Last week Bex and I had the chance to see the singer Ray LaMontagne in concert at Cambridge Corn Exchange. He’s well known for his shyness, but it still came as a surprise to see him perform from the very edge of the stage, nearest to the exit. At the end of every song the lights went out, and for the first forty minutes he didn’t acknowledge the presence of the audience or respond to their enthusiasm in any way. I’ve since read that on some occasions he’s performed whole concerts in the dark because he finds it so difficult to interact. Yet in some strange way the sense of his struggle seemed to permeate the audience and actually created a feeling of real intimacy. People hardly spoke between songs, as if respecting his need, and the atmosphere became quite electric. When the band left him alone to perform two songs acoustically, this stripping bare of his support made the beauty of the songs all the more poignant, and it was intensely moving. When they returned and he introduced them, he finally spoke to us, thanking us for coming when money is tight for so many. His final comment, “I hope the songs are worth it, if not the conversation,” brought the house down. It was one of the best concerts I have ever been to.
It has stayed in my mind since. I remember once being given the advice that, as a presenter, if you show your vulnerability, people never attack you. It’s been great advice, and I thought this was an example of it. I think LaMontagne’s vulnerability resonated with every vulnerable person in the audience. In my opinion, that’s everyone in the audience, because, to some extent, in one area of life or another, aren’t we all strugglers? Does anybody find life easy? Personal development has certainly left me better equipped to thrive, but I still feel very much a work in progress. A common concern I hear from my students is “how can I see clients when I still need work myself?” My answer is that if we wait until we’re perfect, we’ll never start. And it misses the point of the therapeutic relationship. Freud refused to submit to psychoanalysis with Jung because he feared it would subvert his authority. He clearly saw the position of therapist as being the source of the solution; the expert. I don’t.
I want to meet a client as an equal; where we recognise that we both have a set of skills which can unite for the task of moving them towards their outcome, not where I am the source of their salvation. The solution comes from them. One of my skills is to help them find their own answer, not to find it for them – and certainly not from within me. I also think that the acknowledgment that I too am a struggler, that I sometimes have to work on unconscious processes that seem to work against my desire, and sometimes win, adds to the trust and rapport that is the truly essential ingredient for a therapeutic alliance.
Another common concern with new therapists is whether they are doing well enough. They build their esteem from their successes, and their confidence leaches in the face of resistance. This is because they’re holding onto the idea that it’s they who are responsible for the client’s progress. They are not; most of the therapeutic alliance is through a meeting of two unconscious minds. You worrying about whether what you are doing is working, and what will the client or other people think if it doesn’t, is making the therapy about you – hardly fair when you’re charging them – and the very thing that will be a block to your work.
You should go and watch a great performer like Ray LaMontagne. He stands in the dark, struggling with his sense of self, with his fears and anxieties, with his doubts and demons. But when he hits the first note of the song, that Ray disappears, and all that is left is his talent. The ancients called this aspect of ourself ‘a genius’, a family spirit that inhabits us and gives us our unique gift. Our role is to feed it, with training and practice, knowledge and experience. And then we have to get out of its way and free it. When therapy begins, you should disappear, and give your genius free rein. Obviously this develops over time; Malcolm Gladwell suggests it takes 10,000 hours to create this genius, but leaving your self at your office door can be started early.
The great Gil Boyne said that he became a better person by watching himself on film working with clients during his training courses. He said he saw the best of himself in those moments, and worked to be ‘that person’ more often outside of the therapy room. I hope the same thing happens to Ray LaMontagne; that the more he observes the purity of his talent, the less his limitations will feel true. And I wish the same for my students, and myself. The more we sacrifice the position of expert for that of fellow struggler, the more quickly we’ll feel the unconscious connection with a client that augurs the beginning of great work. And from that connection will emerge a sense of our own self-development. The more you don’t need your client’s approval in order to like yourself, or need their improvement to validate you, the more they’ll improve, and you along with it.
You can’t become a therapist to improve your self-esteem, anymore than you can become a great singer by needing the audience to love you; both situations will be just another place to beat yourself up in. Improve your confidence by not attaching it to the work you do, get out of your own way, and just let the work do itself.