Why Does My Therapist Stare at Me?

by steven
(richmond va)

30y/o white male.I recently quit going to a therapist I was seeing for dysthymia. I felt uncomfortable when the therapist would stare at me, silently, after I answered his questions as best I could. The silence would sometimes last as long as 30 seconds to 1 minute. I began to feel like I was wasting my time with therapy because it seemed like a question and answer session when what I was expecting was more concrete directions or instructions. My questions: Are long pauses appropriate? If so, what purpose do they serve? Were my expectations unrealistic?

Ben's Answer:

This is a question of style, or type of therapy that you are doing. Traditionally, it is fairly common for therapists to take a more receptive approach where they follow your lead, rather than leading you on their own agenda. Some people may hate this, yet there is a well established logic to that way of doing therapy.

In your moments of silence, your ego will feel threatened. It's a vulnerable position to be in, and one which most people cleverly avoid in every other social situation. Why does silence make us uncomfortable? Because we feel insecure and inadequate. Without words to create a diversion, we're left with just our naked feelings - and that is something that most of us secretly feel ashamed of. It's usually instilled in us at an early age - that feeling of shame. It's passed down to us from our parents, and generations on back, into the mists of time.

If a therapist really has some wisdom, and some deep self-awareness, then allowing those moments of emptiness may end up being very opportune times for self-discovery. But some therapists make the mistake of only going half-way. They create that silent space, but then leave the client to squirm and be confused and not at all sure what this is supposed to accomplish. So it should really be talked about. Process comments - like, "you seem uncomfortable when things get quiet between us," can open up a very deep and meaningful discussion. But if it just feels like a staring contest, not much benefit is likely to be gained.

As the client, you should know that it is more than alright to ask the therapist what is happening at those times, and what you're supposed to gain. You can just ask how change happens in therapy. If you ask 10 therapist this question, you will get 10 different answers. They may all be true. But you need to know what you've signed up for.

Personally I do some of both: Some silent introspection, and some very directive questions and even advice. And this depends a lot on the needs of the client I'm working with, and the nature of our therapy relationship at the time. Some therapists feel it's completely wrong to give advice. Again, it's just a matter of the therapists approach and methodology.

Ultimately, I think most therapists (to varying extents) share the belief that the most important answers should come from within the client - and not from the therapist. Finding your own inner truth is much more meaningful and transformational than being told some bit of information by a therapist. A therapist's main job is to be a good mirror for their client to see themselves.

Hope that helps.

Best Wishes,
Ben Schwarcz, MFT

Santa Rosa Psychotherapist

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