There’s a scene in every movie about A.I. where the computer or android or RoboCop develops its sentience, and I’ve come to discover that in therapy, many of my clients play out a similar type of dramatic realization. But rather than discover their own consciousness, I watch them become curious about my other clients.
Sometimes in these scenes, they’ll broach the subject directly, asking, “what other types of clients do you see?” or, “Have you ever seen someone go through this before?” Others, take a similar, yet more less nuanced approach to their curiosity. One young lady, for example, practically insisted that I tell her an anecdote about my “craziest client.” I don’t remember how exactly I wrested myself from her inquisition, but I managed to eventually break free, having left intact the privacy of my other clients.
Her question and this genre of inquiry highlights a curious lens for viewing one’s experience in relationship to others. Just how do others experience therapy? Where are the benefits, and likewise, the pitfalls in comparing one’s suffering relative to that of others? And what of the strange concept that each therapy relationship is different, but one half of that relationship, (me) remains constant across many clients?
The question for me then is: What is the significance of this curiosity, and how can it be used effectively in my practice?
I’ve already hinted at two of the forms that I’ve that I’ve seen client-client (or client-others) recognition tend to fall into.
The first is the, for lack of a better term, a voyeuristic type, as demonstrated as the young lady I mentioned previously. These thoughts share an origin with our instinct to people-watch, and to be curious about strange behaviors and appearances. We’ve all done this. On the city bus, in airports, at Walmart, and pertinent to my work, in waiting rooms. This often plays out when I greet or bid someone farewell in my agency’s waiting room. Collective fascination manifests in people’s faces when they tilt their heads from their phones to see who I’ve been working with, and who’s next. It’s the Tony Soprano waiting-room curiosity. My clients give one another a sort of ocular pat-down, wondering the classic thought, “what the heck is wrong with that person?” But the phrase “that person,” is indicative of the lack of depth of this form of thinking about other clients. It’s focused on the other person as a disconnected entity, with little relation to one’s self other than the coincidental. It yields little insight, and little self-reflection.
I find the second type find more fascinating and useful from a therapeutic perspective. Some clients ask me questions or express thoughts about what other people do in their situations, comparing wounds, and comparing healing. Often, they make it a point to relieve, or more likely temper their own suffering by acknowledging that others have it worse. I’m sure that my own statements and reflections to them occasionally prompt this type of thinking. A large part of my counseling is validation and normalization of extreme emotions and reactions to stressors in my clients’ lives. Thus, the emphasis is on thinking about how others experience similar stressors, and subsequently the relief they obtain through various coping mechanisms.
One of my most severely destabilized clients found his focus on others’ suffering to be a crucial starting point in an offensive against his own depression. One day, in the midst of therapy, when he could hardly speak without sobbing, he said, “I was walking out of here the other day and thought to myself, ‘That dude works with rape victims; there are people who have it worse than me.’” I did not tell him that I, in fact, had not yet worked with disclosed rape victims. But instead, I inquired about what he felt that his sense of empathy for others, even in the midst of deep personal suffering, meant to him. We took this moment and reflected on the importance of validation of one’s own experiences, and the separate, but equally important act of gaining perspective. His is a success story, because he used this moment to ground himself, and went on to develop more nuanced and tailored coping skills as a result. This initial sense of people going through experiences outside of one’s own broke through the fog and allowed us a jumping off point in therapy.
My goal is to become proficient both at recognizing, and capitalizing on these initial sparks of empathy experienced by my clients during moments when empathy is hardest to come by. Recognizing the suffering of others while simultaneously feeling as if the world is bearing down upon you is an unbelievable feat of human resilience. I want to empower clients to recognize and harness that strength and bend it to their will, allowing it to be a weapon against their own suffering.