As you sit in your therapy session, sifting through your own thoughts, do you ever wonder what your therapist is feeling and thinking? When you open up and disclose so much of yourself to someone it’s impossible not to occasionally be curious about what they are experiencing. My father Robert Firestone recently wrote a book, which offers a unique glimpse into the mind of the therapist, Overcoming the Destructive Inner Voice. In it, he tells true stories of working with patients in therapy and their process of transformation. In his introduction, he wrote, “Psychotherapy represents a powerful personal interaction and a unique human relationship in which a trained person attempts to render assistance to another person by both suspending and extending him-or herself.” The goal of the therapist is not to judge or to categorize someone but to understand that person as an individual, so that he or she feels seen.
In a recent interview about his book, my father said, “In addition to training and experience, the ideal attitude of the therapist toward the client would best be described by the following adjectives: warm, compassionate, honest, direct, interested, inquisitive, non-judgmental, respectful and deeply feeling. There would be a sense of equality where both parties work to develop an understanding rather than an automatic application of the therapist’s predetermined theoretical orientation.”
These qualities enable a therapist to take a personalized approach, in which he or she offers a real response to each client. This includes noticing and being sensitive to the overlays that have injured a person’s sense of true identity. In most cases, it involves helping people recognize and make sense of the adaptations they made to the social world they were born into that shaped how they live their lives.
In this sense, a therapist’s most important task is to attempt to see a person as they would have been had they not been bent out of shape by their early years. My father’s goal has always been to try to imagine people without their defenses or the labels put on them by family and society. One of the most life-changing lessons people can learn in therapy is that the definitions of themselves that they live by are not necessarily representitive of who they really are.
So many of us tend to define ourselves and our personalities in a fixed way (i.e. I’m a worrier, I’m socially awkward, I talk too much, or I’m just plain bad at this or that.) From the day we are born, we are in many ways being defined. On both a familial and societal level, we are being labeled and seen in ways that don’t necessarily reflect who we really are. Even the best-intended parents have a tendency to categorize their kids (i.e. “He’s clever, sneaky, timid, or out of control.” “She’s spunky, willful, outgoing, or stubborn.”) Without meaning to, parents project a lot onto their children, passing both negative and positive ways they see themselves onto the next generation. Many parents expect their kids to be extensions of themselves and treat them in ways that either replicate or compensate for their own childhood pain. Either way, the child is not necessarily being seen for who he or she really is. This can leave children confused about who they really are and cause them to struggle in forging their own unique identity.
Throughout childhood, a person develops psychological defenses to cope with their specific circumstances. These defenses may work to protect them as children, but they often go on to limit or hurt them as adults. Think about the little girl who stays quiet in her household to avoid an explosive parent or the young boy who learns that the only way to get attention is to throw a fit. In each of these cases, what was once a necessary coping behavior can lead to unhealthy behavior patterns and a skewed sense of identity. The girl may grow up struggling to speak up for herself, feeling timid in social interactions and nervous about trusting others. She will then criticize herself as shy and anti-social. The boy may reach adulthood feeling anxious and pressured to make others notice him. He may struggle to control his acting out or attention-seeking behavior.
Ideally, therapists are sensitive to the ways each individual has been hurt. Because they have no connection to their clients’ pasts, therapists have the opportunity to see their clients free of the labels that have been slapped on them. This unique perspective, enables therapists to offer a genuine reaction to their clients that doesn’t reinforce their old definitions. The stories in my father’s book illustrate how the process of therapy allowed a collection of individuals to peel back the layers of defenses to find themselves. These experiences with clients are part of what helped my father develop his concept of differentiation, in which individuals separate from their assigned identity and challenge the defenses they formed to support this identity. They are then better able to investigate their own unique sense of self.
Good therapists aim to see their clients without the overlays on their personality generated by the past, and they take steps to help them eventually see themselves this same way. “Nowhere in life is a person listened to, felt, empathized with, and experienced with such concentrated sharing and emphasis on every aspect of personal communication,” wrote my father. My goal in therapy is to honor this form of communication and continually ask, “what would that person be like if they were really most themselves?” When we, as therapists, do this successfully, we’re able to identify and know the goodness that exists in each person, and therefore, see the fullest possibilities of that individual. This to me is one of the reasons I’m most grateful to be a therapist.