By Erin Stevens – integrative counsellor and psychotherapist
During a recent workshop on the topic of power in the therapy room, I took part in a roleplay exercise, where I, as the therapist met with a ‘client’ whose brief was to exercise their power over me in any way they could.
I was met with anger, questions about my credentials and a damning account of how they experienced therapy with me. I approached this situation in the same way I would expect to meet any client who conveyed anger and distress which they attributed to our therapeutic relationship. I offered empathy. I listened carefully to their distress, I expressed sorrow that I had been so unhelpful for them, and, in answer to the question “What are you going to do about it?” I explained that it seemed to me that we have disconnected somewhere along the line, and that I thought it would be really important to try to reconnect, so we could figure out the best way forward together. The communication I wanted to put forward was that I cared about this client’s distress and that I wanted to help to put it right. Great right?
Well, yes, I suppose. I mean, it’s certainly a better response than becoming defensive and using my position as the therapist to deflect or gaslight the client.
However, the response of the person in the role of client gave me pause for further reflection. What happened to my client’s anger in this situation? It was utterly extinguished by my empathy. I wonder, in my haste to resolve my client’s difficult feelings towards me, whether I missed what they brought to the work. I wonder whether I responded from my own guilt and sorrow, and whether in doing so I perhaps did not give sufficient space to my client’s pain.
It seems to me that empathy can act as a kind of sponge to anger, diffusing and silencing it, and for a client who has historically felt powerless within their own feelings of anger and rage, perhaps the opportunity to express it without receiving the message “Let’s get rid of it quickly” would be something of value. I like to think I can withstand all the feelings of my clients, however that sense is incongruent with my swiftness to fix on this occasion.
I notice that I want to explore some kind of solution to the riddle in this paragraph. Indeed, this is where my desire to resolve and repair again begs for some airtime. So, counter-intuitively I am going to assume there is no solution – that I am simply highlighting a set of difficulties which may sometimes emerge in the therapy room. To help me make sense of them, I think I need to identify the fragments of the exchange and, even more than that I need to consider how they co-exist and dance when they emerge together.
In the situation I describe, I understood that my client was presenting with feelings of anger. One way I might have responded is defensively, with anger of my own, or evasion. This would have left no space for the client’s feelings; my own self-protection would have likely filled every available corner of the room. Thinking about this in terms of power, there would be a clear misuse of my position as the person in the relationship who is most likely to be perceived as being ‘right’ – by the client, and sometimes even by the therapist themselves. The anger would have been squashed and client put in their place. Patently untherapeutic and unjust.
Anger is engulfed by Anger + Power.
In the situation as it actually occurred, I recognised that the client’s anger teetered precariously on a whole mountain of pain. I recognised that because I identified with it to an extent, and also because I empathised with the client. Of course, the client is entitled to their pain and to their anger, and moreover they are completely entitled to verbalise it in the counselling room. My client felt heard, and that is great. But I think I owed them more than to hear their anger and pain, I owed them space to be in it. I owed them the communication that it was welcome. In a sense, I took advantage of my own power to leap upon of the question of how we resolve it, skipping over the unasked, but very present question of what was happening, and why.
Anger is extinguished by Empathy + Power.
I’m not going to offer a neat ribbon to tie this article up with. Because power and anger are not neat and tidy elements of the relational dynamic. They are messy and difficult to feel our way through. Even within the fiction of this roleplay scenario, the role of power was difficult to identify and harness.
My only certain reflection on how we recognise and use power in the therapy room, is that we do so with integrity and communication. If we are wanting to manoeuvre ourselves away from a feeling, are we asking ourselves why that is? Are we acting from our own needs, and if so, what might we do differently? How and when do we bring what is happening ‘into the room’ so it can be navigated collaboratively?
I think if we can find the path to meet our client where they are – in relationship – the power in the room, present in potentiality, is more likely to be constructive, rather than destructive in actuality; we are less likely to be drawn to use it defensively.
In the words of Carl Jung: “Where love reigns, there is no will to power; and where the will to power is paramount, love is lacking. The one is but the shadow of the other.”
Jung, C. G. (1953). Collected Works 7, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Para. 331.©
© Erin Stevens