I moved offices almost two months ago. My previous office, aka “the coffin” was an ok-enough rectangular room with dim lighting, two windows facing on a hallway, and a mysterious therapy couch that turned out to be a sleeper sofa complete with sheets and blanket (something I never would have suspected had one of my kid clients not removed the cushions one afternoon). My new office has skylights, a window with a glimpse of cloud and sun, and furniture (no sleeper sofa!) and artwork of my choice. Oh, and a door that I can lock and unlock with a key, which my previous office lacked.
The (open) coffin was located in a building downtown with downtown problems, including expensive, hard-to-find parking and a ubiquitous, generally mentally ill contingent of folks who were homeless and sometimes difficult. My new office is not completely inoculated from urban issues, though the parking situation is better. The building itself is homey, from the bathrooms with post-it notes (“Baby, it’s cold outside,” read one by the window lock, “use incense.”) to my suite’s comforting aura of herbal teas and reheated casseroles. Even the therapeutic naïveté that allows clinicians to leave a lighter by that bathroom incense charms me. There are apparently no fears of clients with pyromaniacal tendencies putting it to a less altruistic use, such as lighting the rice paper that lines the window or creating a conflagration of paper towels. Here we are all in pursuit of self-knowledge, our inner demons keeping a curious, respectful distance while we politely and thoroughly fumigate bathrooms after use.
It’s a building that engenders affection in me for my adopted hometown and my chosen profession, strange as the job feels at times. And the ability, the privilege, to decorate my office from floor to window has been wonderful. I have a room of my own as a grown-up, a neat and tidy space that houses my working life and provides a physical frame for my sessions.
But it’s also very “me.” While I don’t think any office decorating decision is neutral, some are more personal than others. My choices reflect my quirks, known and unknown. I am aware of the potential for clients to respond to my furnishings in a variety of ways and have done my best to choose inoffensive items that also do not appropriate from other cultures. Still, reactions are inevitable. What happens when a client has a strong response to my décor and art?
It happened (out loud) in a recent session and it was fascinating. And unnerving. I wish I could tell you about it. Instead, I’ll file it away in the “grist for the mill” category, recognizing that no interaction—and no therapist—can occupy absolutely neutral ground. We take a stance through how we look and how we talk, through the artwork on our walls (even when that artwork is not of our choosing), and the clothing we wear. The client forms an idea about us based on their own experiences, assumptions, associations, and memories. It’s what we do with this stuff of the mind, how we hold room to talk about and reflect on it, that creates the space for meaning and connection.
But I can give you one piece of advice. If you are a therapist in the market for an office couch and find yourself contemplating a sleeper sofa, go ahead and buy it if you’re getting a good deal. But don’t outfit it with sheets and blankets. Don’t use it for sleeping. A nap stretched out on an office couch is one thing. A sleep in between the sheets on a pull-out couch in your office is another. One is restorative. The other is a bit creepy. Yes, even the supposedly neutral act of sleeping is not without meaning, but make meaning of this one with your therapist on your own time.
(This post originally had a picture of my office, but with privacy in mind, I decided to remove it and put up a vibrant picture of rhododendrons in bloom instead.)