Finding the Pulse


January/February 2009


Take a thoroughly unremarkable moment in the psychotherapy hour. Perhaps a client with a history of putting his needs aside makes an innocuous request—he could be the overly responsible oldest in a family who, early on, learned his exclusive role was to take care of others, or someone whose parents were too neglectful to attend to him or even acknowledge that he had an internal life of his own. At a lull in a session, he offhandedly asks you for a glass of water. There's no fanfare, no great show of emotion. Certainly one possibility is to just get the glass of water and leave it at that. But imagine that the last session had brought more of this client's history to the surface, and you decide that this is an opportunity to focus on an aspect of social interaction that you suspect might be charged with significance for him, even if he's spent his life ignoring it.

So you ask him if he'd be willing to slow things down a bit and notice what might be going on beneath his usual reactions. He agrees and you ask him to take a moment to sense what's happening in his body. As he does so, you go and get him the water, hand it to him, and sit back down. Once you've done that, you ask him to take a moment again to sense what's going on inside.

At first, his automatic psychological response is likely to kick in. Encouraged to verbalize it, he tells you that he supposes you're slightly annoyed with him for sending you on an errand focused on his immediate needs. So far…

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