In ordinary social life, there is no equivalent to the psychotherapeutic situation.Anthony Storr, author and psychoanalyst
Some of you may recall back in January, I began my little mini-series of articles exploring the World of therapy by firstly writing about some of the different types of therapy. For this month I wanted to explore the importance of the therapeutic space, (where (hopefully) the magic happens so to speak)!
We therapists like to talk about “setting the container” in our work. What we mean is creating a safe, consistent space where therapeutic work can take place. A symbolic vessel needs to be created for the therapy work to be poured into and safely held.
Setting the space
This not only refers to the importance of the safe, consistent and private physical space of the consulting room but also to the somewhat mundane insistence that we meet our clients at the same time, on the same day each week, for the same amount of time, and at the same location. This consistency allows a rhythm for the therapy to emerge. In a world where holding a dedicated space that is consistent and reliable is a rarity, having your weekly therapy session can become a real haven for personal unfoldment.
With online therapy, the space is different. The client is responsible for theirs, not as the therapist would be if the session was in-person. However there still needs to be a therapeutic frame in which the work happens, it’s an adapted frame (physically marked by the limits of our screens) but a frame, nonetheless. And let’s not forget the potential for the disinhibition effect with online therapy, this being that some people feel safer online to open up, as the barrier of the computer screen allows for greater invisibility.
Another part of setting the container for the work, is agreeing to certain terms by which you’ll work with your therapist. This can include how much notice you need to give to cancel your session, when confidentiality might be breached and/or how your therapist is insured. These terms allow you to know where you stand with your therapist and adds to the safety of the space.
Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries
The absolute key to creating a safe space is boundaries. Ultimately this is what we’re talking about throughout this piece. Without boundaries, the symbolic vessel for therapy cannot exist nor function. I like to think about boundaries as the rope around a boxing ring, taught and strong enough to contain the people in the ring, but with sufficient give to handle and hold unexpected movement.
My favourite way of considering the therapeutic space is through the Greek word Temenos. This word refers to a physical space allocated especially to some sort of spiritual pursuit or worship. In terms of therapy, Temenos refers to the private space which holds the relationship between the client and therapist and the work therein. It’s important that this space is protected from the everyday world so that it becomes and remains sacred and special. For the space to be a bit other worldly so that clients can suspend their everyday selves to allow for something precious to emerge.
Creating and maintaining the therapeutic space is incredibly important for effective work is to take place. This process understandably occupies the first stage of therapy, and it’s only when the space is ready, that we can feel safe enough to begin our personal exploration.
I have purposefully omitted a crucial (and I mean crucial) element to psychotherapy. This being the relationship between client and therapist. I’ll explore this most vital ingredient in my next instalment. Till next time.
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash