I have always been very open about the fact that when it comes to self-care I believe it is as important for myself as for my clients. It is at the heart of how I practice, being a great believer in show – don’t tell. I have my own therapist, and each day try to set aside some time when I remember we are human beings, not human doings.
Which is why last Sunday I sat with my local Quaker fellowship, in their silent observance. I do not consider myself a Quaker, but their community is a welcoming and open hearted one. It is quite unusual in our society to sit in silence as a group for an hour. We seem to feel pushed to break the silence, to impose ourselves upon it, perhaps for fear it might impose upon us. When you resist doing so the many layered nature of silence becomes clear to you. For one thing, true silence is in fact impossible, even if there were no external noises, the very act of being alive creates noise, the gurgles and groans of your own body, the sound of your breath, the beat of your heart.
Contemplative silence is designed to set the mind free, whichever spiritual tradition you belong to. Different beliefs, but a shared understanding that if we let go of our thoughts, and allow silence to replace them, knowledge and insight can follow.
Silence in the therapy room can have very similar functions. A vital part of my role is to not take up the therapeutic space from the person coming to me, it is their space, not mine. So being comfortable with not speaking is a vital first step, just as it is when you join the Quakers, or other contemplative group. Many struggle with this as trainees, how after all are we to offer our insightful reflection or show empathy without breaking the silence? Then there is the fact silence is so rare that as students our own discomfort can override the need to build a theraputic relationship. Silence can be deeply uncomfortable, even more so if the person opposite seems to be pleading with us to say something, to lessen the discomfort.
One of the skills I believe can only come with practice is knowing when to break the silence, and when someone needs to be enveloped in those thoughts which silence allows to grow and develop. Sometimes the discomfort is the driving force of change. This can be especially the case when someone is exploring taboo topics such as sex, or issues which are burdened with shame for them. Then if we reach out too early we rescue them, but the rescue is one which allows the difficult subject matter to be avoided for another week, sometimes in order to learn we need to not be rescued.
However I strongly believe that silence can go too far, and that it can even be a tool of oppression, particularly as therapy has a poor history of considering intersectional identities, and the power dynamics at play in the therapy room. Culturally silence can be seen as hostile or aggressive, if we do not say good morning to a workmate when they pass they would wonder what was wrong. Yet in the therapy room some have argued that the therapist must remain silent, waiting on the person who is already vulnerable to speak first.
Given that traditionally therapists have been white, cis, male, middle and upper class I wonder at a behaviour which would conventionally be described as rude or hostile being encouraged. Another thought occurs, those who have been raised Catholic may remember their First Holy Confession. Confession is one of the sacraments of the Catholic Church, and when I was growing up you made your first one at about 8 years old. You would explain to the priest anything you had done wrong that week, he would tell you how many prayers to say as a penance, and grant absolution. It is undoubtedly the case that for some adults Confession has been very therapeutic, the act not only of speaking out, and being heard, but of absolution providing comfort. For many children though confession presented a dilemma, namely, what should they confess? Generations of Catholic children have therefore been “creative” in confession, inventing transgressions if they were unable to remember any actual sins.
That is how power plays out, we seek to accommodate ourselves to it, to please it, to behave in ways which not only win its approval (or the approval of those whom we perceive to have power) but we also tailor our behavior in ways which we hope will not be punished. Now I do not think it is going to far to say that those early pioneers of psychotherapy occupied the position of secular priests, positions of power and authority. Indeed many of us, despite our best intentions to tear down the hierarchy still occupy that position. We may wish to destroy the power imbalance but we are still the gatekeepers, the respected professional, the occupier of the therapists, not the clients chair.
Given this, is it so hard to imagine that a parallel exists between the child scrabbling together something to confess, and some experiences of therapy? Confronted by the silence of someone they perceive to be more powerful than them a person in therapy may feel they should speak, not for themselves, but for the person with the power in the room. Should is a word laden with baggage, with non-consensual feelings and implications of doing what someone else wants, rather than what you need. As I often say to clients, shoulds are toxic.
There is another aspect in which silence can become a tool of oppression. Often survivors of abuse, in its many forms, are silenced both by their abuser and by the toxicity of shame and stigma. Silence for them becomes a natural state, since to speak is to invite danger, judgement and punishment. In this context when silence is all too familiar it can be our role to use words to encourage, reassure and build a space where a survivor can finally speak. Here silence can isolate if we do not recognise that silence can also be a weapon.
How then do we navigate the need for silence and the need for silence not to be another tool of oppression? I wish I could give a simple rule hear, a three-point model which would let you know when to hold silence and when to break it. Unfortunately there is no such rule. I am however reminded of the fact that the Quakers believe the silence will be broken when the spirit moves them to do so. Perhaps this is our answer, we need to be able to listen to ourselves. Do we desire to break the silence because of our own discomfort or is there value to the words beyond us, value to the person who has come seeking answers? Conversely do we hold the silence because we think it gives us power to wield or because we believe someone who needs it can make use of it? If we can hear from within ourselves the honest answer to these questions, then the sound of silence can be a very useful one in the therapeutic space.