My first fear as a new therapist, and the fear of every new therapist I have trained or supervised, was that there would be silence in a session. At the beginning of our training we live in dread of the conversation getting stalled and not knowing how to get things going again. Over time, if we are fortunate to have skilled, compassionate trainers and supervisors, we learn that silence can be an important part of therapy for some people at some times. The universal nature of this fear has led me to reflect on what it is about silence that feels so scary and how there are many nuances to silence between two people that range from unbearably tense to deeply intimate.
In reflecting on my own fear of silence as a new therapist, I begin with my family background. I grew up in a family that didn’t speak directly about emotionally charged issues or any type of discomfort. I knew my mom was upset when I heard the pots and pans in the kitchen clanging with more than the usual amount of force and noise. She was silent but the house wasn’t. I remember being unable to speak about the many thoughts and questions I had about my interpersonal world around me, and I didn’t know how to start a conversation or keep it going with someone I didn’t know well. When I sensed a wide gulf between what I felt or thought inside and what I was able or willing to express to others, I felt tense, awkward and embarrassed. That was my worry as a new therapist: that I would again be faced with a moment of wanting to say something but not knowing what to say or how to say it. I told myself I was afraid of letting down my client, but I was actually more afraid of the feelings of self-consciousness and shame that were familiar to me in moments of silence.
After I had developed the requisite skills for handling many therapeutic dilemmas including becoming comfortable with silence, I remembered that I actually had an equally powerful but contrasting experience with silence in my family. My maternal grandfather was a quiet man. He was a reserved Midwestern man from a farming family. My memories of him contain few if any words but are filled with a sense of being valued and cared for. I always felt special in his eyes, not because of what I had accomplished but simply because I was his granddaughter. It’s hard to describe how he did this, but I felt his presence and attention without expectation or agenda. In this way, my grandfather prepared me for the intimacy of silence in the therapy room that goes beyond words and that allows for the emergence of deep feelings that need space and time to come to light. I never felt hurried by him, and I can embody that patient attention when I sense my client is holding a memory or emotion that is waiting to be expressed though neither of us knows in advance exactly what it is.
In my years of practicing psychotherapy, I have had many poignant and sometimes painful conversations with clients that have included words, tears, and moments of silence. My grandfather is still with me in those moments, as I find the strength that goes beyond words. I hope my reflections lead you to think about the different experiences you have had with silence outside the therapy relationship and how they have shaped your comfort and fears about sitting in silence with a client.