Palo Alto Counseling, Psychotherapist in Palo Alto and Menlo Park, CA, California - Carol Campbell, MFT
706 Cowper Street, Palo Alto, CA 94301 • (650) 325-2576
License MFC 28308
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The Psychotherapist's Waiting Room as a Rorschach Test

by Carol Campbell, MFT

My patient's heels are clicking loudly down the hall as she approaches the door to my suite, each step sounding the alarm: "Here I come, ready or not!" Rather than hold the door handle as she closes it so as to minimize the metal-on-metal sound, this patient lets the door slam behind her. Then she opens the door to the private waiting room inside the suite, and lets it remain open as she pushes my call light button and slips into a chair to wait for my signal to come into my office. Catherine has arrived for her session.

Catherine has a pressing, sometimes desperate, need to be heard and seen and understood, so to her it seems internally congruent and thus unnoticeable to her that she creates noise, speaks in a loud voice, and ignores the common sense rule of closing doors behind her that she has opened. It would not occur to her that the door is kept closed to ensure the privacy of everyone coming and going through our suite. She wants the door open so that she can strain her ears to hear any sounds that might be coming from my office – tantalizing hints of who I might be when we are not together.

Catherine is anxious, and often has trouble holding her feelings inside, so they leak out. She tends to quickly give in to the urge to get rid of feelings, rather than actually feel them and think about them. She greets another person who is in the waiting room awaiting her visit with my suitemate. "What are you in for?" Catherine asks the woman, as if making jokes about prison might relieve her ambivalent feelings of being in therapy, and of being seen by another person there. Catherine enjoys the attention and caring I give her, but she is also humiliated to need me. Her shame at her dependency on me leads to her aggressive entry into my space.

Peter's arrival for his session looks much different. Peter likes to sit in the parking lot in his car for half an hour before his session, often in the same parking spot. He has a routine of coming into the building at precisely 15 minutes before his scheduled time. He wears soft-soled shoes and does his best to be invisible as he makes his way up the stairs and down the hallway. He slips into the waiting room as quietly as a mouse. He puts himself into the tortured position of listening for my previous patient to leave my office, a cruel reminder of how he is one of a number of others who see me for therapy. At exactly 5 minutes before his time, Peter turns on my signal light. I imagine him sighing with deep relief. He has made it through another week.

Peter was adopted at birth, and has gone through his life constantly searching for evidence that he is not important, has been discarded, and must not really matter much anyway. He soothes his terror that I, too, will leave him, or not show up, by coming to the premises so early, and by having a calming ritual of waiting for me to be ready for him. He uses the waiting room as a protective cave where he imagines being momentarily safer from the torment of his unresolved grief over his sad beginning in life. And yet by doing so, he puts me in the position of someone else in his life who makes him suffer.

Marissa sees the waiting room as her enemy, so she spends as little time in it as possible. She times her arrival there down to the minute. For Marissa the waiting room is a glaring reminder of how separate she and I are, that we have different roles in our therapeutic relationship, and that I shut her out of my personal life. So the waiting room becomes fair game for Marissa's skill in finding faults and problems. Where did I ever get the idea that that color of yellow is suitable for the walls? Is there nothing more interesting to read than The New Yorker? Would it kill me to keep a box of tissues on the table during allergy season? What year was I planning to have the carpet cleaned again? Could I please think of a less ridiculous system than having to turn on a call light to signal her arrival? Why am I too lazy to just be waiting for her there in the first place? Would I please get a floor lamp instead of a table lamp so that people can see what they are trying to read?

Nothing about the waiting room will feel welcoming and reassuring to Marissa until we do a lot of therapy around her painful early childhood. Her parents had little ability to do the essential work of acknowledging her natural desire as a baby to be merged with her mother, and then gradually helping her move toward the reality that she is separate. They were too caught up in their own issues to be of much help in leading Marissa to a place of being happy to be a separate person herself, capable of pursuing her own dreams. Until then, Marissa will need to rage at all the symbols of my keeping her out of my personal life, and at not being able to control me and have me think and feel what she thinks and feels.

Each person who comes to therapy will have important reactions to the waiting room. My own journey as a patient has prepared me to deeply understand what transpires, because I can relate from my own experience. Each idiosyncratic response helps me better understand what it is I need to do as the therapist to help heal this particular patient's wounds. A wise therapist will be on the alert for the treasure trove of information about the patient that can be discovered in talking about being in the waiting room.

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Calls regarding appointments are welcome at my private voicemail: 650-325-2576.

Carol L. Campbell, MFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist providing psychotherapy and psychoanalysis for individual adults and couples in Palo Alto, California. She has degrees from Brown University and Santa Clara University and has been licensed since 1991. Carol is a graduate of the Palo Alto Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Training Program sponsored at Stanford by the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis and was a candidate at the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California in San Francisco from 2010-2011. She is also a clinical member of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists and the Northern California Society for Psychoanalytic Psychology.

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