Occasionally, I find clients who contact me stating, off the bat, that they are looking for a therapist because they have no one in their life that will listen to them…so they’ve succumbed to paying someone to do so. Although I want to dive immediately into challenging this perspective, and exploring this phenomenon with them, I hold back until our therapeutic relationship begins.
I generally begin the session in the usual manner: paperwork, constraints to confidentiality, and all of the other “housekeeping” things that need to be taken care of up front. And then I let them start wherever they want. As they begin to talk, I listen carefully and intently. Eventually, I bring up this notion that they feel so alone in their life (after they’ve told me about their partner, children, friends, co-workers, and dog) that they feel they have to pay me to listen to them talk. They feel as though our relationship is more closely aligned to that of a prostitution relationship more than anything else. They pay me to do something for them; in their mind, a favor.
I, being the queen of challenging my clients (I call it wearing brass knuckles with white gloves over them…it’s a gentle challenge. One where they don’t feel like they’ve been struck with brass knuckles, but rather they feel like they’ve just been handed something fragile by someone wearing white gloves), confront their concerns right away. I generally say something akin to “if you have an injury, what first steps do you take?”. They generally say “I’ll ice it, maybe take some Advil, and see if it goes away”. And I continue, “and if, after trying to tend to it yourself, or possibly having your partner massage it, you find the injury is unforgiving, what do you do next?”. Inevitably I hear, “I’ll go to the doctor.” The remainder of the conversation looks something like this:
Me: Do you pay the doctor?
Client: Of course.
Me: Do you feel the doctor and you have an arrangement similar to prostitution? Where you pay them for a particular service that you are unable to get from anyone else?
Client: Well no, they’re…doctors.
And at that point I begin to let the gears in their head turn. People who seek therapy are not pathetic. They are not paying me to listen to them. They are paying me to help them hold a mirror up to themselves. To help them see patterns that perhaps they themselves cannot see.
Once the point is made, I allow it to sink in. They are paying me to provide a safe environment for them where they can focus exclusively on themselves. Where they can put the requirement of being in any other type of relationship, which requires a give and take arrangement, aside for 50 minutes, and really focus on themselves. They are paying me to stay out of their way, meet them exactly where they are, and allow the self-exploration to begin or continue…Something traditional relationships do not generally involve.
My own friends tend to come to me for advice. I’m a good listener and am always happy to be there for them. That being said, I’m not convinced my friends know what a therapist is or does. They always say “no wonder you’re a good therapist, that’s why I use you for advice”. I think to myself and often remind them, “I don’t give advice to my clients, that’s not my role. My role is to help them see things within themselves from a new or different perspective. I will give advice to you because you’ve asked for it and because you’re my friend, but this advice comes from Friend Kelsey, not from Therapist Kelsey.”
Occasionally the advice I give to my friends is selfishly motivated: I don’t think their partners are good for them, and I don’t like being around people that treat my friends poorly or take advantage of them. I’ll tell them this, because it’s honest and because I love them and want to protect them. But when they think they’re receiving therapy for free, I have an obligation to put their perspective in check.
As for my clients, who likely wish they could have Friend Kelsey for free rather than pay for Therapist Kelsey? I challenge them (with brass knuckles and white gloves in hand) to continue allowing me to help them hold a mirror up to themselves. To be comfortable with the notion that this 50 minutes is for and about them and only them. I challenge them to challenge their own notion of “paying for someone to listen”, because therapy is an investment in one’s self, not a insinuation of desperation for an open ear.