In, The Gift of Therapy, Irvin Yalom (2002) writes, “Often the therapist is the only audience viewing great dramas and acts of courage. Such privilege demands a response to the actor.” He continues that while the client might share their life stories outside the therapy room, therapists have privy to the client’s world in a way that others likely do not. Indeed, each week at CANY we sit with clients across various populations and bear witness to their stories. The act of witnessing group sharing in discussions, embodied processes and other creative explorations is rich with information about the lives of our clients and tells a story of what group members do and do not wish to be seen/known. Much like how we – as therapists and humans in and out of the therapy room – also curate how we wish to be seen and known.
Often the conversations and enactments that unfold in groups at once include and exclude the facilitators; these moments appear in some way to ask the therapist to bear witness to the stories of their lives. Their enactments serve as the window for our eyes and ask us the questions: “Can you tolerate the stories I have to tell? Can you see me? Can you hold/tolerate me?”
In one group that a colleague and I co-facilitated at a school-based program for teenagers, we were many times enrolled as witness. The group had an abundance of energy and would often break out into conversation about music, video games and other themes that were relevant to their lives. They would check in with us to see if we knew what artist they were talking about or video game they were speaking of. These energized discussions contained information about what was important, exciting, frustrating, angering and energizing to them. They at once kept us as a-part of and apart from the group through enrolling us as witness. This group talked about their issues with sobriety, interpersonal conflicts and the struggles they faced in their lives at home and in school. At times they said among themselves that when we, the facilitators, left the group we would likely speak to how “bad” the group was. They even shared fantasies of how my partner and I skipped through the park and baked cupcakes. They were telling us, “We are worlds apart. You do not know our lives.” And there was indeed truth to this sentiment.
This group was highly creative and enjoyed telling and acting out new stories. After several weeks of working together, the students cast my partner and me as drug dealers who were arrested by the police. Group members played the police officers and lawyers who were in charge of our characters’ outcomes. In this story, we were cast in roles counter to their original idea(s) of who we were (the carefree therapists that went skipping through the park) and they took on the roles of the experts, authorities, and leaders in the play. In so doing, they were bearing witness to us stepping into a world they talked about and roles they were often familiar with and allowed us to witness them as the leaders, experts, and authorities in the room. This role reversal gave us the opportunity to be embodied witnesses into the stories of the other.
In the therapeutic encounter, our clients bear witness to us just as we bear witness to them. I am always in awe when a client shows me how they perceive me, or steps in before I can respond to something with what they imagine I will say. In these moments, I am reminded that I too am being witnessed in this process. I too expose things that I want to communicate and also things I am not even aware. This process is a form of stepping, for a moment, into the worlds of the other as if to ask, “Can you see me, and if you do, will you stay?” Our clients are asking us this question just as we too are asking them. Bearing witness to all that our clients bring in the room allows for validation and acceptance of their life stories just as they are and cultivates a space for new stories to be told and new possibilities imagined.