Thoughts from the Couch – The many voices of silence.

For many, when they think of psychotherapy they think of talking, but sometimes, words seem woefully inadequate. The pain, the shame, the experience, too extreme for it to be simplified or minimised by words.Not speaking and speaking are both human ways of being in the world, but speaking seems to be the more expected. If we take the time to notice, there are many conversations that take place in silence. They are often expressing feelings that are stored deep in the place that words cannot capture. Sadly, for most, silence is uncomfortable and so the silent space is hurriedly filled with words or distractions, and as a result those moments pass unacknowledged. I have come to understand the differing voices of silence as I sit with my clients, and see that it is not always words that draws one person to another, but more the inner bond of our full presence. The words of Elbert Hubbard hovering, as a reminder, when I can find myself wanting to fill the space, as silence howls with all its might; “He who does not understand your silence will probably not understand your words.”

There are many different levels and reasons for silence. John O’Donohue in an excerpt from Eternal Echoes writes; “There are no words for the deepest things. Words become feeble when mystery visits and prayer moves into silence. In post-modern culture the ceaseless din of chatter has killed our acquaintance with silence. Consequently, we are stressed and anxious. Silence is a fascinating presence. Silence is shy; it is patient and never draws attention to itself. Without the presence of silence, no word could ever be said or heard. Our thoughts constantly call up new words. We become so taken with words the we barely notice the silence, but the silence is always there. The best words are born in the fecund silent that minds the mystery.”

I trained originally as a Gestalt therapist, and phenomenological tracking was a part of my training, which was a relief for me as my childhood had taught me to be hyper vigilant, a useful tool for my work as a therapist. I had learnt to listen with my eyes as well as my ears, my senses at all times fully alive and totally present to any given moment. The phenomenological approach encourages us to stay as close to our clients experience as possible by staying in the here and now, and not interpreting behaviour. Research shows that words represent only 7% of how we communicate and unless we see silence as an expression, a conversation all in itself, we will miss all the creative ways that people speak non-verbally. Facial expressions, the tear that is barely visible, the smile that doesn’t match the story each passing in a moment and easily missed. The flicker of an eye, the sharp intake of breath, the subtle stroke of a hand on hand can often unwittingly reveal the motive or even the content of our clients silence, which can be useful to explore.

Some of the most powerful moments I have experienced personally, in my own therapy, and with my clients have been when the silence of what is not being said, but thought, and felt in the moment, permeates the room. I have sat for entire sessions week on week, with a client whose silence protected them from the shame and trauma they had encountered in childhood. It was being able to tolerate, and be totally present to that experience, that eventually allowed my client to say their first word. A moment when, having sacrificed my own desire to know, understand and fix, allowed for their healing journey to continue, as it had begun the months before, but in silence. In each session my deepest desire for my client was that they felt my full, unconditional presence, and in turn, there being no need to say or do anything, but just feel my total commitment to their journey, no matter how long it took.

I have had to learn to manage the need to just say something as I have watched my client crumble, relaying the story of their child having stabbed themselves numerous times. The fireman who spoke of picking up the children’s shoes after the Grenfell Tower fire. The young man who spoke of being a survivor of incest and his wish to die. As a therapist the stories are endless and the moments of pain deep and breathtaking. As I hold space for all the despair that life throws at each of us, I am aware that, there are moments in therapy, where we long to be held and met with compassionate curiosity as we reveal our hidden selves. For some, the deepest expression of their feelings is in the silence as words cannot always be trusted, nor have they been heard or welcomed. It is in the presence of silence, short or long in length, that they can start to emerge from the noise of their past and their truth can appear and confirm the uniqueness of their journey in this life.To be met by someone who can tolerate the uncertainty that silence can bring to those everyday life moments, allows a healing to begin.

It takes some time to move through the belief that we are not doing our job if no one is talking. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said, “Silence is a source of great strength” and I believe that to be true for both clients and myself as a therapist. I witness silence as being the vehicle that takes my clients to the innermost centre of their being. From that far off place, they engage with their thoughts, and even the words they may or may not choose to use. The silence may be fleeting or long, but in those moments, I know I need to get myself out of my own way, and be courageous enough to trust that I need not do anything. In that place of meeting, I am more open to learning about my client whether words are being spoken or not. More importantly, in those silent moments as my client enters their interior life, they can experience what happens for them when they reflect, with their full attention, on a particular topic or memory and feel affirmed, seen and safe as they share their inner world with me knowing that I will notice, whether there are words or not. Emerging from the silence, there are times I witness hearts start to unfurl and reach outwards into the world again after, what can feel like years, of suspended pain, and my heart sings, silently. I say silence can be more eloquent than words.

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