It is customary for a therapist to facilitate a client’s thinking and feeling “outside the box”, to “wake up and smell the coffee”. Therapists want to assist clients to release the constraints of what is “customary” or “normal” for them and explore the world of thoughts and feelings that have been taboo or off limits. The other end of the spectrum is also, sometimes, the therapeutic focus i.e. learning to self-regulate and develop the skills for expressing feelings such as anger in socially appropriate, non-abusive ways. Certainly there are clients who need such therapeutic assistance.
I remember a colleague commenting “I make it very clear to each and every one of my clients that I will not be sexual with them and that my office is not a place for expressing rage and anger.” Sometimes, in some situations, for some clients such clear and definite boundaries are appropriate or necessary.
Years ago I had a television set with a rabbit ear antenna. The signal was often blurred and I would get headaches as my eyes tried to reconcile the blurred images. It often is the distress of blurred boundaries and tangled experiences that brings people to therapy.
Some state’s credentialing requirements or guidelines or those of some professional groups may require a therapist to include in their office policy very clear language about, for example, sexual boundaries. Heeding such directives or advice may be legally necessary and professionally appropriate. In the intricacies and dynamic processes of the therapy session what was printed in an office policy is likely to fade out of awareness for the client. If a therapist recognizes that a client is having romantic or sexual feelings for the therapist it would not be appropriate for the therapist to kindle the client’s affections for the therapist. In the interest of properly tending professional boundaries, throwing the proverbial bucket of cold water on the client may be “safe” but counter-therapeutic.
Perhaps the client has a history of not just well-contained but repressed feelings. As the client’s trust and rapport with the therapist builds these feelings may begin to manifest. Some clients have learned the best defense is a good offense. Being offensive, in spades, may be both their safe haven and a primary consternation. A skilled and well-resourced therapist may help the client to open to an interior universe of terror, constriction, avoidance and denial. That the client may have very angry, romantic or sexual feelings for the therapist may be an opening for the therapist into the client’s interior miasma. If the therapist is brave and skilled enough they may help the client discover exiled parts of themselves that can become elements of a robust, vibrant and healthy person.
I remember a senior colleague comment that “all relationships have a sexual element. When we go to our office we can’t exclude it as though it were a set of car keys we forgot or a puppy we left at a kennel.” So if sex is always here, is always a part of every relationship, perhaps it would serve us well to be aware of it and make wise choices about it. Can we do this if sexuality is not allowed into the therapeutic relationship? If or when a client manifests angry, sexual or romantic feelings for the therapist an opportunity may be presenting itself to help the client learn to manage the complex realities of relationships. Can I, do I help the client learn to differentiate caring, being emotionally vulnerable and seen in a compassionate way from a romantic or sexual advance, interest or activity? Is it not the therapist’s responsibility to help the client learn that being seen and known emotionally is safe, that being compassionate, curious and committed to their healing and the emergence of their real self (see J. Masterson) is part of a healing, loving and vibrant relationship and not grooming and exploitation?
Skilled therapists we’ve heard of, known, been trained by, therapists such as Virginia Satir, Carl Rogers, and Jay Haley showed us that it was at this moment of authentic connection that deep, rich healing can happen. Current researchers such as Alan Schore (The Neurobiology of Affect Regulation) have shown us that self awareness and self image have their roots in the dyadic relationship of infant and parent. Martin Buber, decades before, wrote of the relationship of two people as the calling of one another into being. What “I” of the client do I evoke and what “you” in me is evoked by my client? It may be when my hands feel clammy and my mouth is dry that I have an opportunity present. An opportunity is present for healing, actually helping the client move from the darkness of shame, trepidation and anger to the light and vitality of being here and now in a connected and healthy way.
If a client manifests an element of sexual or romantic interest in me or is angry toward me and I respond with clear, strong language marking distinct boundaries and propriety I may feel safe and that I’ve taught the client an important lesson. But, have I helped them find and develop their Real Self and navigate the tidewaters of interpersonal and interpersonal dynamics? The recognition and maintenance of clear boundaries and skilled and compassionate address of a client’s sexual, romantic, or angry feelings toward their therapist are a client’s right and the therapist’s responsibility. The work of luminaries preceding us serves not only as an example of their remarkable skills both as a person and as a therapist but also they beckon us along the same path. They call us into being in our fullness. They encourage us to leave the refuge of absolutes and engage in the vibrant, dynamic processes of living now. Jon Kabat-Zinn called it “full catastrophe living”. Will you?
The record of therapist sexual impropriety with clients is testament that prohibition (by itself) is insufficient or ineffectual and it is essential that therapists gain further training and consultation regarding these matters. James Masterson teaches that the therapist is the “guardian of the client’s Real Self”. I believe he is speaking of the same core reality that has been elucidated by therapists, researchers, poets and philosophers including Martin Buber and Alan Schore.
William Stafford, the late poet laureate of Oregon closed his poem “A Ritual To Read To Each Other” with these lines:
Tho’ we could fool each other we should consider-
lest the parade of our mutual lives get lost in the dark-
for it is important that awake people remain awake
or a breaking line may discourage everyone back to sleep.
The signals we give, yes, no or maybe,
they should be clear
for the darkness around us is deep.
© Copyright 2009 by Dennis Thoennes, PhD, ABPP. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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