Clients often ask me what should they be talking about in therapy. If I was in a funny mood, I may give them a stereotypical therapist answer: “what do you think you should be talking about in therapy?” In truth, there are a whole host of reasons a client may ask that question, and they shouldn’t always receive a direct answer from me. But sometimes a client asks that when they genuinely get the sense that there are deep issues they know they need to talk about and address in therapy, and they don’t want to waste time by talking about the past week’s events. They know there are more serious things to get to, but they don’t know how and fear that talking about mundane things will not get them anywhere in treatment.
When I sense this is the motivation behind that question, I often give a client a metaphor of a laser. A laser is usually a beam of highly concentrated light arching from one place to another. But, as we know, we cannot always see a laser beam unless there are particles in the air to reflect the light, such as smoke, water vapor, or cheap tissues that shred in the air! For our purposes, the sense a person gets that there is something “wrong” with them deep down, or maybe their pattern of ruining good relationships, or maybe their phobia to a variety of things, or anything a person knows they should talk about but don’t know how to… that is the laser beam. Whether it is a person’s core sense of self, or typical way of relating to others, or history of anxious behavior, all these “issues” will constitute a laser beam that is emitted from the client to the therapist. But the laser beam cannot be spoken about directly; it cannot be seen unless it is sent through particulate in the air. In other words, a person’s emotional troubles cannot be grasped directly; they have to be perceived through small talk, through a dialogue about the day’s or week’s events, or through mundane musings. In short, the “stuff” that a client fears wasting his or her time talking about will contain the emotional material he or she really wants to be addressing in treatment. The talented therapist is able to perceive this and highlight it for useful discussion.
So, when I sense that a client is asking me what he or she should talk about, concerned they won’t get to important stuff, I would answer… “Whatever you want to talk about. Don’t worry, the important stuff will emerge one way or another.”