The Space Between Two Chairs

By Spencer Overgaard, Copyright 2014

When a client first comes to therapy, a space is provided. It's a space of time - an appointment time, a beginning and end time, usually an hour or so. But there is also a physical space in the office: two chairs, one for the client and one for the therapist, with room in between. That space between the two chairs allows both to be comfortable in a social sense. We like our personal space, so the distance between the two chairs is expected and feels natural. But that space is more than physical and social-it can also represent a value of a different sort.

The space between two chairs is also an area where self-realization can occur. The space can be a place where the client can ask or even demand, maybe for the first time, that she be taken seriously. The space can also be an important buffer between two people. The client may need a secure distance from another he may see as an authority figure. The space can also represent the emotional latitude the therapist gives the client, especially if she is feeling vulnerable. In short, the space in between can allow for psychological acceptance and learning and growth.

Perhaps one of the most significant uses of "the space in between" is as a container - a place to store things. Just as children have a toy chest where they toss their playthings, or the handy person has a box for ready access to the right tool, the space between the therapist and the client can be used to hold and grant access to feelings. To illustrate this, think for a moment about the expression, "He held himself together." What we mean by this is that despite some stressful emotion, he was able to keep his feelings in check - he didn't fall apart. He might have been shamed, falsely accused, or unfairly criticized and so on, but he kept his feelings under wraps.

Sometimes emotions become so burdensome that they severely affect our behaviour, thinking, and even our self-esteem. If they have not outlet the feelings can undermine our well-being and we end up hurting those nearest and dearest to us. When this happens, we need a place to let the feelings go. People sometimes seek a place to drop their burden through therapy. The burden can be let down in the space between the two chairs.

I have had many clients who in their first session begin to cry. The tears are commonly unexpected and surprising. Possibly for the first time, there is a space for them to experience their own feelings without worrying what someone else might think. There is so much in our lives that is encouraging us to deny, to ignore and to move away from how we feel. If we are especially troubled about something, it's so easy to allow ourselves to become distracted.

To allow the full depth of a feeling can be demanding, especially if it's something unpleasant like anger or anxiety. Even having a troubling memory can be wearying. In these cases, it's so much easier to turn on the TV, surf the internet, shop, or eat. To make a commitment to oneself to face the pain of these feelings is a big step. Entering the space can be scary!

To one way of thinking the space between two chairs in a psychotherapist's office can seem like it's nothing special. Usually we are only talking about a distance of a few feet. How is it that so little space can hold so much meaning, so much significance? Donald Winnicott, a British pediatrician and psychoanalyst, talks about this in his book Playing and Reality (Tavistock, 1971). He saw the space between the therapist and the client as a place for creative work. He actually uses the word play rather than work. Since he treated infants, young children and mothers, he had insights into what was required for healthy emotional and psychological development. Children, he said, need a space to play supported by a backdrop or framework of good parenting. Within this space play could take place with all its possibilities for imagination, discovery and feelings--good and bad. Play, he recognized, was important for the child's developing sense of self, with the parents there in the background or foreground, to help as needed.

If we apply the idea just mentioned to the therapy office the space between the therapist and the client becomes an arena for development, for work and for creative play. In the space between the two chairs the normal constraints on social behaviour can be relaxed. We can examine and explore our deeper feelings regardless of how unpleasant they are. We can discuss the 'what ifs' in life, the 'what should have beens' and the 'I wishes'. Untold stories are permitted surface. Here, we can have the hope of being heard, understood and appreciated. Movement can be made towards repairing injuries inflicted by oneself or others. In the space between two chairs we have room to simply be ourselves, and to feel the fullness of who we are.