gotten a better clock, I don’t yet want to understand.)

And then there’s how we end our sessions. My own analyst simply gets up from her chair. I could be right in the middle of the most amazing insight, the most painful memory, and all the sudden she is lurking somewhere in my peripheral vision. Her clock is not where I can see it, nor do I wear a watch. And I lie down on the couch for my sessions, so if she did not make herself visible in this way, I would just keep talking.

By the way, I dislike this practice. For a while, she switched, at my behest, to saying some version of “well, it’s that time now.” Subtle? Gentle? Not so much. But what are the options? Some of us say, “It’s time to stop.” Or “Our time is up now.” Other possibilities: “We have to stop.” “The session is over.” Or “Time to wrap up for now.” Or “We will have to pick right up with this next time” or “Okay, then,” accompanied by a nod of sorts. Some of us start fidgeting in our chairs, reach for our appointment books, or make an obvious glance at the clock (wherever it happens to be).

One colleague friend of mine who has been practicing for many years tells me that even though she herself does a good bit of clock watching, when she sees her own therapist checking the time she feels wounded. She assumes that her therapist is anxious to end the session and get rid of her. They’ve unpacked it of course, and agree that it’s quite similar to her experiencing her mother as always having been in a hurry to rush off somewhere, leaving her to her own devices. And no matter how her therapist ends the session she always seems to feel a rush of rejection.

I suppose I’m given to wondering how much it matters really. How we keep time and how we close our hours. But I think there is meaning to it. Like everything else we do in session, how we run things can leave a quiet emotional hand print, and it may be good to study it a bit. All in good time of course.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy