Freud is said to have quipped, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” A therapist’s office, however, is never just an office. Like a high-stakes blind date, the first steps into it are fraught with curiosity and vulnerability. Before you’ve looked long and straight at each other, before either of you have uttered a word, your relationship has been inaugurated by your office.
These physical spaces are the venues to which people carry the greatest burdens of their lives, and with relatively little information about us before that first session, clients look to these extensions of us to establish some early framework. In short order, they sense the chasm of difference between this room and the many others in their lives. The norms—four walls, windows, furniture, art—become dramatically different as we shed the small talk, the politeness, the pretense.
These spaces are sanctuaries that encircle client and therapist in their unique collaboration. They’re places of continuity, where joys and agonies are kept safe from week to week. They’re arenas, in which the quest for transformation can feel like a head-to-head, full-contact sport. They’re repositories, where internal eruptions are welcomed and contained. They’re laboratories, where we try on new ways of thinking—and feeling and being—where our experiments lead us back and forth to the drawing board as we try to negotiate the intricate permutations and combinations of change. They’re launchpads, where people settle in to share, feel, remember, hope, and join another person in what could be the intimate ride of a lifetime.
Offices don’t make people well, but they extend the invitation. They provide a comforting consistency in the midst of hard, often unsettling, disorienting work. Even though we may lease that space, just as clients lease us their space for an hour a week, it’s an agreement that provides an essential context for all our therapeutic journeys, ensuring that a therapist’s office—no matter what it looks like—will absolutely never be “just an office.”
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I began my experience as a therapist in rooms barely nicer than a garage. For seven years of training, through graduate school, externships, internships, and even a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship, these settings provided a certain rite of passage, though I was too anxious to see it that way at first. Grateful for the simple fact that my clients didn’t run screaming from my fumbling attempts to help them, I hardly noticed my environs at all.
But as time passed, and I began to register my surroundings, I started to wonder if I’d be better off working in the ladies’ room. Each of the spaces where I was asked to see clients must have been painted with a color specifically labeled “nondescript.”
The chairs felt like they were stuffed with straw and covered with colored burlap. They usually had fake-chrome armrests, never quite proportioned to provide support, and legs that left people barely touching the floor, or folding their feet in discomfort. Sometimes one chair leg was a bit shorter than the others, reminding me of the common police tactic of keeping suspects off balance to increase their anxiety and prompt confessions. Not exactly the goal of psychotherapy.
The desks were battleship gray and looked like they’d been donated by some defunct government program. One step up was the brown, faux-wood desk that always had a piece of laminate falling off the corners, despite multiple layers of tape applied to hold it in place. The floors were usually covered with the indoor/outdoor gray carpeting you might find in dark, dank basements, or if you were lucky, generic white tiles, whose black streaks were either part of the design or the result of long-term shoe abuse.
But it was always the ceilings that got me: whitish insulation tiles dotted with hundreds of holes and always with at least one large amorphous yellow stain. In the midst of sessions, I sometimes found myself wondering what had happened above me. A liter of spilled soda, or some terrible malfeasance, perhaps?
Every single one of these rooms screamed “This woman is not a real therapist!” which only reinforced my own doubts on the subject.
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When I finally flew the nest of my training, I faced the prospect of arranging a work space of my own. I wanted to create an office that would represent myself as an inviting, empathic, monumentally helpful, and stylish therapist. I wanted to offer a place for clients to work in comfort, in safety, and with hope and energy. But creating such a place turned out to be more challenging than I’d imagined in my seven years of Design Siberia.
I’d always been a bit of a slob, after all: disorganized, indifferent about fashion, and careless with myself and my belongings. Matching and coordinating anything approached a level of disability for me. Chaos always trumped order. I thought Martha Stewart was a hack, and all those books and magazines about decorating and design were a waste of trees. Needless to say, I was rarely complimented on the stylishness of my house or my person.
So whom exactly did I want my clients to see? Like my clothes or my haircut, everything I chose said something about me—not only as a therapist, but as a person. Except I could project anything I wanted on the tabula rasa of the naked room just waiting for me to claim it. It dawned on me that I wasn’t just signing a lease: I was signing up for the opportunity to give myself a complete personal do-over. For eight to 12 hours a day, I could work in a space that represented New Me, or maybe even Better Me. Forget my clients, this was my chance to change! I’d take charge and do it perfectly. Every single thing in that office, I decided, would be chosen with reverential attention to what it would add to my therapeutic and personal mission.
I covered the floor with a plush, dusky-blue carpet that looked incredible with the matching gray leather chairs, which could move around and were designed to keep people comfortable, but not so much so that they dropped off to sleep during sessions. Four large cabinets were deep enough to store all the toys I had for my youngest clients. I lined each shelf carefully with many books, although I confess that I did so on the basis of color and size, not on ever having read them. There were floor-to-ceiling windows, and a sexy desk (if that’s even possible) graced the back wall.
I’d heard that a good office should contain some life-affirming bit of nature, like a plant or a goldfish. However, since neither plants nor fish would survive a week of my care, I ignored that advice. I didn’t want to communicate that, “Yeah, my plant might be withering to dust, but I can certainly help you thrive.” I filled the room with sculpture and pottery instead. I even found a local woodworker who’d hand-carved Noah’s Ark, replete with 14 pairs of hand-painted animals. They were the jewel in the crown of my office—and they got their own shelf. Laying them out for the first time was close to a religious experience. Each animal approached the ark perfectly paired and in order of ascending size.
It took a few stores before I found Kleenex to match my carpet, but I was undeterred. I was almost someone else. Except when my nine-year-old saw the office right before I opened for business, her reaction distressed and confused me. “It’s so cool and beautiful! It’s almost perfect!” she squealed. “Mom, are you sure this is yours?” My husband said dismissively that he gave it a month before it totally looked like mine.
They didn’t know New Office Me yet, but I vowed they would. And so would my clients. In the almost perfect office, they’d reach toward the same transcendence in their own lives that I did in the office. Like slipping into a superhero’s cape, when I’d slip into my office, I’d convey a silent but awesome message: if I can change, so can you.
Appointments were made. People actually called and filled my schedule. They seemed to like my office. The kids frequently asked if I lived there, and when I said I didn’t, they told me I should. Noah’s Ark was a hit. Adults would sometimes hold an animal or absentmindedly shift the zebras around as they spoke. Kids would pull the whole thing off the shelf and create cosmic wars between the animals that often made me anxious.
At the end of every single day of work, I put everything back in place and reestablished order. I made everything whole. The very last thing I attended to before walking out the door was always my man Noah. I placed each of his animals back in the same order, every time. It made me calm and pleased with the self who could pull this off. As I went to leave, I always whispered a few lines from Madeline, Ludwig Bemelmans’s childhood classic: “‘Good night, little girls! / Thank the lord you are well! / And now go to sleep!’ / said Miss Clavel. / And she turned out the light— / and closed the door— / and that’s all there is— / there isn’t any more.’”
Then each night, I’d cross the parking lot, open my car door, and invariably a half-eaten McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish or other fast-food product would fall at my feet. The car smelled like bad french fries and old sneakers. The backseat was littered with empty Coke cans, overdue library books, and clothes that were way overdue for the cleaners. Each night, the spell was broken, and Princess Cinderella was once again the dusty girl in ashes. I was a fraud.
Mega Good Therapist lost every time to False Advertising Girl, as the latter would stop at 7-Eleven and eat a whole pint of Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk ice cream for dinner, right in the store parking lot. She was the one who only belatedly remembered the cupcakes promised for the next day’s school bake sale and, at that point, could only find ones with nauseatingly colored frosting that was sure to embarrass her daughter. She was the one who said “screw it” to the mounting pile of dirty laundry too many times.
My wonderful office was, in the words of Bruce Springsteen, a “brilliant disguise.”
But over time, a rapprochement developed between the dueling idealized Office Me and Total Slob Me. I allowed the order and beauty of the office to influence the mismatch between it and me. I changed my wardrobe of old graduate-school and tired-mother clothes to more professional choices I felt comfortable in. I traded in all my rubber-soled shoes for some real grownup leather flats. I even cut my long hair, allowing my hairdresser brother to throw in a few blonde highlights and some well-placed layers. I wasn’t perfect, but I looked a hell of a lot better and fit more assuredly with my space.
Conversely, I took my office down a few notches. If a Coke can was on my desk for more than a day, who cared? If the only Kleenex box I could find had Mickey Mouse on it, there was no way was I going to another store to find one that matched the rug. Office Me and Real Me came to an accommodation. After all, I was only capable of altering an essential part of my nature for limited stretches of time. I was never meant for maintaining perfection—and neither were my clients. It was a freeing realization, which offered more comfort than the classiest chair I could ever find.
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A few years later, it was time to go back into therapy myself. I first checked out the psychologist who lived closest to my house. She was wonderful on the phone, but when I arrived, I was alarmed by the drab, cramped waiting room that served three therapists. The competing sound machines were making a valiant but unsuccessful attempt to cover muted conversations. A water cooler in the corner had an unsettling rhythm of glugs and gulps. The only magazines were from AAA, AARP, and National Geographic. This is not a good sign, I kept thinking.
Just as I was contemplating making a quick escape, she opened the door and looked exactly as I’d expected. I loved her hair, and her clothes were current and colorful. She looked kind, and comfortable in her own skin. But that office! Even the inside was dark and crowded, mostly decorated in variations of brown. The posters were terrible. I hated to admit, even to myself, that it made me have serious doubts about her as a clinician. How successful could she be with such an office? I realized I was having an attack of major shallowness, but I couldn’t help it. I was already calculating excuses for not scheduling a second appointment.
Then, toward the middle of the session, she mentioned her other office, 15 miles away, where she saw most of her clients. That must be it. That one must be her! I instantly forgave her for the terrible sublet and resolved that I’d stay with her—right there.
I confess that I still have split-second internal winces whenever I enter her waiting room. But then she opens her door to me. It’s perfectly capable of staying open on its own, but she holds it just the same.
Silently, we take our places like actors on a stage. She settles in on the poorly upholstered couch, and I sit down on the unfortunate fake-suede chair. She smiles softly and leans toward me. We inhale almost simultaneously in advance of our shared mission. Her silent presence surrounds me in the appreciation that nothing about this space matters, except the fact that she’s in it. I dissolve into my chair and shift my weight toward her. She waits. I exhale my sorrow, and she holds patient for the words to follow. And then the therapy, by design, begins.
Martha Manning, PhD, is a writer, clinical psychologist, and former professor of psychology at George Mason University. She’s the author of Undercurrents: A Life Beneath the Surface and other books. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times Book Review and The Washington Post.
ILLUSTRATION © DORIANO SOLINAS
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