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Turn the Game On: Humanizing the Client-Therapist Relationship

As a licensed therapist and life coach for nearly five years, nothing has really surprised me. It’s a privilege to help people in their most vulnerable states. But something new happened this week that completely surprised me in the best way possible.

I’ve been seeing my client, Ryan (name changed to protect confidentiality), for almost four years now. Ryan is both a lover of sports and works in the industry — his favorite sport namely basketball. Often our sessions revolve around the nuances of the interplay between his passion and his work, of which he is gracious they’re able to dance together. In our session this week, he sat down in his usual chair in my office and said, “Is it okay if I turn on the Rutgers/Penn State game? It’s a really good one.” Never in my life has a client asked to have sports playing on their phone in the background of our session. I’ve been known to be a more “realist” therapist — meeting clients in coffee shops, coming as I am, cursing, and being transparent in my own humanness. My priority is always my client, and if this game is important to him, then it’s important to me. So I said, “Yeah sure whatever throw it on!” He sifted through his phone, got the game up, propped it on the desk next to him, and we started our session. A couple of minutes in, I heard cheering coming from the phone. I peered over and said, “Who scored? I’m invested now.” And truly, I was. Not just because the game became interesting, but also because it was a moment I was able to share in my client’s passion. For the last nearly four years I had been hearing about his love of basketball from him. Now, I was living it with him. It brought a new level of connection to the therapy space.

Often times in the media, therapy is portrayed as serious and the therapist as emotionless and stoic. I wonder if this idea deters people from going to therapy in the first place. I’m here to tell you that therapy isn’t that deep all the time. It’s fun. There’s laughter. There’s no judgement. There’s care and compassion. There’s shooting the shit about the vacation you just went on and what you thought of the Super Bowl half time show. It’s not idle chatter — even though on the surface, it can appear to be at times. It’s authentic human connection — a dying beauty in a technology ridden age. It’s a showing of humanity. That the therapist and the client are much more alike than we are different. And when the therapist sits in this, empathy is created. And empathy is the hallmark of our craft.

Ryan and I were both cheering for Rutgers. They were down severely in the first half during our session. He texted me later that Rutgers made a comeback in the second half, leading by two points with 25 seconds left on the clock, but ultimately lost by one point. We lamented the loss together, both citing that we feel it’s worse to catch up and then lose rather than to lose by a landslide from the get-go. I thanked him for sharing his passion with me. I never thought I would be this invested in a basketball game. And that’s what I love about being a therapist. My clients are my greatest teachers, sharing with me the beauty and the anguish of the ebbs and flows of life. Therapists, don’t miss an opportunity to just be with your client — the greatest healing is in the relationship. And clients, don’t feel like therapy has to be serious healing every session — don’t forget to laugh and share about the fun in your life. Ryan shared with me how rewarding it was for him to be able to have his session and continue to invest in his wellbeing while simultaneously being able to share his love of basketball with me — creating a deeper space in our therapeutic relationship that I didn’t know could happen from a basketball game.

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