Sleeping on the job

March 10, 2011

Therapy is unlike any other social situation. It is a highly ritualized encounter designed to take the immense dead weight of the past and budge it, inch by galling inch, in the direction of change. But therapy is also like any social situation. It is a kind of performance in which we seek to convince, to charm, and, if necessary, to put on the cap and bells of our suffering, to sustain the attention of another.

This is from a wonderful article by Stephen Metcalf in New York Magazine.  He goes in search of 4 of his previous therapists, each of whom fell asleep during their sessions and he wants to know ‘why?’.  He learns a lot about himself, therapy and the nature of the therapeutic encounter in the process but I was struck by the search for truth.  As though there is one official story of what happened.  And there never can be only one version of events.

..therapy is the art of teaching someone to overhear himself. This woman taught me to overhear myself and begin to live beyond the service of my infantile needs. She dared me, by asking simple but, in retrospect, quite cunning questions, to think of my would-be existential jailers—my parents, my teachers, my friends, my enemies—as my fellow inmates.

He makes an association with a memory from his childhood which in therapeutic terms seems important – but a significant person from his life (I won’t spoil the ending) wonders whether it serves to remind him that perhaps he doesn’t need therapy right now.  Three of the therapists (the fourth wasn’t available) offer various answers and wonderings about why they fell asleep … and it made me wonder about how often I’ve wanted to fall asleep when working with people (in organisations as well as in therapy).  The invitation in this piece is to wonder what those awkward moments really mean for us on a personal level – there may be no external or objective ‘truth’ to find.  I know I have been bored, angry, sad not to mention tired when meeting clients – some of those feelings were evoked in the client relationship, some were evoked elsewhere and brought into the room and most of the time I’ve found ways of using the intelligence rather than excluding the feelings.

Perhaps the search for truth gets in the way of unveiling truths?  And wouldn’t it be interesting if we could have conversations about awkward moments instead of eschewing the difficulties? Falling asleep on the job suddenly starts to look a lot more interesting than I imagined.



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