We only had one therapy session with Inna. It ended with the bubbly feeling for me of a “perfect fit” that I get when I intuit that good work can be done with a prospective client.

We had the same cultural background and four fluent languages in common. It was the first time I saw such a fit in my therapy room, in fact. Maybe too perfect a fit, as I was to find out later.

Inna shared her experience of displacement, her feeling of not being in the right place anywhere, and her confusion about her multilingual self.

She reached out to me in French, a foreign language for both of us.

- “I am looking for a multilingual therapist”.

Her name (as mine) was telling of her obvious Russian origin, but I respected her choice of language, and replied in French.

My multicultural clients have helped me develop a set of “rabbit ears” for the linguistic choices they make, and I had received precious information here. Inna’s story was echoing those of many second-generation emigrants. She had been brought to Italy at the age of eight, when her mother had remarried. She quickly learned Italian. With her blond hair and typically Slavic cheekbones, she was different from other kids at school, and she knew it. But her perfectly fluent Italian allowed her to fit into this new environment.

The price she paid for that full fluency in a foreign language was a split of her personality. Her multilingual mind would efficiently maintain that split.

After Italy, she studied in France, and had then accepted a teaching position in a British university. Inna was now back to Paris for a short holiday, hoping to recover some of the bits of her self that she had left behind.

She saw English as a tool for professional communication, one for thinking and research. She complained that it seemed difficult to bond with her new colleagues and develop friendships.

In fact, the real language of the other more spontaneous part of her, the language of intimacy, was still Italian.

Inna had tried therapy in French before, but had found it of limited efficiency. Her then-therapist did not speak any other language.

As Inna was a really articulate person, I felt confident to take the risk of using our common mother tongue in the first session:

“Would you like to use Russian then?” I asked.

In therapy, switching back to the first, native, language can become a very strong, emotionally charged act. My clients come to me with the desire to express some of their troubles in this original language, even if often this desire remains unconscious as they reach out in their “other” language.

She accepted the offer to switch to Russian, but her speech was slightly uncertain, as it usually is when we have stopped actively using our mother tongue since childhood.

Inna told me the story of her multiple moves and her professional interests. Even if her new position offered her a good salary and a bright academic future, she felt stuck and somehow absent. Her teaching lacked passion and her relationships with students were limited, she felt. She was unhappy and feared depression.

As I was listening to her story unfold in Russian, I was becoming aware of my own strong feeling of frustration.

I was suddenly tempted to say something in Italian, to connect with her using the words of a language that happens to be, for me as for her, synonymous with choice, freedom and intimacy. Sticking to Russian, I could be overlooking her Italian self, that little girl who had finally found some warmth and security in her new Italian-speaking home.

After all, something similar had been happening to her in England, with these “other” non-English-speaking parts of her not being seen nor welcomed. At least, this is how she felt.

I hoped that with a lot of patience and time we could eventually integrate these scattered parts of her personality, and bring together the sadness of her Russian child, her Italian emotional teenager, and her bright adult who used English for thinking and verbalizing. This integration is always the aim of therapy, but, with multicultural individuals, this road happens to be paved with the mosaics of their linguistic abilities.

Inna has not come back after this initial session, neither has she returned my follow-up email.

Therapy with multilingual individuals is a fascinating challenge. But is it ever possible to access each part of their personalities, which express themselves in a particular language? Or do they remain partially locked within a specific linguistic frame, beyond the language in which therapy develops?

What would have happened if we had used English for Inna’s therapy? She might have felt less exposed. The cognitive shelter of this “neutral” language might have allowed us to go further. English, after all, was exempt from any early traumatic experience here; it could have offered the safe and holding space that is so necessary in therapy.

Keeping silent, Inna swept away all the languages that we shared, leaving a questioning instead, that may actually sound chords that are beyond language itself.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy