Therapist as mirror, why talking to someone you don't know can help

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Oftentimes, clients will expresss that one of the most useful aspects of psychotherapy is talking to someone who has no involvement in their life.  Why is this?

Our partners, family, friends, work colleagues and other connections all know us within a context.  Our lives are inter-linked.  Our actions and energy impact them, and they impact us.  Given this inter-connection, it is not entirely possible for someone we are involved with to hear us primarily from our own perspective.  It is more than likely, however compassionate and skilled they are, that they will have their own vested interest and view about what we are saying.  A talking therapist is someone who is not known to us, and with whom we have only a therapeutic relationship.  It is important to avoid dual roles and work with someone who is connected with us in another way, for this reason.

A psychotherapist in some ways functions like a mirror.  They offer you the opportunity to express yourself freely, without fear of their agenda, opinion or expectation.  It is as if they become a mirror, functioning to enable you to notice things about yourself that you may not have seen had you not together looked.

An important aspect of this mirroring is for the therapist when needed to reflect on how they are experiencing you, and what you are sharing.  Sometimes aspects of your experience may be inadvertantly pushed away because they are painful, or disowned because they feel shameful or too intense.  A therapist can help you reclaim and embrace those rejected feelings, thoughts and aspects of your self by being open and honest about what they sense in you.  They may well share their own emotional responses too where this is therapeutically useful.

To be able to provide mirroring, a skilled therapist will be experienced in acknowledging internally what is happening for them, managing it, and filtering what is therapeutically useful to share, and what is more about them and what is going on for them just now than about the relationship between you and your therapeutic needs.  This is fundamental to providing a therapeutic service, and is a key difference between therapy and social conversation.  Therapy is focused on you and your wants and needs, a non-therapeutic conversation is about both of the people involved and their wants and interests.

Talking therapists may well provide practical information about how you can better manage your emotions, for example getting to grips with panic attacks, or helping yourself manage low mood, but they will most powerfully do so by providing options and ideas for you to consider and take on what fits. This is often called psycho-education.  

Psycho-education is not the same as a therapist bringing their own perspective and advice.  Beware the practitioner who thinks it is OK to tell you what they believe is right for you, or advises you on the merits of your chosen path.  However tempting it may be, it is important not to place your therapist in the position of guru or expert and seek to make them responsible for advice giving on life decisions, this is not the service they are there to provide.

Talking therapy at its best provides an accurate, revealing mirror that enables you to look with kind eyes and to gain new insights and information.  This then empowers you to have the conversations you need to with those involved in your life, confident of your own perspective, beliefs, and needs.

Fe Robinson, Psychotherapist

Hi. I'm Fe, and I'm here to help you thrive, whatever life brings. I believe every client is unique, I work with you to help you explore, discover and grow in whatever ways are right for you. I work with a wide range of clients, both long and short term. I offer Psychotherapy, EMDR therapy and Couples Counselling to UK clients online and in Gainford, Co.Durham in North-East England. I am UKCP Accredited and an EMDR Europe Practitioner, and offer Clinical Supervision to counsellors and psychotherapists online and in person. Following a career in Organisation Development I became a therapist because it's my heart work. Before having my family and starting my private practice I worked in the NHS and mental health charities.


Go to the profile of Sunday Tc Ilechukwu
almost 2 years ago

Sometimes acting as a patient's mirror may not require the profound skills of a therapist. Sometimes it is pointing out that the patient is sitting up in bed or out of bed rather than lying in bed; making eye contact and smiling  rather than looking away; putting their feelings in words rather than moaning; finishing their breakfast. All this may be happening while patient perceives no change. The physician/therapist/nurse who notices these early changes and reflects them back to the patient is, in a way, acting as a mirror and may intentionally act a harbinger of cognitive self reappraisal even before patient perceives this and, hopefully, be an accelerator of change.

This is a simpler concept of mirroring but consistent with learning and coaching principles where there is an obvious power differential as well as a beneficent intent. This enables the principles you have laid out very well to be transferred to a slightly different healing context.