I don’t typically assign homework to patients, at least not in the traditional sense. But when patients ask for something to work on during the week, something that would help maintain the momentum they’ve gathered in resolving distress, I suggest they think about our work—to reflect on the themes we’re uncovering and how they apply to their current experiences. I emphasize that while growth starts in session, it is a process that continues after.

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The work of therapy is not limited to 50-minute sessions every week; it’s happening during all that time in between, too—for both patients and therapists. I think about my patients after sessions as well; it is only natural when we’re working persistently, week after week, to understand sources of distress and facilitate change. Some of my own insights about my relationships with patients occur when I’m off the clock. And in the same way I ask patients to make sense of their thoughts, it’s equally important that I do the same.

The Regulars

While picking up the living room the other night, it suddenly occurred to me: my patient earlier in the day had spent the entire session attempting to get my approval in the same indirect way he tried to engage with his mother in the past. Amaan* and I had been working together for almost two years, and a large theme in our work has been recognizing his mother’s limited capacity for offering emotional support and the impact this has had on his efforts in current relationships. Amaan has made great progress in integrating his experiences of his mother, coming to terms with what she may never be able to give him; I realized suddenly that he was trying to cast me in that now-vacant role. In session, he had listed the areas in which he felt he had grown, the insights he had fostered about himself, and the clarity with which he felt he could move forward. I actually agreed entirely with him, but there was something about the way he expected me to corroborate his own opinions, as though anything but clear agreement on my part would undermine all his progress.

I thought about why this did not occur to me during session; after all, this is someone I’ve come to know very well, and was part of a conversation related to the exact theme we’ve been identifying for quite some time. I’ve gathered that at times, my patients’ ways of relating directly complement my own—I enjoy validating their experiences and highlighting progress we’ve made together. Recognizing Amaan’s progress would also mean an opportunity in recognizing my own as his therapist, but I have to remind myself this is not about my own ego. With this discovery, I can return to future sessions with even more awareness of what Amaan is attempting to reconstruct in our relationship and identify his efforts in real time. More importantly, I can encourage him to take faith in his own progress as he recognizes it, not through me.

Realizing blind spots are not the only reasons I find myself thinking about patients, though. Sometimes I find myself thinking about them out of genuine care, concern, and curiosity for what they are going through. Did their husband take the news well? They were grappling with whether to call their mom—what did they decide? Did our session help provide any clarity? When I find myself wanting to know more, I think about what this says of the patient more than it says of me. Perhaps the patient’s general motivation is to keep others engaged by employing a “stay tuned” attitude—and it certainly works. Maybe it is unlike a patient to attract this much concern, which is even more telling of the gravity of their distress.

Other times, a patient stays with me in a gnawing way, long after the session is over. I wonder if they’re feeling it, too. This feeling lingers after sessions where it felt like a patient was not feeling something enough. These moments feel like a dramatic irony, in which I see the whole story but they’re not yet ready to. Depending on the patient, I may use these thoughts to motivate an intervention—point out distorted thinking or question their assumptions. But if it feels so strong, I may realize that this patient needs me to hold on to the feelings they cannot yet own until they are fully capable of doing so. And that guides our work—preparing them for a realization instead of directly handing them one.

The Absentees

What about the patients who regularly cancel or forget? The patients who are ambivalent about therapy, saying that they really want to be here, but their attendance say otherwise. How is it that the patients we see less often seem to take up the most space in our minds? I’ve gathered that they use their absence to communicate something to me—to shake things up, to make me feel more toward them, to get me more engaged, only for them to walk away. When patients cancel repeatedly, or even no-show, I’ve learned that rather than take feelings toward them at face value, it’s more beneficial to use these feelings as a cue to their ambivalence about treatment.

Melanie* is a newer patient of mine, unknown to therapy in the past. In session she would often say she wasn’t sure if therapy would be helpful and was confused as to why she was here in the first place. After her initial distress regarding her relationship with her father had subsided, she grappled with how to use the space, minimized other stressors, and looked to me for direction. Her anxiety about being in therapy but not knowing how to make use of the time likely explains her frequent cancellations without request to reschedule.

Initially, I offered to reschedule and was usually met with the impossibility of doing so. Over time, I began to feel resentful of the way in which she treated our relationship and disappointed in being more interested in her experience than she was. These feelings stayed with me, and I wondered for a while how to make sense of them. Why did I seem to care more than she did? I remembered how she had a “one foot in, one foot out” attitude at the start of most sessions but eventually warmed up after a few minutes. Her ambivalence made sense all of a sudden—she needed validation for the pain she felt so deeply before being able to commit to the space and herself.

The Graduates

And then there are the patients I’ve worked with in the past. I wonder so often how they are doing—if they ever married that guy we spent so many sessions talking about, if they ever found what they were looking for that we could not seem to find together, if they think about the relationship we shared at all. For some time in both our lives, we were constants for each other. For as much as I was a part of their lives, they were a part of mine. Therapeutic relationships coming to an end means coming to terms with possibly never hearing from our patients again. But I still let myself wonder how they’re doing. When I think of these patients, I am reminded of what seemed to be most helpful, what wasn’t, what they learned, and what I did. I think about how much I’ve grown and changed because of every relationship I have had with a patient and how to make meaning of this growth for myself and other patients.

From time to time, I have run into some previous patients. Pauline* stands out to me, since I ran into her at a time when I was going through some personal life transitions and was caught off guard in seeing her. But in the few minutes we spoke, she shared that she had made many steps forward in ways we hadn’t even spoken about but in ways she was very proud of. And I was so proud of her, too. I remember when our work ended, I wondered if I could have done more to foster more insight and self-compassion. She had not accomplished her goals in the ways she intended at the start and our work had to end abruptly. In running into her, I learned that even if our relationship ended, the work continued. She too was changed because of it, and it continued to impact her motivation to take steps toward herself.


Patients wonder if we think about them just as they are thinking about us. When I tell patients that I think of them or disclose that something they said has stayed with me since the last session, I can detect both surprise that they are remembered and relief for finally being seen. We want our patients to make meaning of therapy and take in the work. I think that when they realize we’ve internalized them, they’ll finally do the same.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections