Have you ever wondered what’s going on in your therapist’s mind during your sessions?
Therapy is one of those rare experiences where you can be with someone whose attention is solely fixed on you.
Which can feel like a luxury.
Although it can also feel scary as hell!
You might start to think some of these thoughts:
‘Oh God. I’m going to have to be interesting. What if she gets bored?’
‘Is he thinking I’m stupid?’
‘I wonder if she’s judging me, the way I judge myself.’
‘Will he think I’m a hopeless case?’
‘Do I even deserve to be here? There are others far worse off than me.’
Your therapist or counsellor actually isn’t going to be thinking you’re weak, or stupid, or crazy, or a hopeless case, or all those other painful things that your fearful mind may be throwing at you.
Your therapist’s training and experience have (I would hope) taught them to have a very different take on things.
First, the basics.
Above all else, your therapist is listening to you, and trying to tune in to how you experience your life.
A good therapist wants to get a sense of what it feels like to be you.
I’m also pretty confident that in your sessions, your therapist will be holding in mind:
- Ways he/she can best help you to achieve the goals you’ve set for your therapy.
- The difficulties and challenges you’re currently going through.
- How to help you with the troublesome stuff from your past that somehow still seems to be affecting your day-to-day life now.
- Your hopes and dreams for the future, and your concerns about whether you’ll ever get where you want to be in your life.
- Your creativity and sense of meaning, and how they’re flowing – or how they’ve been blocked.
And you might be surprised to find out some of the other things going on in your therapist’s mind during (and also between) your sessions….
No, it doesn’t have to mean that your therapist’s mind is wandering in such a way that they aren’t listening and attending carefully to you.
Good therapists and counsellors develop the ability to keep their focus on being receptive to you, but also at the same time to notice and allow other related images, thoughts and feelings to drift into their mind.
Let’s take a sneak peek at some of the things that could be coming into your counsellor/therapist’s mind during your sessions, that you may not have realised.
These are things that can really deepen and improve the work that you do together, so your therapy can really help you the way you need it to.
And don’t worry: the biggest, most central thing on your therapist’s mind is going to be YOU. Most of her attention will be focused on simply listening to you, and really wanting to get a good sense of who you are, and how you experience your life.
All the things in my list are things that your therapist may be thinking in relation to you and what you bring.
Ready? Read on…
[Disclaimer: I’m speaking from my own experience as a therapist. And of course I can’t really claim to speak for all therapists! However, I do think that there are plenty of other therapists and counsellors who would agree with some (or all) of the points I raise…]
Your therapist may be thinking about your superpowers
Yes, your superpowers. You do have them, even if you don’t realise it yet.
Your superpowers are your genuine inner strengths, abilities, and your capacity for experiencing positive emotions.
Because your therapist isn’t only interested in looking at what’s wrong, and what needs to be fixed.
He or she also wants to help you find ways to reconnect with your inner urges towards growth, health, good relationships, and restoration.
Perhaps you were repeatedly told as a child “You’re too sensitive” or “You’re too headstrong” or “You’re too shy” or “You’re too excitable”.
Your therapist actually knows that those “You’re TOO [fill in the blank]” things actually could be secret signposts to your superpowers!
Your therapist can help you discover new ways to relate to these things that you always thought were your weaknesses, to help you discover hidden strengths and benefits within them.
Your therapist may be reminded of Russian dolls
You know those hollow wooden dolls that nestle inside one another?
People can be a bit like that. Maybe you are, too.
For example: an apparently calm exterior might cover and hide a lot of anger inside.
And then when we gently open up what’s under the anger, we might discover deep sadness and hurt.
Therapists understand that humans are complex, and there are layers upon layers. In therapy we gradually help you find ways to unpack your layers and see what’s there.
It might feel creaky, stiff and alarming at first, but one of the aims of therapy is to help you to be able to move flexibly back and forth through your layers so that you are more able to choose what gets shown when, and to whom.
Your therapist is thinking about whether you feel safe
Did you think therapy was about having to dive straight in and make yourself talk to a stranger about your most agonising, painful stuff?
Well, these days therapy isn’t quite like that.
Recent developments in trauma therapy, based on a mixture of experience (what actually works) and recent findings from neuroscience, have shown that for safety we need to go gently, slowly and carefully, so that you don’t accidentally become re-traumatised.
Trauma-informed therapists know that it’s absolutely crucial to help each client stay as much as possible within the edges of their ‘window of tolerance’. This means you will not be expected to open up and talk about traumatic stuff, without a lot of careful preparation and strength-building first. (And in some cases it isn’t even necessary to ever talk in detail about your trauma).
Even if anxiety seems to be more your thing, not trauma, a sensitive therapist will be keeping in mind that your nervous system needs to feel safe enough.
That way you’ll be able to get the maximum benefit from therapy without shutting yourself down.
In your therapist’s mind may be a myth, legend, poem or story that relates to you
Arts-based psychotherapists, Psychosynthesis therapists, and many other therapists who’ve been influenced by Jungian or transpersonal concepts, tend to be attracted to traditional myths and stories from cultures around the world. We believe that sometimes these stories can hold deep insights and wisdom.
So in a therapy session, a story may float into your therapist’s mind because something in it is resonating with what you are telling her about your lived experience.
If she thinks you could find it helpful, and if the timing is right, she may share it with you, to help you open up new ways of thinking and feeling about your life.
And if there’s a traditional story from your culture (or elsewhere) that you feel drawn to, you might like to tell it to your therapist: the two of you might find it leads you into fruitful territory for understanding something fundamental and important about you.
Your therapist may be thinking about play
Therapists know that fun and play are absolutely crucial components of a happy, fulfilled life, no matter how old we are.
Therapy is largely about helping you restore and deepen your ability to ‘work, love and play’ in ways that feel personally meaningful to you.
When you feel your therapist is someone you ‘click’ with, the two of you naturally develop a shared sense of humour.
Gentle, relaxed, non-shaming laughter becomes part of the unique relationship between you. This can powerfully defuse and ease tension, helping to make your therapy even more effective.
And when our autonomic nervous system is in the ‘ventral vagal’ state where we can playfully and pleasurably connect with others, it’s in a really good state for the good kind of brain-change and healing that we all need.
Your therapist may be wondering about your shadow
Each of us, Jung taught, has a ‘shadow’.
The shadow contains parts of the personality that may feel confusing, odd, wrong, unknown, shameful, or just generally ‘not-me’.
The trouble is, that when we don’t understand, accept or recognise these shadow qualities as parts of ourselves, they have much more power over us.
In therapy we learn better ways of seeing and coming to terms with our shadow qualities, so that they can’t ruin or rule our life from behind the scenes.
Funnily enough, the shadow can include some real gifts and treasures too. If you believe you are unattractive, for example, then your beauty will be part of your shadow.
When we know and include our shadow as a legitimate part of the complex mixture of who we are, then we can be more whole and balanced.
Your therapist may be aware of their body
(‘Really? They’re thinking about their body??’)
Wait! Before you get outraged about the sheer self-centredness of therapists who take your money and then pretend to listen whilst they use your session time to think about themselves, let me try and explain…
We all react in our body to other people.
In fact, you’ll know from your own experience that it’s pretty obvious to you when someone makes you bristle with anger, shake with fear, hum with passion, or feel all warm and melting inside.
Those are all strong reactions, but there are also any number of more subtle and nuanced bodily responses we can have to situations, people and events. Gut feelings, heart feelings, and the ‘felt sense’ all contribute important information.
And when we therapists can tune in to what our body is telling us, we get lots of useful clues that help us to figure out the best ways to be helpful to you in that moment.
Therapists often take a moment to tune into our body’s experience. Through practice, we become able to do this incredibly quickly, and we combine it with various other ways of knowing that are also important (such as listening to the themes, content and certain significant words you use when you tell us things).
So when your therapist is tuning in to what her body is telling her, it doesn’t mean she isn’t attending to you; quite the opposite, in fact.
Your therapist may have neuroscience in mind
In the past ten years or so, neuroscience has taken leaps and bounds. Scientists studying the neurobiology of the brain/ nervous system, have discovered an awful lot of things that are directly relevant to therapy.
Many psychotherapists and counsellors are keeping up-to-date and excitedly learning more about this, because it can help us make therapy more effective, more often.
Neuroscience also gives therapists more tools and skills that we can teach to our clients.
Your therapist is probably reflecting on your courage
Yup. When you seek out therapy, you may consider yourself broken or weak. It may seem odd that your therapist may actually consider you courageous.
But when your story comes out, and we look carefully at all the pieces and factors that have affected how your life has gone, there is always, somewhere, evidence of a great deal of courage.
You may not be able to see this yourself, for a long while. But your therapist can hold that understanding for you until you are ready to claim it for yourself.
Your therapist is thinking about how you relate to one another
Human beings are biologically built to be in relationship with one another. And when we have a problem with managing our feelings, we can only fully heal in the context of a relationship.
If your therapist works relationally, he/she will be thinking about how the two of you connect.
How you ‘dance’ together (metaphorically speaking).
How much the two of you can create a satisfying experience of being with one another; and how much there are missteps, stepping on one another’s toes, and misunderstanding one another.
It’s never just about what’s wrong with you. That’s an old-fashioned way that some therapists (and clients) used to think.
Nowadays we know that the therapy relationship is co-created. Your therapist will be thinking about how the two of you can join forces to help you move more towards healing and growth.
An image or metaphor may arise in your therapist’s mind
If your therapist is a visual thinker, or thinks in metaphors (and most of us do), then an image may come to their mind that says something about you, your situation, or about the relationship the two of you have co-created.
If it seems like it could be helpful to you, then your therapist may share it. Or they may just bank it as something to privately muse on.
I often share these images with my clients, if the timing feels right and if it seems an appropriate and potentially helpful image.
If a client rejects it or ignores it, that’s really not a problem. It’s useful, helping me to course-correct.
If my client wants to alter my image or metaphor in some way so it fits better with how they experience things, that’s fantastic: they are using me in the way that’s most beneficial to them.
And the most useful images of all, of course, are those that you, the client, come up with. Metaphors as simple as ‘I feel I’m a boat drifting without a rudder’ or ‘I feel like I’m wading through treacle’ can be tremendously helpful in shaping how you and your therapist work together.
Your therapist may be wondering about your ‘unthought known’
Most people find it’s a big relief to finally get the chance, in therapy, to talk about all the things that have been unsayable and unacceptable anywhere else.
And sometimes there are other things too, that couldn’t be said because they’ve not yet actually been formed into coherent thoughts. This ‘unthought known’ [Bollas, 1987] may be stored encrypted within some kind of body memory, in dreams or fantasies, and/or in feelings and moods.
Psychotherapy can provide a necessary safe space for the unthought known to find forms that you and your therapist can look at, and make sense of, together.
Your therapist may be thinking about money
“Ack!! I knew it!! Greedy bastards!” could be your first response here. But bear with me here.
Money tends to be one of those topics, like sex and death and shame, that it’s ‘not nice’ to talk about. And yet, for most of us it’s a fundamental part of being an adult human in the world.
In therapy, opening out and working through your money story, money fears and money blocks can be transformative. It can help you move into a newer, more free sense of who you are in your life. You may even find the resulting change of attitude helps you move into a position where you can earn more, and spend more wisely.
Money is an important part of pretty much everyone’s life. I hope that you have a counsellor or psychotherapist who is not squeamish about helping you discuss your ‘money stuff’. And who feels that their own financial needs are being properly met.
Sadly, many counsellors and psychotherapists struggle to pay their own bills, and this can heavily impact their own self-care. And a therapist who is anxious and is lacking in self-care, could, over time, become either less available to you, or at risk of burn-out.
When your therapist is thinking about money in your session, hopefully their own financial needs will have been taken care of enough so that it can be your money story they are pondering, not their own.
Fundamentally, what’s on your therapist’s mind is YOU.
Of course! That’s why you are there. That’s why your therapist is there.
What if your therapist’s mind wanders?
If you get the sense that he/she is thinking about something else, or not understanding what you are trying to communicate, or thinking something judgemental or critical towards you, please do open up a conversation about this.
We therapists do get it wrong (quite often in fact) but I would hope that most of us are emotionally mature enough not to get thrown into shame or blame for too long. The rupture-and-repair process in therapy is incredibly important – in fact it’s even more important for healing and growth than a perfectly-attuned-100%-of-the-time therapy. (As if that even exists!) You can read more about this in my article titled Does Your Therapist Get it Wrong?
Thinking… or Feeling?
I just want to acknowledge that in this article I haven’t really discussed another important aspect of the therapy experience: Your therapist, being a real live human, has not only thoughts, but feelings too.
It turns out that the ‘blank slate’ that many psychotherapists used to aim for – where they were impassive and didn’t show any feelings in response to you and what you were saying and feeling – is actually counter-productive, tending to make clients worse rather than better.
Well-trained and experienced therapists know how to work with – and manage – their own feelings that may come up in a therapy session. And they have ways to use these to help their clients more effectively.
If you find yourself feeling concerned – or just curious – about your therapist’s feelings, it’s fine to open up the subject. Together you might productively explore what you fear they’ll feel, and what you hope for, too.
Are you a therapist? What have I missed out in this idiosyncratic list? Please add your thoughts in the comments below – I’d love to read them!
And if you are a client in counselling or psychotherapy, does anything in this article resonate with you? Let us know, by commenting below.
If you’re looking for a therapist or counsellor in Essex, UK, or if you’re looking for online counselling, contact me today.
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.