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Guidebook to your Therapist: Silences in Therapy


The hum of the air conditioning. The muffled footsteps of someone walking past the therapy room. Far-off sirens from an ambulance. The silent whoosh of air as you let out a deep breath. And amazingly, the almost inaudible ticking from your watch.

The majority of urban dwellers are absolutely uncomfortable with silences. It is something to be dreaded, avoided, and made into awkward conversations that is slightly more bearable than sitting in silence. Of course, why would we want to be quiet when the opposite descriptions — communicative, articulate, expressive — are more desirable and charming to the world?

In The Notebook, Nicholas Sparks sums it up perfectly. “We sit silently and watch the world around us. This has taken a lifetime to learn. It seems only the old are able to sit next to one another and not say anything and still feel content. The young, brash and impatient, must always break the silence. It is a waste, for silence is pure. Silence is holy. It draws people together because only those who are comfortable with each other can sit without speaking. This is the great paradox.”

In therapy, silences are met with the same apprehensive attitude from clients and newbie therapists. Clients fear that silences are drawn from the act of judgement or being found inadequate in the eyes of therapists. Newbie therapists fear silences just in case it depicts their very lack of experience. Never underestimate the anxiety felt by both providers and recipients in therapy (it is pretty epic and a topic for another day!).

For most cases, silences faced by clients in therapy in the hands of experienced therapists will be down to one of these reasons.

Your therapist is thinking

In the heat of your outburst about how Peter shouldn’t have done this to you and how awful it felt to be on the receiving end of unfair treatment from your boss, a torrent of information may have just been unleashed. From your perspective, all you did was share about one situation…pretty simple to handle right?

From the therapists’ viewing deck, things may be different and going into overdrive. He/she was tracking your body language while you were sharing (Tense or stiff? Relaxed?), your facial movements (was it consistent with the story? Some people smile while describing horrific experiences), your tone (high pitched — fear? Anxiety? Or low and somber) and all this preceding the understanding of the content you just mentioned.

The way you present experiences will be observed for similar patterns within your life, your thinking structure reveals core beliefs you hold about the world/people/yourself, the emotions mentioned or neglected tells your therapist exactly what you do with feelings, and information about Peter/your boss will be squirreled away for safekeeping if you bring it up again the next time.

And that was just from the first ten minutes of your therapy. Never underestimate silences from your therapists as any deficiency, for their depth of understanding may just take your breath away. Also, if-you-could-be-kind-enough-to-take-a breath-every-now-and-then-it’d-be-great.

Making sure that you’re done

One of the most amazing roleplays I observed in another therapist was the way he’d give clients an extra minute or two of silence after they talked. It was not only that he made it easier to resume talking, but the amount of respect and kindness he conveyed to clients through this simple gesture. I immediately resolved to commit to doing so, and I have reaped consistent rewards from my clients.

Our thoughts never come like a bullet train; charging down the tracks in a one-way manner that is clear and directive. Afterthoughts are pretty common and you may have reflections of your content after sharing. In talk therapy, the very act of speaking words and feelings bring about changes. Don’t you think that silence is golden for you to delve into those changes during therapy? Now that it is phrased this way, mayhap the one or two minutes extra silence ain’t enough for you too.

Silence helps you calm down. The nature of therapy is the existence of a safe atmosphere where you can tackle difficult issues without the fear of payback. Staying in the heat of emotions — however awesome it is to express them fully — rarely brings about the reflections required for growth or solutions to the problems you face. The silence provided by the therapist may be a gift for you to dwindle down from Angry-Anna to Authentic-Anna.

Allowing you space to express emotions

Most of us have plenty of support when we cry. Sympathetic voices, hands rubbing our backs, dollops of advices given like warm honey to soothe our feelings. Sure, this works and emulates the basic soothing system provided by our mothers when we were in infanthood, but in adulthood would you just want to be soothed without getting the chance to work on your issues?

When you are almost immediately shushed with words of “aww, don’t cry” and “tell me how to make it stop”, your feelings have nowhere to go. People don’t want to see you cry because they don’t know how to handle it. Loved ones don’t want to see you cry because it makes them sad (or maybe they caused it in the first place, heh). Now if this situation applies similarly across all spectrums of emotions (jealousy, anger, disappointment, sadness, etc) when would anybody be allowed to express themselves at all?

This is why therapy is different. Your therapist will not be telling you not to cry, but instead support you by being steadfast in moments as such. Your therapist will not be telling you to stop getting mad, but instead give you constructive ways of giving a voice to that burning anger. Silence is utilized as a tool to build space around these emotions that may be buried in daily life. In that silence, you soothe yourself when you’re ready. You take a deep breath and tell the therapist that you’re ready to work on those feelings. And hopefully, the magic starts.

Picture in your mind’s eye the majestic picture of doves being set free in flight! That’s what expressing those emotions will do for you.


Is not a bad thing. It grants you perspective. Builds a constructive relationship. Gives you time. And most importantly, is no longer misunderstood.