While you're doing most of the talking, what's going on in your therapist's head?
If you've ever consulted with or worked with a professional therapist, you've probably had quite a few questions about what that person actually thinks or feels when they are working with you. The most common quesstions people ask me about therapy are "Does your mind ever wander?" and "Are you really listening?" and "Doesn't listening to people's problems bring you down or ruin your day?" These are great questions with real answers, and understanding them may help you understand how therapy is designed to work. A therapist, by definition, is someone who is trained to listen in a very particular way — this is why therapy, though hopefully a friendly and bonding experience, is so different from talking with a friend or loved one.
So let's walk through how this works. When I sit with someone for a therapy session, I am in a very specific state of mind. Think of this as a "state specific memory" — when you are in a specific, familiar place, your state of mind often slips into a familiar "mode." When you sit on your couch, maybe you sign and relax and let the day go. When I sit down in my therapy chair, my mind is trained to go to the "therapy place" — the place where I can let my own concerns aside for an hour and switch into a mode of listening where I know I can see the world through your eyes and be able to help.
This is the first part of therapeutic listening — being able to see the world through someone else's eyes enough to build empathy and a connection. So from the get go, I am half in "my world," and half in "your world," where I try to understand what your world is composed of and how it looks and feels to you. It's as if I'm sitting on my chair, but leaning as far into your chair as I can without falling off my own chair, so that I can objectively think about what I'm learning from you.
Now this is where the idea of the mind wandering becomes interesting. When we are focused on empathizing with another person, our brains are wired to search for an "emotional corrolary" — a memory of some kind that emotionally resonates with the experience we are listening to. This helps our brains translate the emotional experience being related, often on a subconscious level, into an image or story that the listener can relate to.
So, if you are telling me a story about how you felt talking to your partner over dinner last night, and he or she became irritable — maybe a memory flickers in my mind about another story you told me a month ago — a time when you were very irritated because your mother completely misunderstood your intentions and you felt blamed. Or, perhaps a memory flickers of the time I was irritated because my mother misunderstood my intentions and blamed me. Either way, the therapist is trained to pay attention to the emotional content of the memory, and decipher how it may be related to the topic at hand. Perhaps your partner was feeling misunderstood at dinner last night and this was the source of the irritation. When I am in my "therapist mode," I may bring that up to you — and we can explore together if there is validity to that. Of course, exploring this is very different from assuming! A therapist is trained not to assume anything until an emotional pattern becomes quite clear and validated by an established pattern — like a scientist watching for data that confirms or denies a hypothesis.
Thinking and working with you this way is an incredibly rich and dynamic experience, which is why, no, I don't feel brought down by listening to people's troubles all day. Yes, sometimes the emotional content of a conversation is painful, and it is my job to feel that with you so that I can help you process the feelings and come to emotionally informed decisions in your life. But that's another thing that therapists are trained to do — to process and "digest" feelings so that they don't build up or stagnate — rather they can move through like a river. When we learn to navigate our own and other people's emotions in this way, relationships become dynamic, rich and amazing adventures that I feel privileged to partake in.
One of the benefits of partaking in a good therapy experience is that you, too, can learn to be comfortable in these emotional adventures, which helps us all feel safe in relationships and deepens your own relationship capacity. So go ahead, dive in, and always ask your therapist if you have any questions about what they are thinking and feeling. Not only is a professional therapist more than happy to answer these questions, it can help you build greater trust in your therapy and knowledge of intimacy in relationships.