From the moment a client enters a therapist’s office, the therapist is asked to do many things. To identify. To diagnose. To explain. To treat. To support.
And, according to Mark O’Connell, they are also expected to act. He writes, “Therapist, you are a performing artist, whether you realize it or not. From the moment a client enters your office, you are on stage face-to-face with an audience, a scene partner, and a variety of characters that you do not yet know how to play.”
In his new book, The Performing Art of Therapy: Acting Insights and Techniques for Clinicians, O’Connell offers clinicians entrance into a world where they not only more deeply understand their clients — and their often unspoken wishes, fears, and wants — but more deeply access their own selves to be more available and effective with their clients.
“Effective technique,” O’Connell writes, “is less about what we do — less about reading a script by rote — and more about how we do it, how we use ourselves, how we perform our interventions.”
Responding adaptively, reflexively and creatively allows for the client to explore the full range of their voice unhindered by knee-jerk reactions or interventions. Therapists who allow for the expression of the fullest selves also provide a model for clients to learn to more fully express themselves, and, according to O’Connell, “to relate, reflect, adapt, and make meaning in their lives.”
The performing art of therapy is about being led not by preconceived notions of what should or should not happen in the therapist’s office, but rather allowing the process to become one of discovery, unfolding before both the clinician and the client and laying ground for new ways of being to emerge.
O’Connell offers psychoanalyst Steven Mitchell’s depiction of therapy. He writes, “Mitchell offered that therapist and client could each open themselves up to the mysterious third potential space between them and work together to construct truths in the service of self-coherence.”
The first step is to listen. Therapists must listen to what clients say and don’t say, as well as their own reactions to it.
Like acting, therapy depends on the occurrence of what O’Connell calls a “relational event,” or an “exchange of attention, mind, emotion, energy, and imagination between at least two people.”
What propels both art forms is listening. O’Connell writes, “Listening is an action, the main action that we rely on in absolutely everything we do as therapists and performers. It is the egg that keeps the dough together.”
As clinical performers, therapists must have a sense of what is occurring inside them as they sit with a client, as well as how they are presenting to the client. O’Connell’s suggestion is to develop self-awareness, and not self-consciousness.
Through mindfulness, therapists can become more aware, and connected to, the thoughts, feelings and actions that are occurring inside them — a process which then affects their clients. O’Connell writes, “Our own self-awareness and specificity of thought and intention will invite clients to connect with us more than anything else we do, no matter how we sound or look.”
Being present is also not a destination. We must find our center again and again, and we must practice embodying our fullest self and being fully present in each moment.
O’Connell compares the spontaneous gesture described by Winnicott to the psychological gesture created by acting teacher Michael Chekhov. He writes, “According to Chekhov, the psychological gesture awakens you to the emotional core of the character, and stirs, molds, and attunes ‘your whole inner life’ to her truth, her will and objectives.”
Describing his work with Dorian, a client who “sought perfection in everything from his hair to his grammar,” O’Connell offers the following: “It wasn’t until I let myself feel the pang of failing him that we were able to live in a room together.”
By surrendering to the third space between them, and the idea that failures can inform, guide and support the creative process, O’Connell uses his presence to help his client more fully connect with himself, accept his own failings and even find joy in the process.
From there, the therapist’s role is simply to allow the client to more fully play their own character. O’Connell writes, “We can trust ourselves to see them in all of their truth, and to hold their needs, desires, obstacles, strengths, gifts, and frustrations — the good and the bad, and the ugly — in our compassionate, curious minds.”
The Performing Art of Therapy explores the value of the relationship that develops between therapist and client. It brilliantly demonstrates how authentic connection forms the foundation of all therapeutic processes, and more important, how therapists can use their presence to help build this connection with their clients.
The Performing Art of Therapy: Acting Insights and Techniques for Clinicians
Routledge, February 2019
Paperback, 224 Pages