I walk into the waiting room on a blazing Tucson afternoon and invite my next client, Sammy,* into my office. Sammy’s dressed in a wildly-patterned Hawaiian shirt, baggy board shorts, and worn-out flip-flops that barely stay on his feet. He drops into the chair across from mine, sprawling like a rag doll and setting a large, red canvas tote bag on the floor between his legs.
“What have you got there?” I ask, pointing to the bag.
“Oh, my latest project. I’ve been working on the grief thing, you know?”
Sammy takes a small clay sculpture out of the bag and launches into an animated stream-of-consciousness description of his struggle to express the fluidity of grief through the solidity of clay, wrestling with the still-fresh loss of his beloved mother several months before. As he talks, Sammy slips out of the chair and sits cross-legged on the floor. I join him on the floor, asking questions, pointing to different parts of his design, and taking us deeper into the ways the sculpture reflects his sorrow.
This begins another day of “shape-shifting” – making the effort to meet each client in their unique way of processing, attuning myself to the subtle cues that help me relate to them in their deeply-specific “language” as we traverse their inner landscapes.
My next client, Ralph, is an aerospace engineer at a local corporation that designs missile systems for the military. He sits decidedly upright with a lot of tension in his posture (we won’t be sitting on the floor), presenting in a highly cerebral manner. He’s never been in a long-term relationship, and he wants to know how to achieve this particular “goal” that he has for himself. If Ralph had his way, I’d give him an outline of the hundred and fifty-nine steps he should take – then, he’d quietly go home and work his way through the list.
Any suggestions I offer about opening himself to new experiences need to be fairly linear, and the rationale behind the suggestion needs to be explicit, or he gets quickly confused. I shift gears and adapt to the way he processes, focusing on detailed specifics and straightforward reasoning.
Next hour, I greet Meredith, who’s processing the news that she’s finally pregnant after a couple of years of trying to conceive. Meredith is bright and boisterous, with a terrific sense of humor. Moving out of my linear-reasoning mode, we laugh a lot as she talks about the unknown chapter ahead: Will she feel an instant connection to her child? Will motherhood be better than her hopes or worse than her fears? How many diapers does a baby go through in a day? She asks this last question with silly glee. I deftly match her broad enthusiasm and big-hearted curiosity, letting my interactions loosen to reflect her style.
Dinesh arrives next. He’s from India, attending the local university, and although his English skills are quite good, I change my diction and slow the pace of my speech, so it’s easier for him to converse with me. (After a few sessions, he tells me he appreciates the slower speech and clearer pronunciation). Dinesh wants to distance himself from the rigid and unfulfilling expectations of his Indian family but separating from those seems impossible to him.
He’s the eldest son, so familial/cultural expectations of his role weigh on him. He wants to become a veterinarian, and his family is aghast that he would choose this over becoming a ‘real’ doctor. Dinesh wants to choose his own wife – maybe a Westerner – which “they would never accept,” he says somberly. I’m careful to be more tentative with Dinesh. He doesn’t need one more person telling him what he should do, so I hold off on any strong suggestions, instead encouraging his need to consider the many different options in front of him.
I’ve worked with a lesbian architect right after working with a weary combat veteran, a computer-coding nerd right after working with the flamboyant local arts council treasurer, an eighty-two-year-old just after working with a twenty-two-year-old, a New Age “Cali girl” right after a born-and-bred Southerner. In every case, my goal is for us to work inside their process rather than expecting them to work within my process. Day after day, in session after session, I shape-shift in order to meet my clients on their home turf.
In doing this, I encounter different values, different life lenses, different vocabularies, and different tolerances. Sometimes I change my manner or presentation style; sometimes, I change my emotional demeanor. I can be witty and relaxed, then serious and philosophical, depending on which connects best with the person sitting across from me. In some sessions, I’m direct and challenging; in others, I’m gentle, supportive, and endlessly compassionate.
Highly verbal and interactive, then quiet and deeply pensive. I keep hold of my authenticity underneath the shape-shifting; I never feel false or contrived, never feel like I’m straining to be something different than who I am. Rather, I feel flexible, curious, and engaged – dancing with each client who brings different tunes, different rhythms, and different styles of movement. Engaging so differently with each client keeps my heart and mind much more open; I can’t indulge in narrow thinking if I want to be in sync with their process.
Some clinicians I know find this kind of shifting impossible. Perhaps they’ve been trained in a particular modality, and each client gets “handled” with the same phrases, the same action points, and the same kinds of observations and tasks. Other clinicians may not have a facility for translating their work into different “client languages” – they would feel phony or stressed if they tried to make their responses into an idiosyncratically-crafted style of sentences or a particularly-chosen vocabulary. But I was trained that working inside the client’s process actually deepens and enhances the therapeutic relationship, so I notice the subtle expressions and verbiage, and “codes” each client employs in expressing themselves.
In fact, I find shape-shifting to be part of the essence of connection. It feels creative, enlivening, and very enticing to be deeply attentive to the ways a client presents, speaks, thinks, or processes.
“Stay light-footed,” my internship supervisor used to say. He taught me to remain ever-ready to leave the therapeutic “track” I was following to shift to a more effective path if the client’s process called for that. He encouraged me to be willing to see my client differently at any point, prepared to drop my interventions in order to incorporate a new approach that might work better.
After forty years of practice, his training still serves me beautifully. Trust is inherently important to the therapeutic process. Shape-shifting is one way to build trust, opening the way toward the deepest healing for my clients.
For me, conscious, careful shape-shifting feels like an expression of therapy. It is the true art of therapy.
* All names and physical descriptions have been changed for privacy considerations.