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  • Writer's pictureBernard Beitman, MD

Mind Mirrors Between Therapists and Clients

The problems of the therapist sometimes walk into their office.

Remember looking into a mirror with another mirror behind you. Your head goes on forever. Something like that can happen in the therapist’s office.

Jungians have observed that the therapist’s problems sometimes walk into their office. Some of them eagerly anticipate the next new patient to see what message to the therapist might be delivered (Bolen, 1979). Freudians are more likely to call these coincidences a form of countertransference. The probabilities for a match may be pretty high considering the limited number of problems human beings in a similar culture can experience. Nevertheless, stories abound of impactful connections between the psyches of therapist and client.

A 53-year-old psychiatrist was experiencing a difficult time with his wife. The couple had almost separated and divorced. The patient, whom he had seen for many years, was about the same age as his wife. Their names were similar: Maria and Mary. The problems with their husbands also seemed similar. Over the years the patient’s husband, like the therapist, appeared too caught up in work—“I gave at the office and have nothing to give at home,” the therapist would often say. The patient’s husband, a lawyer, often said something similar.

There was another parallel. The patient tearfully told the therapist about her husband’s actions around the death of her mother—how her husband had not come to support her in the hospital and how he had left the next day on a skiing trip with his buddies. She spent the day after her mother’s death alone. The therapist heard the patient say, “He just does not get it.” This was the very same phrase his own wife had been using to get his attention. He had done almost the same thing to his own wife—abandoned her the day after major surgery to go on a business trip.

The patient’s struggles helped him to better “get it.” He could now better help the patient with her husband. From his patient, he understood more deeply how he had neglected—and harmed—his wife.

With their similar ages and socio-economic status, the probabilities for this husband-wife parallel were fairly high. The following match had a lower probability.

The patient is a married man who presents for treatment of depression related to his daughter’s serious medical illness. In initial consultation with the patient, it becomes clear that the patient and therapist share similar histories.

  1. They are the same age.

  2. They have been married for the same length of time.

  3. They have daughters born within one month of one another.

  4. Each of their daughters was born with severe congenital defects that were life-threatening.

  5. Both are very worried about the daughter’s long-term prognosis, causing them to struggle with making complicated medical decisions.

As the therapist hears the story, she starts to cry. She reveals to the patient the coincidental parallels involving their children. The patient is moved by the therapist’s disclosure. He holds the therapist in high esteem, as he understands that the therapist is not only an expert in this area, but also knows a considerable amount of his experience from her own.

The mind-mirror solidified their relationship.

Some parallels are not as profound and emotional. Sometimes they can take a simple, pragmatic turn.

A psychiatrist had twisted her ankle. Her orthopedic surgeon put a light cast on her ankle and said it would be OK. Several months later, it was not OK. A tennis friend suggested that the psychiatrist go to a physical therapist named Bart for rehabilitation. The therapist ignored the suggestion. Shortly afterward, a patient of hers walked into her office having recently recovered from a sprained ankle. The patient was wearing the same tennis shoes that the therapist had worn when she twisted her ankle. “Well, hello,” said the therapist to herself. She then asked the patient to whom she had gone for physical therapy. “To Bart,” was the reply! The therapist got the message, went to Bart and soon her ankle was healing.

The coincidences involving the tennis shoes and the same physical therapist are not necessarily startling. The timing is. The therapist needed to act. These simple parallels came at the right time.

Therapist are people, too! We are constantly learning about the human condition so that we may be more helpful. Clients sometimes become our teachers. Being a therapist is the only way to be in therapy without being the client.

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