Life of the mind: Saying less

June 18, 2014

My supervisor—a senior training therapist who helps me with my patients—crossed her ankles and adjusted her glasses. I was reading out an account of one particular session. I was exhausted all over again just remembering it—what the patient had been wearing (bright things), how she’d started (loudly), what she’d said (a lot), what I’d said (nothing useful), what I’d felt (help!), what I wished I’d said but didn’t think of (still haven’t) and everything else I could cram on to the page immediately afterwards, hunched scribbling over the desk in the institutional consulting room (quickly, before I forget).

When I’m actually with a patient, I feel quite good at building up a rapport and my interpretations seem insightful and understood. Then, when reading out my notes in public, I find I was manically talkative, blind and wide of the mark. I say—“I haven’t quite captured the essence... It wasn’t really like that… I mean, I think the patient knew what I was getting at…”

A slight smile from my supervisor and a cough. A thunderstorm seems to be darkening the sky outside. “You should say less,” she tells me. “I hardly spoke!” I complain (though in reality I said even more than I wrote down). She told me, kindly, that when she trained as a psychoanalyst herself, her supervisor said the same every week, once when she had spoken only twice in the reported session: “Say less.”

Anna Blundy on the daughter-father relationship

Anna Blundy on getting to know new patients

Anna Blundy on other people's feelings

I used to be maddened at how little my own analyst says, wondering why I was forking out for him to sit there mulling over ideas for decorating his house in France while I maundered on from the couch. “Oh, say ANYthing!” I thought, day after day, week after week. I found the silence hostile, a sneering presence behind me, even a potential attacker. It was years before I understood that this was my own projection and that it had no bearing on present reality. Another patient might have found silence soothing, unjudgemental, even liberating (who are these people?).

A supervisor once told me to point out a patient’s anxiety during the silence, as in: “The silence at the beginning of the session seems to make you anxious.” I obeyed and the response was fascinating. The patient remembered a magic box he would get out to entertain the adults at parties when he was little. So, in his mind, I was an adult whose benign attention he could only keep with his box of tricks.

When I first thought about training I almost decided it wasn’t for me—how could I keep quiet and let someone else talk for a whole hour? It would be unprecedented. But it was during a talk by a therapist whose child patient was driving her and himself mad that I realised how active the silence can be. Far from wondering whether to go for the terracotta or the slate tiles, my analyst is fully engaged, absorbing the unconscious communications in my words, behind my words, in my silences. There is something like Derrida’s “différance” that is being sought—the emotional reality between the thought and its expression or, in this case, even between the emotion and the defensive formulation of the thought. It’s what psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas calls “the unthought known,” something we can feel and acknowledge on some level but cannot consciously remember, formulate or articulate.

The NHS usually provides an hour’s psychotherapy once a week for a year. Obviously, in this scenario, uncovering these tiny tendrils of emotional truth is a pretty tall order, but one thing is for sure—you won’t uncover them if you keep butting in. Note to self: Shh.