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hqdefault-18Before I was a psychotherapist, I was a patient, and at some point in my time as a patient, I participated in group therapy, and witnessed an unsettling interaction. (Unsettling-interaction-witnessing occurs in groups, where you spend time watching people “work their stuff out” and often “work your stuff out” at the same time.)

A new group member, a twenty-something, showed up for his first session with us, and like new members sometimes do, he presented as quiet and a bit deferential – eager to fit in, and above all, to please.

Eventually, the therapist leading the group went to Newbie directly, and asked how he was doing on his first day. He replied with some variant of “fine” and she probed further, asking if there was anyone in the room he felt drawn to, or perhaps shy to approach (this is typical group technique, designed to make the Newbie conscious of how he’s relating to others in the room.)

Newbie opted for the “drawn to” half of the question, probably aiming to sound upbeat rather than scared, and gestured towards an older guy sitting beside him.

“I guess I’m drawn to Joe. He seems like a father figure to me.”

To which, without a flicker of hesitation, Joe snapped under his breath (loud enough for everyone to hear): “I’m not your damn father.”

Newbie winced, and he wasn’t alone. That was a chilly welcome, coming from a member of your new therapy group.

On the other hand, Joe’s statement was true – he wasn’t Newbie’s damn father. More to the point, he didn’t want to be, to judge from his reaction. That wasn’t Joe’s role. He didn’t sign up to parent Newbie in that therapy group; he was a member like anyone else, trying to make himself a bit less neurotic and maybe happier. It was Joe’s right to be there, in that room, for himself, taking care of himself. And maybe Newbie wasn’t the only one there longing for a father figure – maybe Joe could have used a father figure, too.

I realized at that moment that I’d been like Newbie in my first group, too – searching for a father (for reasons I won’t bore you with), and drawing close to folks I might have been better off shying away from.

There were larger implications: I’d done the same thing at workplaces, including at my law firm, with disastrous results.

A lot of lawyers make that mistake. After working as a therapist with lawyers for a dozen years or so, I can say plenty of attorneys confuse their law firm with a parent figure, then relate to the firm like eager-to-please children. It leads to hurt feelings, resentment, anger and much unnecessary human misery.

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