Naomi, one of my long-term clients and a therapist herself, has been talking in session lately about joy. The importance of joy in the mother-infant relationship, in adult romantic relationships, and in the relationship between therapist and client. Her ideas have grown out of her own practice, partially stimulated by our work together and informed by Allan Schore’s writings on enjoyment-joy (part of the inborn affect system). Naomi’s views have had a strong influence on my own: we therapists learn so much from our clients, especially when they are thoughtful, gifted clinicians themselves.
This is an over-simplification of her views, but Naomi believes that joy is what makes the agony of infancy bearable. Helplessness and vulnerability, the reality of separation from mother, intense emotional pain of all kinds — these experiences are an inevitable part of early infancy. The joy we optimally experience in relation to our mothers helps to make the pain bearable. Feeling joy in her presence and finding this joy reciprocated helps us to bear the trauma of separation from her. Finding that our own joy elicits equal (and even greater) joy in mother allows us to endure feeling small, helpless and vulnerable.
In an earlier post, I wrote about the role of love in the healing psychotherapy relationship; joy plays an important part in such healing, but it’s not the same thing. Over time, we come to feel and eventually we convey to our clients the love we feel for them, but even from the beginning when it would be premature to speak of love, we need to make clear to our clients that we enjoy working with them. Personal warmth, genuine smiles, even laughter — according to Naomi, all these will convey the pleasure we take in working with our clients. It’s not in the words so much as in the emotional atmosphere.
Too often, newly minted therapists in the psychoanalytic mold feel constrained in this respect. Because we’ve been encouraged to adopt the “blank screen” professional mien, where overt expressions of warmth would interfere with the development of the transference, we inhibit our smiles and laughter. We come across as reserved rather than warm; we might even seem intimidating or scary. Over time, as we gain experience and come to feel more confident in our abilities, we relax. We allow more of our ordinary human warmth to show through. But even then, I don’t think we feel comfortable with the overt expression of joy.
I was thinking about all this in a recent session with a client, a young woman in her mid-20s whom I’ve been seeing for about a year. At the beginning of every session, after I’ve greeted her by name, Selena says, “Oh hi,” in a tone that conveys indifference. Her facial expression is a blank. Sometimes she’ll say, “What were we talking about last week?” It sounds as if she hasn’t given our work together a thought since we last met. Selena seems to be saying, “I don’t care about you and you don’t care about me. We take no pleasure in our work together.”
Last week, I finally addressed this issue in session. I hadn’t planned to do so in advance but the right moment seemed to present itself. I described the way our sessions always seemed to begin, using pretty much the same language as in the last paragraph. I said, “We’ve been working together for about a year now. We’ve come to know one another, we’ve developed a relationship, and yet it often seems as if we’re strangers. Sometimes it seems as if you believe I don’t like you and you don’t seem to like me.”
Selena seemed quite surprised by this. She said, “Sometimes I imagine that you must be bored, listening to me talk about the same things all the time. It must get pretty tedious.” I said, “Just imagine how awful it would feel to come in, all eager and interested, only to find that your therapist was bored with you.” I suggested that the appearance of indifference with which she began our sessions was an effort to protect herself. I reminded her of what she’d told me earlier in the session, that her own mother “had never seemed all that interested in” her.
Then she looked at me and said, “Well do you like me?”
Twenty years ago, I would have done the usual psychoanalytic gymnastics, reflecting the question back to my client in order to address her own feelings about herself. Instead, I told her the truth: “Of course I like you! I’ve been working with you for quite a while now and I’m interested in you. I look forward to seeing you and I enjoy our sessions.” I was speaking in an animated and personal way. I meant her to feel my joy in our work and my affection for her; I believe she did.
Psychotherapy is hard work, often full of pain. A client’s experience of our joy in the work we do together, our pleasure in their company, makes the process bearable — just as a mother’s joy makes the pain of infancy bearable for her child.