In the predominantly white suburb where I spent most of my childhood, I never felt I fit in. Both my parents were Caribbean immigrants, and I was the only person of color in my class until the eighth grade. Also, I skipped a grade, so in addition to not wearing cool clothes and wanting to be a mutant in the X-Men when all my peers wanted to be princesses, I was younger than everyone else. A feeling of otherness nagged me wherever I went.
Once the bullying started, I learned to avoid trouble by becoming adaptable and hyper-agreeable. If I could’ve chosen one mutant power at the time, it would’ve been shapeshifting. I became an expert at changing my demeanor so I could always belong. My ambition in life was to be the human version of my favorite dessert: vanilla ice cream—sweet, likeable, and inoffensive. Two scoops of vanilla goes with almost everything.
When I became a therapist, I made shapeshifting the hallmark of my approach. I even discovered there was a professional term for it: therapeutic neutrality. Using objectivity and impartiality as clinical tools made perfect sense to me; I was already using them as social strategies.
A classic overachiever, I worked therapeutic neutrality into every nook and cranny of my practice. I wore all black, or gray, or navy blue. My office had lots of plants and generic images of nature. My in-session voice was soft and smooth, like I was auditioning to be a DJ on jazz radio. I shapeshifted so much that people couldn’t even guess my age! I existed somewhere between having been old enough to have seen Cheers on television, but young enough to know about the importance of a Snapchat streak. In the comfort of my neutral office, for the first time, I felt completely safe and at home.
I met my client Kristin during the first year of my clinical internship. She was explosive, guarded, and incredibly frustrated that at every turn people seemed to abandon and disappoint her. A single mom to three boys with behavioral challenges, she described her problem as “everyone is terrible and I just want some peace.” Unfortunately, chaos followed wherever she went. She was skeptical about therapy, but since I wasn’t “pushy like everyone else,” she continued to show up week after week to see if I could help her.
She didn’t make it easy. At work, Kristin was on probation for arguments with her manager, her kids were throwing daily tantrums, she ghosted or cursed out every man she dated, and she was furious that her mom and sisters kept falling through on their commitments to support her. Being green and anxious, I jumped into problem-solving mode every time. To prepare for our sessions, I’d gather all the relevant materials I could, reading and highlighting articles, practicing techniques to connect with her.
Trying to be the good therapist, I’d focus on the emotional undercurrents of her crisis of the week—the interpersonal dynamics, the family stories, the intimacy dances—but in the face of her high drama, the best I could do was offer her my neutral, agreeable self and endless discussions that mostly led nowhere.
There was the time her employer asked to borrow $1,500 to balance an account, and then relocated to another office out of state without paying her back. And the time her son’s daycare called the police when no one came to pick him up after he’d bitten another child: her mother had agreed to do it, but went to a movie instead. And the time she got an emergency call from her older sister in the middle of our therapy session. Without asking, she’d taken Kristin’s car from my office parking lot to drive to the mall, where she’d hit a concrete barrier and stranded herself.
Impulsive and retaliatory, in each situation, Kristin’s usual response was to curse and shout and plan some counterproductive revenge—like when she sold her car to spite her sister, but then no longer had a reliable means of transportation.
As she’d recount the incident of the week, I’d remain calm and wait her out. When her huff and puffs wore off, she’d be tearful about never getting what she needed from the people who needed her. Committed to her tough, impenetrable exterior, she refused to risk letting anybody in emotionally, then complained bitterly about always feeling alone. Not surprisingly, our therapy never made much progress. As soon as her anger subsided, so did her willingness to talk. If I urged her to explore her role in the tumult of her life, she’d gather up her things and find a reason to leave the office.
I wasn’t sure how to help her, other than to make sure I didn’t further rock her boat. My neutrality slipped more and more into plodding passivity. Nevertheless, week after week, Kristin would return for another two scoops of vanilla therapy.
By the end of the first year, Kristin and I had laid out all the main patterns of her fraught relationships with friends and family. Again and again, she’d find herself giving too much and then feeling resentful when people didn’t extend themselves for her. As we followed this pattern into her romantic life, Kristin was no longer satisfied with having a safe space to vent.
She was ready for a real romantic partnership, and as she started to recognize the impact of her avoidant strategies, she became desperate to change them. She began to ask for my advice and pushed me to say what I’d do if I were her in situation. Seeing these requests as unhelpful distractions from the real business of therapy, I skirted them with responses like, “This isn’t about me; it’s about you.” But my vanilla neutrality wasn’t cutting it for her anymore. She started accusing me of silently judging her from my ivory tower, and the more reassuring and accepting I tried to be, the more alienated she felt. I realized I needed to do something to shift our increasingly stilted conversations.
“I’d like to give you some homework,” I told her one day. “Make a list of what you want out of a relationship. How do you want to feel? What do you want your partner to do to help you feel those ways? Write it all down and we’ll talk more about it next week.”
In a rare moment of amenability, Kristin agreed, but at the last minute, she canceled our next session with a vague voicemail message about not being able to make it. When I called to follow up, she never called back—which was unusual. I concluded that I must’ve offended her or pushed her too hard. Discouraged, I began preparing myself for what I thought would be an inevitable termination.
The following week, my office buzzer rang right at our regularly scheduled time, and Kristin bounced into the room with an energy I’d never seen from her before. Unusually peppy and engaged, she caught me up on the last two weeks. I held back, worried that inserting myself too much would burst her bubble. Then, in the final minutes of session, she paused in the middle of a story about a rude coworker and said, “Oh, I did the homework you gave me.”
“Yes. It took me hours, but it was really helpful.” Great! I asked her to tell me more about what she got from the assignment. “Well, in doing it, I suddenly saw my patterns so clearly. You were right, I don’t ask for things. Then, as I made my list, I got really clear on what I wanted in a relationship, and I realized I already know that person! So I called him up and we got married!” She stretched out her left hand to show me a newly tattooed ring finger.
I was speechless.
“Bobby and I almost dated in high school,” she continued, “but it never really clicked. We kept in touch, though, and when I called to tell him about my homework, he decided to make his own list. We met up for drinks later, and you know what? We realized we have a lot of the same values! So I did what you said and told him what I wanted. And he said yes! So the next day I called an elder at the church and we got married!”
I racked my brain for a centered, therapeutic response, but none came. Instead, when I opened my mouth, I was overcome with a surge of wonder and disbelief. “You got married for homework?!” With these words my neutral exterior cracked wide open and gave way to a fit of laughter. But not just a few giggles, I’m talking full-throated, eyes-watering, gasping-for-air, hysterical laughter. I’d blown it for sure. I couldn’t believe I’d let out such a big, uncontrolled reaction. In a split second, I’d gone from neutral to incredibly rude.
When I finally caught my breath and wiped the tears from my eyes, I was relieved to see that Kristin was quietly chuckling. “You know, this is the only time I’ve ever seen you react to anything,” she said. “I must have really done it this time, huh?”
I was embarrassed. “Yes. I’m sorry for laughing. I was just . . . surprised.”
As she walked toward the waiting room to leave, Kristin announced playfully, in a tone of mock astonishment, “I think I broke my therapist today!”
The joke stuck with me: broke my therapist. How different it felt to voice my astonishment in the therapy room so authentically, voice cracking and tears dripping down my face. The more I thought about it, the more I realized Kristin was right. Something had broken open in me in that moment, and with it my carefully organized take on my myself and my world. All the familiar givens in my life began to look different.
Rather than homey, my apartment suddenly felt boring and confining. Even when close friends invited me out, I no longer felt like myself. My clinical work no longer energized me, and I had a hard time presenting cases to my supervisor. My life didn’t feel like mine, and the neutrality that had once felt like the scaffolding for my identity now felt like it was swallowing me whole. In the weeks following my laughing fit, I felt more and more stifled by the safe, orderly life I’d designed.
Kristin, however, became softer, lighter, more vulnerable. She continued to ask questions of me that required self-disclosure, but with more thoughtfulness and genuine curiosity. I took off my blazer and relaxed into my seat as we worked. I discovered how it felt to be looser and more playful in the therapy room. We told jokes, and talked about scenes from TV shows, and she showed me pictures of her kids.
As the months went by, Kristin began to make more requests of others. She asked her couples’ therapist for homework to help her and Bobby work through the problems in their new relationship, and she took the initiative to find more services for her children. Her boundaries with her family became clearer, and by the end of that year she’d moved into a quiet neighborhood away from her mom and sisters, where she found a better-paying job and a well-resourced school for her kids.
The week of her move, I bought a hot-pink power suit. When I wore it to the office, the clients and receptionists who saw me that day all asked if I was alright—then every one of them complimented me on the outfit. I went on to bring more color and life to the rest of my professional wardrobe, and then the furniture in my apartment. I wanted the things around me to feel like . . . me.
As I slowly shed my vanilla exterior, my demeanor changed. I spoke without filtering or censoring my quirkiness. I more openly voiced my opinions, even the unpopular ones, with colleagues and clients. As color reentered my world, I could see how my desire for neutrality had been covering up my fear of being vulnerable. I’d been struggling with Kristin in the same ways I’d been struggling with the hunger for spontaneity and risk inside myself, tamping it down with my determination to never rock the boat. It had worked well enough to make me feel safe, but at the cost of flattening my spirit. I was missing the organic wildness of life. Kristin taught me that.
Of course, that didn’t mean she’d found her own happily ever after. Despite the supposed shared values that brought them together, she and Bobby had tons of conflict. As things in the rest of her life settled down, their screaming matches kept escalating. Things came to a head one day when she discovered the secret he’d been hiding: he was already married! And with that their relationship ended.
Shortly after her separation, her finances changed, making it impossible for us to continue our work. But Kristin was in a very different place at that point—and so was I.
In fact, when I started working with Tim, the client who filled Kristin’s Wednesday afternoon spot in my schedule, I felt like a different therapist. After a bad experience with LSD, Tim, who had autism, often worried that he was a character in someone else’s video game. We spent whole sessions exploring esoteric concepts like death, autonomy, and destiny, but we had fun doing it! We laughed and exchanged books, and sat outside on days when being in the sun seemed like the best therapy. Sometimes we’d sit cross-legged on the floor next to each other and do a crossword puzzle, while talking about aliens and the possibility of alternate realities. I showed up as myself, and found that in doing so, I could meet my client where he was without diluting my presence through the filter of neutrality.
I’m thankful to Kristin for “breaking” me that day. Sure, it requires a lot more vulnerability, but it’s exciting to discover that there are so many more flavors in life and in therapy than vanilla.
ILLUSTRATION BY ADAM NIKLEWICZ
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