As a therapist, I am trained in how to provide mental and emotional safety for an individual.
Some of the skills we are taught include how to show people we are listening (i.e. body language, mirroring, etc.), when and how to respond, and when to simply stay quiet.
It’s a lot of what my mother taught me as a child, too. We didn’t know I was autistic then, but my mother worked very hard to teach me social skills. I naturally loved deep conversations, but I had to learn when it was appropriate to ask questions, respond, confront, and the like.
As an autistic adult now, I still love deep, direct conversations. I’ve always been drawn to psychology and it felt natural for me to grow into the role of a therapist.
When I am in a therapy session, I am prepared to let that time be all about the client. I measure every response or internal reaction in response to what will benefit the client.
How I wish it was that simple outside the therapy room.
But it’s not. And it cannot be. Because everyday conversations and relationships are not designed to be solely for the benefit of one person. There is an appropriate back and forth.
I’ve had therapy clients ask if they can be friends with me after we concluded therapy. I explain the ethics and laws in place that prohibit that (at least for a certain period of time).
In addition to the ethics and legalities, I also question if they would actually enjoy our friendship. They are used to a conversation and relationship that is all about them. It would be jarring and difficult for them to transition to a give and take. I strongly suspect they may think, “Damn, Jackie talks a lot.”
Therapeutic relationships are also unique in that I have permission to dig deep into a client’s internal landscape for their personal benefit.
For example, when I have an off-sense that a client is not telling me the full story, I will simply say, “I’m sensing there is more to this story.” My tone also lets the client know that I know there’s more there and I’m inviting them to share.
Outside of a therapy relationship, I do not have the same permission to intrude into someone’s life. It may not be appropriate for me to ask a new accquantainance, “Hey, I can tell you’re exaggerating that story, what’s the actual truth?”
Even if it’s a situation that I feel may benefit someone, that individual may not want to share their interior world or be ready.
In a therapy session, a client walks in expecting to have deep conversations.
In my social relationships, a person does not have this expectation. I have to gauge the environment, the quality of the relationship, and much more before I get too personal.
Sometimes though, I fail.
A friend recently disclosed that he’s been attending sex addicts anonymous. I mistook his disclosure as a sign that he was ready to talk more about it.
He wasn’t. My questions and thoughts quickly overwhelmed him and negatively impacted our friendship. I circled back later to apologize and repair.
But I did think about how it would have gone differently had we been in a therapeutic relationship.
The expectations, permissions, and structure of therapy make it easier for me to know my role and actions. They also make it easier for me to deeply connect with another person.
Sometimes, I wish it was that straightforward outside of the therapy room.
But then I remind myself, inside a therapy room, I am only sharing parts of myself. I am basing my choices on what is best for another person.
Outside the therapy room, I would like to share more of my full self and have true equality. And that means, I have to leave behind the structured relationship of therapy.
I am an autistic art therapist who provides therapy for autistic individuals
and those who wonder if they might be autistic.