Imagine picking up the phone and making an appointment. Imagine talking to the other person and giving them a brief description of your life in order to assess your needs.
Then imagine days later walking into that persons’ office. It is dimly lit with a small but comfy looking couch, unique Chinese prints on the walls, symbols signifying peace, love, serenity and joy. The woman you spoke to greets you with a hearty and friendly hello and shakes your hand firmly. She asks you to have a seat. There will be some paperwork to complete and some money to exchange but that will come a little later during your time together. Imagine taking a deep breath, glancing around and looking her in the eyes. Imagine her smiling warmly and asking you “what brings you here today?” and “how can I help you”.
Now imagine swallowing hard and looking for the words to start. There is so much to say, so much history, so many details. Where do you begin? She looks at you and says “begin wherever you like. I will decipher the rest and ask questions so you can clarify your experience for me.” You breathe a sigh of relief. Imagine thinking, “okay, I am not alone in this. It may feel weird and scary, but at least I am not alone”.
And you start to talk. You talk about the past, your relationship with your mother, your siblings, your friends. You talk about high school and college, post college and work life. You talk about your spouse and their family, your spouses’ friends and job. You talk about your children. You talk about your feelings of anger and rage, happiness and joy. You talk about comparing yourself to others and how damaging that feels, but you just can’t stop looking at Facebook and Instagram. You talk about the state of the world and global warming, things that worry you, but there are so many other things to worry about.
And she sits and she listens. She nods with validation and asks you to continue. So, you do. For 45 minutes that seem like nothing, you continue.
And as you continue the discomfort seems to melt away. Okay this isn’t so bad and it’s really nothing like the movies. You are not laying on a couch. She talks back when there is silence. She laughs at your jokes, smiles with encouragement. There is no blank slate here. It is two people, one talking the other listening. Imagine what that feels like. To talk while someone else is listening. No unwanted interruptions. No judgements. No preconceived notions. No history together. Just one person talking and the other listening. And you feel the power in this. Although you may have been skeptical before you entered the room you feel a lightness and relief that you have not experienced before. And you want to see more of where this unique process can take you, what you can learn and how you can feel more content in your life. And you understand the healing power of talking and listening.
This is what I imagine my clients experience when they meet me for the first time for therapy.
Now imagine walking to the door of your office and firmly shaking a new persons’ hand. You have some brief history that you gathered over the phone, basic information you need just to make sure you are the right person for the job and you can meet this new persons’ needs. And you ask them to sit on your comfy couch with a warning that it sinks in fast so sit slowly. And you wonder what preconceived notions do they come here with? What tv therapists have they watched that have raised their expectations? You wonder are they nervous to uncover their stories and change their self-perceptions? And you think “I hope they are not too scared”. Do they feel comfortable in your tiny office with the Chinese symbols and the books on psychotherapy strewn about? You hope their nerves don’t get in the way. You do your best to normalize their expectations and you ask them “what brings you here today?” and “how can I help you?”
They begin to relay their story but express concern that there is too much information and they don’t know where to begin. So, you say “begin wherever you like. I will decipher the rest and ask questions so you can clarify your experience for me.” And they begin where they begin and you do as you say you would.
Your mind wanders a bit as the information comes out which is okay. You may lose track sometimes of what they are saying because you are human. But you are also making room to focus not just on the words but on the feeling in the room, the energy you pick up from this new person. Is it sadness you feel? Or anger? Fear and anxiety? And these feelings inform your work and how you respond to this new persons’ words.
And you listen as they tell you their story. You listen to their past, the relationship with their mother, their siblings, their friends. You listen as they talk about high school and college, post college and work life. You listen as they talk about their spouse and their family, their friends and job. You listen as they talk about their children. They talk about feelings of anger and rage, happiness and joy. They talk about comparing themselves to others and how damaging that feels, but they just can’t stop looking at Facebook and Instagram. They talk about the state of the world and global warming, things that worry them, but there are so many other things to worry about. And you sit and listen. You nod with validation and ask them to continue. So, they do. For 45 minutes that seem like nothing, they continue.
And you look on with encouragement if you see them stumble. You feel grateful that they are trusting you with their story because disclosing personal information can be so risky and hard. And you ask for clarification and more examples so you get a clearer picture of what they are trying to describe. You don’t offer solutions or advice although sometimes this is what they want and sometimes that is what you want to give, too. But you listen closely and carefully as you guide them along to the answers they know are there but just need the objective outsider to reinterpret and reframe their understanding. And you ask at the end of the session, “how did that feel for you?” And, more often than not, they reply “that felt good. It felt really good to say all of that, to be heard, to have you listen”.
And still after 25 years of doing this type of work, it never ceases to amaze me the healing power of talking and listening.
Stacie Goldstein, LCSW, is a social worker, psychotherapist, wife and mom of two teenage children. She has been in private practice in Northern NJ for the past 15 years working primarily with teens and adults around issues including anxiety and depression, life transitions, and parenting concerns. Stacie has worked in a variety of settings including schools, hospitals, mental health agencies and group practice. She has also taught Social Work at the Masters level for the University of Southern California as an Adjunct Professor. Stacie’s professional point of view incorporates a variety of techniques and styles including meditation and mindfulness to help her clients carve a path to living less stressful and more content lives.