But what IS therapy? Part VII: Knowing

About six months into working with my former therapist, I lamented, “I don’t know anything about you, and you know so much about me!” She tilted her head slightly, smiled and sighed. I knew with that look that she got me, and suddenly it didn’t matter as much that we weren’t equal in our knowing of each other. I was there to be understood, and she understood me well. 

I continued to not know her for many months, which turned into years, until one day I realized that I knew her quite well.

We associate knowing with information and data. “Getting to know someone” means finding out facts about their lives. I did get to know some facts about my therapist as we worked together. I found out where she grew up, her current relational status, her dog’s name, and a bit about how she spent her hours outside of the therapy office. 

But this data was so, so minor in my getting to know her. I came to know what my therapist’s face looked like when she heard stories of harm, as well as stories of strength or delight. I got quite good at predicting how she would respond to me. I eventually knew her well enough that I was able to internalize her voice and her kindness, first as alien to myself, then as part of my own voice, my own kindness to self and others.

As a therapist myself now, I’m surprised when one of my clients says that he or she knows nothing about me. Although most of our therapy hour is spent focusing on details of the client’s life, I am very knowable inside my office. A client will come to know me with every question I ask, every pause while I collect my thoughts, every attempt I make to understand more.

Knowing another has less to do with information and data and far, far more to do with presence. In therapy, although the data generally only flows one direction (from client to therapist), both people are present and therefore knowable. In fact, often the therapist is more knowable (more present and authentic) than the person detailing all the facts about her life.

So what is therapy? It is a chance to practice a new kind of knowing, one that doesn’t rely on superficial facts. And it’s a space to be known, possibly more deeply than you have been before.

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