Tuesday, November 19, 2013


Therapists know from their training that silence can be a powerful factor in the session.  Somewhere it was written that heavy moments of silence can, under pressure, draw from the client profound chunks of self insight, as the first words brought from the dark to light.  It is true.  Often I value the silence itself, knowing that for many people quieting the ever-talking head can bring someone to a new, deeper universe.  Anything found in that forgotten place must be valuable.

Other silences, though, have other meanings, may be less helpful or not helpful.  I’ve sometimes indulged – that is, let the client indulge – in these silences.

A twenty-two-year-old man, naïve and even somewhat cardboard in character, sat in doe-eyed silence for forty minutes, and again in the following session.  What kind of resistance was this?  There is, of course, fear to know oneself, fear to show oneself, defiance, and what Levenkron* and others call the client’s “emptiness.”  During a parents-only session, I learned that he has lied to them about his academic goals in college, lied about a relationship, lied about expenses he'd incurred.  Already known, through earlier meetings, was that as a youngster he’d been complaisantly compliant to a “busybody” mother.  What was this silence?  I believe it was the emptiness of the undeveloped emotional soul plus his way of standing up to me: Like lying to his parents, age twenty-two going on twelve, he could lie to me by omission – complete omission.

More recently I allowed a seventeen-year-old boy to stonewall for most of the hour.  He not only performed complete silence with no eye contact, but made sure not to move a muscle, not a finger drumming or a neck straining, for fifty minutes.  (The final ten minutes, I talked to him about his silence, about the loneliness possible to one who remains silent before friends and help, and cited Yalom’s group therapy intervention: Imagine this was your final meeting, you’ve said goodbye to the other members and are heading out the door for the last time.  What would you regret that you never said?)

This client had already had several sessions that, helpful in the face of his floaty numbness, I had filled with compassionate education and a few questions.  He was quite troubled sexually, reactively and proactively, had been lifelong overpowered by a revenge-filled father, let down by a passive and fey mother.

What was silence doing with these boys?  I’m not sure I could even allow them to say it was painful or angering or a waste of time, or boring.  I think we all need silence.  It brings us closer to our real self.  We stop and sense what we’ve been walking past, eyes averted, our whole life.  We also quiet our psycho-agitated body.  Then, the tension that supplies all the tics, squirming, leg tremor, repositioning is now felt for what it is: the message of life’s frustrations, always importuning.  If this tension-frustration could be translated back to what it is, at once, we might hear the screams of a million losses; we’d feel the impossibility of it.  This would be a kind of psychosis: How did I survive this?

The question of allowing too-long silences (most are only a minute or two) raises again the matter of what healing means.  While something narcissistic and benevolent in the therapy room causes me to value, each time, all possible gradations of help – intent listening, a piece of music, ratifying the client’s suspicion that his wife should stop supporting her addicted son – I love the deep journey the best, the moments of truth and drastic feeling.  These must take place in a quiet room, even “quiet” of bright light.  Long quiet is the clocks being stopped, the running stopped, the treadmill through forty years stopped, everything stopped but who you are.  So let it be uncomfortable.

* Steven Levenkron, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders

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Comments are welcome, but I'd suggest you first read "Feeling-centered therapy" and "Ocean and boat" for a basic introduction to my kind of theory and therapy.