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Would The Real Stranger Please Stand Up?

I am a stranger to so many people that I know. I hide. I don’t really mean to (some of the time), and I do (hide, that is). And, sometimes, while I am the therapist, I do MEAN TO hide--some things.

I learned early, though I’m not sure how, that people like to talk about themselves. It was an important lesson in the socialization of Barbara. Knowing it, and acting on it by listening well, became the primary tool in my “Please Like Me” approach to life.

Listening became a critical skill in my ministerial bag of tricks. Then, I doubled down and became a psychologist. Listening is the sine qua non of therapizing. For the first year or two of training one gets to do little else. The basics are even called “Listening Skills.” Every beginning student I’ve taught, sooner rather than later, complains of having to be a **** “parrot”—with more and less animus depending.

I never balked at listening, or reflecting, because I learned early and well—people like to talk about themselves. Listening did buy me a popularity prize. People could count on me to hear them, to see them, to reflect them back to them.

The price I paid was that I often stayed, and stay, a stranger. And, I’ve recently been reflecting myself to myself regarding the costs of staying so alone. What does it mean to hide like that?

I have always had a friend or two, at any given time, who get to see a bit behind the listening façade. I’m not sure how they become so. I wonder if they are even better listeners than I.

A corollary of “people want to talk about themselves” is “people don’t want to listen to you.” I think I believe this too—at least my behavior indicates it’s true. “People don’t want to listen to you” often translates to “you are not interesting”; “you have nothing of value to say.” Maybe there are other messages too—I’m just starting to look.

But, I found the right field to ply as my trade—professional listening.

I was taken aback one day when a new client demanded at the end of our intake interview, “Are you part of the damn nanny state?! I can’t work with one of them!”

In this moment’s frame of “stranger,” I see his challenge as a profound compliment—he was demanding to know—to truly KNOW—something of me, before he would commit. He had listened for a moment—albeit inaccurately—to a nonverbal cue, and demanded to know more—of ME. And he PURSUED knowing more! He did not let middle-class courtesy get in the way of “knowing” just who he would be working with.

In so much of the work of therapy the therapist stays a stranger, and most often, needs to stay the stranger. Why this is so differs according to theoretical and practical rationales. I have been finding myself of late wondering about the deficits, while knowing many if the benefits.

Another therapist said to me recently, “It’s not hiding.” But, I beg to differ. The reasons it is “hiding” might be very honorable and necessary—and it is HIDING. We deliberately (and one hopes, consciously with some integrity and careful choice) put our selves out of view; that is the very DEFINITION of “hiding”—I looked it up.

There are things about us that a client intuits, or feels in the process. Often they try to guess, and a few will ask. Even fewer still will demand. And, there is very little that we tell them of who we are, how we have come to be that, where we are going-or, even where we see them going. There is much about that that is good, and I wonder if it is good to be such a stranger. I will not buck the standards of practice professionally—the primary one being that the therapy is in service of the client (not the therapist).

And, in my private life and worlds I need to reconsider remaining a stranger to others, hiding behind the popularity rule of “people like to talk about themselves.”

Now here is a curiosity: my name Barbara is from the Greek for “stranger”—“there is something in a name." Was it destiny? This throws a curious light on the fact that I've always disliked "Barbara" (while loving dearly the aunt for whom I was named), and I changed my name (now 20 years ago) to Sophie (wisdom--knowing).

Would the Stranger inside please come out of hiding and talk about herself? You might like it; others do.

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