I find my thoughts, again meandering to what it is to love. This time, in the context of the client/therapist relationship. As a family therapist, and someone who truly loves what I do, I often tell people, “I love my clients.” And, given the circumstances of the setting and relationship, it is hard to do anything else. A client humbly comes to me, seeking safe space, patient listening, a little bit of guidance, a little bit of reassurance, a place of solace for their grief, sadness, anxiety, fears, and any number of their other emotional intensities. My contract with a client is to give them the space they need, on their terms. They owe me nothing in return emotionally. In exchange for that manner of one way giving, there is monetary remuneration, and an expectation that my professional training equips me to take care of myself and to not need my clients’ emotional support. It is sometimes confusing to clients because, despite the imbalance of the relationship, and the clear understanding that the sessions will only be about the client, inevitably there will be a degree of mutual affection that develops in the client/therapist relationship. A developed fondness between client and therapist is not essential, but it can be a good thing, and can also be quite useful, a fortunate and common bonus.
The impulse to write about this comes from a bad experience that I had as a client. A massage therapist I went to approached the space in the massage room very differently from how I do when I see clients. As opposed to family therapy, when I see massage clients, though I may speak to them, and engage in conversation if that is what they seem to need and want, conversation is not essential during a massage session, and sometimes it even feels distracting. This therapist however, initiated conversation during sessions with me. I was a little confused as he became chatty, friendly, engaged in conversation about both himself, and me. Despite my training, despite my very clear understanding of how I conduct myself as a therapist and clinician, and because of my desire to receive a very good deep massage, and my desire to truly allow myself to be the client, something that I do not get to do very often, I continued to see this therapist for massage, deciding to presume that he knew what he was doing, and was in control of himself and the situation. I allowed myself to continue receiving massages from him for a period of 3-4 months. At the point when I stopped going to him, it felt appropriate and necessary even, to have a conversation with him about some of the confusion that I felt in the “therapeutic space” of his office. My desire to clarify, understand, clean up what seemed to be confusing not only for me, but for him as well, lead me down a road that is not at all what I had hoped for, or expected.
My attempts to contact and converse with this therapist were met with some combination of being ignored and refused, and eventually a meeting that he begrudgingly allowed. We met at a small coffee shop, where he paid for my drink, sat down with me, and then proceeded to publicly humiliate me by loudly rebuking me, and then walking out on me. Needless to say, as this scene unfolded I realized I had entrusted myself to someone who I should not have trusted, despite his technical skills, and despite my urgent desire to be a client.
Why do I tell this story in the context of my musings on “love”? Because of my deep frustration with the poor outcome of how this has unfolded, and continues, more than a year later to have no satisfactory resolution. After the shocking encounter in the coffee shop, I did get some small satisfaction. He indicated to me that he understood how out of line he had been. He apologized and demonstrated that he had gotten professional help for himself, at which point I let the matter drop without taking any action against him. After all, what action would there be to take? He had not done anything physically or sexually inappropriate. What he did do however was to betray the client/therapist relationship.
I have discovered in the time since this unfortunate incident that I am not the only client to have been betrayed by this “professional”. I have tried to engage the conversation with him again, and again I am being met with slammed doors, and a refusal of any contact. As I find myself at the client’s end of a bad relationship with a professional, I find myself observing and questioning myself. What is it about this that is so terribly disturbing? So he is a bad therapist, why is it so hard to just let this go and be done with it? This is where I find myself again realizing the impact and importance of what it is to truly love my clients.
I don’t always like all of my clients, but I always love them. What does that mean? First and foremost it means that they are given the respect to be allowed to be cared for as a client. It presumes that their intent in coming to see me is to be offered nurturance and the possibility of healing through a modality in which I am professionally trained. The mere fact of my professional training does not necessarily mean that I come to these relationships open and ready to love anyone who steps through my doors. I do not find myself expressing out loud my love for them either. However, the nature of the fields I have chosen presumes that what is being offered will include nurturance and some level of healing. With the inadequacy of language, “Love” is the best way to describe what motivates me to be able to offer myself to my clients openly, without judgment, and with curiosity, caring, and concern. This is not what I was feeling from the massage therapist who needed to close off conversation from or with me. At this point, it became evident that he was taking care of his wounded self at the expense of the outcome that choice might provide for me.
Clearly, what feels so bad about what has evolved in this particular client/therapist relationship gone sour is the denial of communication. If the client is confused, and the therapist refuses to offer clarity and communication, yells at the client, denies contact, blames the client, and in multiple ways gives signals to the client that are rejecting, then what should have been a therapeutic relationship has now become hostile, harming, and hurtful. It is my experience that clients come for both talk therapy and massage therapy, because of a desire and a longing to be cared for and yes, loved. Loved; safely in an uncommitted neutral relationship, by a professional who is wise enough to be able to separate him or herself from his or her clients. The abandonment that occurs when a confused “professional” brings the conversation to an end is inexcusable, selfish, and unprofessional. What I have gained from this experience is an understanding of just how profound the simple difference can become between allowing and not allowing conversation. The difference between an offering of love, or an infliction of another wounded layer.