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Why Silence in Therapy is Good

If you were to meet me at a party, you might describe me as rambunctious, animated and a little irreverent. I like my coffee black and I like my humor crass.

So, it may surprise you to know that once I don my therapist scarf (or fingerless gloves, as may be the case), I tend to be the silent type. That’s right, I’ve found myself drawn toward psychoanalytic psychotherapy, often characterized by the blandly cynical gaze of the 70-year-old bearded dude, scrutinizing your be-couched form in silence.

It is not difficult to find resounding critiques of the silent therapist all over the media. When I meet new people, they are often surprised to find that I – an edgy, biracial, Gen XYer – would ascribe to the psychological theories put forward by a legion of stodgy, homophobic white guys.

Truth is, though Freud’s ideas were taken up and used in extreme and hurtful ways, he was – in many respects – well ahead of his time. The lessons he preached (though he rarely followed them himself!) about the importance of silence in therapy are more relevant today than ever.

In this age of “more,” we are constantly bombarded by information, be it about a devastating earthquake or a Kardashian wedding. In those rare moments of quiet, we instantly reach for our phone and begin Candy Crushing it. When entertainment is instantly available, it is hard to go long without plugging into our virtual lives. With everyone on the more-is-better bandwagon, even when we’re not checking our emails, we’re being asked to spend longer hours at work, to keep active social lives and all the while expected to make time for exercise, healthy eating, political change, and The Walking Dead.

All this stimulation is taking its toll. Research shows that technological multi-tasking lowers our IQ, increases our anxiety, and reduces our ability to think critically about ourselves and the world around us.

The therapy office may be the only space where immediate external stimulation is not readily available. Though it may feel uncomfortable at first, those who stick with therapy slowly come to realize the extraordinary benefits of a space where stillness is valued.

Here are 3 reasons why silence in therapy will radically shake up your life:

  1. Silence honors the awesomeness that is you.

    When you reveal something to your therapist and she is silent, truth is, she is thinking – about you. Your therapist might be the only person in the world who is listening to what you’re saying and putting it into the context of your entire life, who is feeling the impact of your words, not because of her own projections, but because she really knows you and your story in all its chaotic, painful splendor. Your silent therapist is honoring the beauty and sorrow of your life and feeling it deeply – before she speaks.

  2. Silence lets you tap into your tiny genius.

    You’ve just told your therapist you are having an affair and she remains quiet. Damn her! You expect others to react quickly and loudly. These reactions come as a huge relief because they take you away from your own experience – and all the guilt, shame and confusion that may come with it. In that moment of silence that your therapist grants, you are forced to reflect on the impact of what you think, say and feel. Once you learn to tolerate the rush of emotions that comes with true reflection, you will be able to turn inward and tap into your own wisdom about who and how you want to be in the world. Yes, tap that genius!

  3. Tolerating silence will make you a better person.

    It is frustrating when your therapist doesn’t jump to a verbal response. Underneath the frustration is anxiety. “What is she thinking? Is she judging me?!” By tolerating your therapist’s silence (and the emotions that come with it), you are exercising a valuable skill. When your direct report talks smack, when you’re already late and your toddler throws off his clothes, when your dude checks out that gorgeous 20-something right in front of you, you will now be able to take a moment, check in with yourself and consider how you want to respond.

The capacity to pause before reacting is a rare and marketable skill. You will stand out in a world that is filled with distraction and impulsivity. Though it goes against everything our culture teaches, learning to sit in silence with your therapist will shift the way you approach life – for the better.

Tiffany McLain

Tiffany McLain

Tiffany McLain has a psychotherapy practice in San Francisco where she specializes in working with young professionals who straddle multiple identities, be this professionally, ethnically or economically.

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