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One-sided: The abnormal thing about the therapeutic relationship

The client comes first.

This is the first thing you learn as a trainee psychotherapist. From the beginning you learn that the therapy room is a space designed for the client to explore what they want and need. It is different from other relational encounters. In therapy, you don't have to expect to share your space and time equally with the therapist. In therapy you can be as expansive as you wish. You can talk about your whole life, explore all facets of your being, dive into the depths of your suffering, hopes and desired future without having to pause politely and leave space for each other's turn.

The space you occupy in the therapy room - face to face or online - does not need to be balanced. It does not need to be reciprocal. As a client, I do not need to reciprocate questions and ask my therapist: "And you, how are you feeling today? Although, as a client, I may be curious and sometimes find it natural to return questions - especially when working with the same therapist for a long time - there is no expectation to do so. The therapeutic relationship is extraordinarily different from any other relationship you have in your life. Unlike the general social norm of human interaction, the therapeutic relationship does not carry the expectation of reciprocity and equal exchange. It can be legitimately one-sided.

Although the word 'one-sided' seems to have an inherently negative connotation, in this column entry 'one-sideded' is not such a bad thing at all. In fact, in the therapeutic relationship one-sidedness is completely normal. In the world of therapy, one-sidedness simply means that the client comes first. It is a unique relationship. It is powerful, it is growth-promoting and meaningful, and from society's point of view it is beautifully abnormal.

However, doesn't it suck for the therapist to always be the one person in the relationship who listens, empathises and attends to the other person's needs, thoughts, emotions and experiences in all encounters?

Well, let me answer this question by asking you the following questions. If you were a hairdresser or make-up artist, would you be angry if your clients never offered you a sexy Jonathan Van Ness makeover? Would you expect them to? If you were a journalist, would you be angry if your readers never wrote a good story for you or about you? If you were a baker, would you expect your customers to give you a back rub, or offer you a massage and knead your body from time to time, simply because that's what you do with your customers' bread every day? No, you wouldn't. I would like to think that the people in these fictional examples do what they do because they love what they do.

Let's believe that the hairdresser and make-up artist have a real passion for creativity, haircuts and hairstyles, beauty and trends. Assume they don't need anything in return, because it's simply what they love to do. Let's also suppose that, if you were a journalist, you were passionate about researching and capturing the world around you with catchy articles, inspirational columns and breaking headlines, and that's what makes your heart swoon. You don't expect or want others to do your job because you love what you do. Finally, let's also believe that if you were a baker, you would really appreciate working with milled grains, various flours and seeds to bake wonderful sourdough breads, scones, croissants, pastries and all that great stuff. You probably wouldn't say no to a back rub, but that probably (and hopefully) wouldn't be an expectation of any baker.

Now, I am a therapist because my passion is to assist people in their process of becoming more authentically themselves. I find it meaningful to support my clients in their process of becoming more introspective, to decrease their levels of di(stress) and to feel more ease and connection with themselves and others. Being able to facilitate, challenge, empower and empathise in my daily work is something I really value in my profession. I don't expect my client's to hold the space for me. It's simply not their role to do so, but mine. And I genuinely love to offer my attendance to my clients in the therapeutic relationship every day.

The truth is that therapeutic one-sidedness is a perfectly harmonious two-sidedness in disguise, just as in many the other professional dynamics. Because, in the shared experience, both individuals have their needs met. The hairdresser loves to cut hair and the client loves to look good. The journalist loves to write and the reader loves to be well informed. The baker loves to bake and the client loves freshly baked bread. The therapist loves to facilitate individual growth and the client loves to blossom. Consequently, what appears to be a one-sided encounter may be, after all, a two-way relationship.

So the next time, you feel bad using up 'too much' space in therapy, I encourage you to go inward and explore where this feeling comes from. It will have very little to do with the therapist but with your own conditions. Because the truth is, as a therapist, it's not only our job, but also our passion to offer you all the space you need and desire. The therapy space is all yours to take.


Do you sometimes feel a sense of 'I shouldn't be talking that much' or 'I shouldn't be using up that much space' in therapy? Do you sometimes feel that it is unfair that you get to talk and your therapist is the one who listens?

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