What is happening in those awkward silences?

Shared silence can be many things: disturbing, awkward, terrifying, peaceful, romantic… the list continues.

I find that silence in therapy, particularly at the beginning of a therapeutic process, has a tendency to be disturbing and awkward for both therapist and client. And I think this discomfort has something to teach us both inside and outside the therapy room.

Often I can see or sense discomfort when the talking stops. Sometimes a client has to tell me that the silence is disturbing to them. Often it is difficult to get to the bottom of. People know they are disturbed but don’t know the nature of it.

Sometimes people feel exposed, other times they feel uncomfortable. Ideas of ‘doing therapy right’ come up. Discomfort at being under my gaze is another avenue of exploration.

As a therapist, I want to leave room for my client’s mind to wander, for a feeling to arise, for them to just be. But I don’t want to leave them feeling abandoned, either. Sometimes I feel challenged by the silence, other times my curiosity and anxiety increases until I am the one to step in and say something.

Anytime anxiety rises and/or we feel uncomfortable, something is happening. It is a sign that we are on the edge of something.

Language is a safe place for many (although not all) of us. Ideas are interesting, our words entertain and engage, we are thinking and being all at the same time. When language stops, what is happening?

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
– Pablo Neruda, Keeping Quiet

Sylvia Boorstein reads Pablo Neruda’s poem Keeping Quiet on Maria Popova’s site Brain Pickings.

The word ‘perhaps’ stands out. Stepping outside of language for a moment, however brief, takes us into new territory. In this new land we don’t know what will happen. But we create the opportunity for something new if we can bear our discomfort for a fleeting moment. Then we come back and we talk. We tell each other what happened. Until another silence occurs and we start it all over again.

Psychotherapy works best when it is connected with our experience. The difficulties of silence are one of many ways that we can have experiences in the therapy room that are then explored and integrated. Where we explore new territory and come back to report about it.

And finally, in silence we are in our bodies, the bodies that didn’t always speak. We are sitting with our cells which are older than language. And so in silence we give more of ourselves an opportunity to come into the conversation. In using silence we deepen our experience and thus we deepen our work. Carefully, gently, one little sliver at a time.

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