Working spaces

March 23, 2008

Photographer Saul Robbins takes photographs of chairs. Therapists’ chairs – from the viewpoint of the patient.

For many, the role of the psychotherapist holds significant weight, and the importance given to him or her is one of great influence in many people’s lives. By examining the empty therapist’s chair, I encourage viewers to consider the place of power it holds, quite literally, in so many people’s lives, as well as the person who sits in it, across from them, on a weekly basis.

Robbins’ photographs grace an article in the March 6 edition of the New York Times in which Penelope Green asks What’s in a chair? The article is an exploration of the physical spaces in which therapists work and she asks a number of interesting questions – what is the impact on a patient’s therapeutic process when the sessions take place in a therapist’s house? or when the decor or arrangement of the room gives something away about who the therapist ‘really is’?

Few therapists today would contend that it’s possible or even desirable to present oneself as a true blank slate, with an office and treatment style utterly free from personal influence. And so the conversation now centers on degrees of influence and revelation: is a family photograph too much? What about the family dog?

The real question that’s not addressed in the article is – why are some therapists (and for this read consultants, coaches etc) so grandiose that they think they can control the patient/client’s transference? There’s a difference between flaunting one’s personal life in the face of clients and bringing oneself fully into the room/relationship. The physical presence we create says as much about us as practitioners as the psychological and emotional one. What’s absent from a room says as much about someone as what’s present. I don’t have a lot of time for practitioners who angst about controlling clients’ emotional and unconscious lives with the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) inference that the therapist or consultant’s ‘real life’ is somehow split off and unimportant in building a working alliance. A therapist’s life is not a contaminating quality. As a therapist and consultant I work with who is in the room and with what is presented in the room – consciously and unconsciously. I am not and neither do I believe I have the right to attempt to be in control of the client’s experience of me. I wonder how many therapists and consultants are really comfortable in a space where the free reign of a client’s unconscious is unleashed in the room?
Co-incidentally? Psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips is the subject of the Guardian’s Writers’ Rooms series in which he talks about the physical space he has created in which to write (his consulting room has been photographed many times for various interviews).