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The Me in You: Parallel Process in Psychotherapy

When the client is the mirror.

Some time ago, I lost one of the most significant relationships of my life. In a spate of rampant, and sometimes unwelcome, synchronicity, I have had several clients walk into my consulting room carrying issues and concerns that reflect my own. This has provided a crucible for self-reflection that has both benefited my clients and propelled my own evolution. Everything is material for change. Let's look at that...

James came to me several months ago, heartbroken over the loss of the love of his life. He was struggling not only with his sense of loss, but feelings of betrayal, his own responsibility in the matter, self-doubt, and an overarching sadness, just to start. We began to work on developing some perspective — who was responsible for what, what was this on-going undercurrent of anxiety, what was the place and motive of this grief, where was he now and where did he now want to go — and so on.

Not long into our therapeutic relationship, I suffered my own loss and, at our next meeting, I found myself staring straight into a mirror of my own grief. Well, now, what do you do with that?

As a therapist, you can do two things: You can allow your own issues to get the best of you and get drawn into your client's spin — very messy — or you can use your own process to benefit the client, and your client's process to propel your own. That's parallel process, and it's a powerful tool that benefits everyone when employed judiciously. It is a teacher, a guide, and a mentor.

As therapists, we are taught to maintain clinical distance — no personal items in the office, no self-exposure, no personal interchange (like gifts or cards) at holiday time, etc. It's a nice idea, but, the truth is, we are human and so are our clients — that's one of the reasons that people who are in this profession are in this profession, and one of the reasons that people needing support and guidance seek us out. Boundaries are necessary, but, by necessity, they are also fluid. This is the nature of human relationship.

For my part, my "interpretation" of clinical distance involves my therapeutic style, which is very conversational, rather than the "I see... tell me more... " and "How do you feel about that?" nonsense. Credit a brilliant, and sometimes brutal, supervisor at Columbia for that idiosyncrasy. He taught me that therapy is like T'ai Chi or Aikido — hard is soft and soft is hard. Very often my clients have actually asked me, "Are we doing therapy?" and my invariable response is, "Wait."

Back to James. As we began to deconstruct the warp and woof (a reference to the "fabric of life" from the Bhagavad Gita) of his relationship, the stream of his process began to feed me. Things I would bring up to him and strategies I would suggest for recreating his life without his love — thoughts and strategies I would never have brought to myself because a fish, after all, doesn't know that he's wet — became a stage for my own healing. And, as I began to move forward, I was able to then bring my own process back to him, drawing on my own perspective and experience to help shape and shepherd his.

James, quite unwittingly, became involved in a tandem group process each time he walked into my office. We each moved through our individual grief experiences — contained, yet held within the same container — and both were the better for it.

And that's what it's all about, isn't it? Because life is short and pain is long and, knowingly or unknowingly, we are only here to help each other out.

The holidays ensued and here I was again, confronted with James' backsliding into his grief (again, mirroring my own regression); Joan and David suddenly in the throes of divorce; Karin and Bob, reaching a breaking point; Leslie's questioning her marriage, her life and her purpose — anger, death, rage, resentment, apathy, loss, God and grace and angels. Yuck.

Were it not for my own process — a process guided by clinical distance, professional idiosyncrasy, the grace to see my reflection in the mirror of my clients without becoming lost in it, and the shepherding of my own much more than simply brilliant therapist — and were it not also for my ability to see that whole process mirrored in the struggles and concerns of my clients, I honestly feel that I would not have been as effective in working through those struggles and concerns with them.

James is stronger than ever; Joan and David are working through their differences; Bob finally gets it and Leslie is finding her way. This is no thanks to me, as I am only a vehicle and a guide. Thanks are due more to the process that helped me to see my client's process more clearly, allowing me to then offer tools that might prove helpful. In the end, it's all a circle (pun intended).

So, the next time you look into your therapist's eyes, think back to the barbershop. You know how there are always mirrors on the front and back wall and they reflect each other into infinity? That's parallel process and it happens far more often than you may realize, often much to your benefit.

Parallel process is at the heart and apex of the dynamic transferential relationship and, again, when employed judiciously, supports the development of a truly transactional helping relationship. You give more than you know, and the good therapist receives and utilizes that gift with grace and alacrity.

So, what's the "takeaway" for you, as both client and evolving human? Get out of your own way. Rather than becoming mired in self-pity or even the weight of your personal concerns in the face of their reflection, take what is given as a gift and a grace and use it to help propel yourself into a new iteration of your life.

I am reminded here of Ram Dass who, while doing a meditation to help himself get his head around the idea of aging and death in service of a book on those very subjects, suffered a massive stroke. Rather than falling victim to his circumstances, he said, "Aha... so this is what it's like to be old and infirm! I can use this." And so he has, writing not only a brilliant conclusion to his book — a conclusion that had eluded him for want of experience — but continuing his invaluable spiritual teachings from a new perspective, revitalizing old students, garnering new ones, and continuing in the bodhisattva tradition of his own Karma Yoga, gifted to him by his guru, Sri Neem Karoli Baba Maharaji.

Everything is material for change, transformation, and evolution — in reflection and in practice. Evolve, baby.

© 2009 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved.