Every therapist has been there. You’re sitting in your office with a client who’s stirring up all your feelings of inadequacy. Maybe they glare at you, or just focus on a spot on the floor, making no eye contact whatsoever. At best, they sit politely, enduring the hour—week after week after week. You’ve already tried joining with these clients, encouraging them to make friends with their scary feelings, and exploring what they most want in their lives. They just shrug, repeat their presenting complaint, or click their tongues in annoyance.
You’re frustrated that you can’t seem to help them, of course. But since you’re human, you’re probably experiencing a few other, less professional responses. Like anger. Maybe dislike. Definitely self-doubt. And a creeping hopelessness.
In the forthright personal stories that follow, five therapists grapple with this very dilemma: a clinical situation when they felt of no use and had no clue what to do next, except possibly to run shrieking from their offices. Originally meant to be performed at the in-person Symposium (canceled due to coronavirus), the stories recreate these up-against-the-wall moments, as well as the creativity and courage these clinicians summon to try to bust through that wall—in the process sometimes bending hallowed therapeutic conventions.
When we peek through the doorway, we witness a kind of high-wire therapy, with clinicians leaping into unknown territory in order to show up as someone a wary client might trust. And, as clients begin to share more of themselves, however haltingly, something begins to shift for these therapists too. Both in and out of the office, they become readier to act on their own best instincts, even when those intuitions collide with accepted wisdom.
This doesn’t mean flouting best practices or ethical standards. Instead, it’s about attending to those inspired flashes when it becomes clear that a client might benefit from departing from the usual clinical playbook. It’s a kind of therapeutic improv, grounded in caring and insight. At its best, it offers a chance for both the client and the therapist to discover a way to become more fully themselves.
ILLUSTRATION BY ADAM NIKLEWICZ