Of course we are not ‘tabula rasa’ when listening to the intimate stories of our clients – it may comfort us to imagine that we are safely protected by our professional role and the tasks that go with it, but this is an illusion. You cannot listen intently and try to understand another person’s world without finding personal issues are touched, opened up by the encounter. At the time I was listening to last mentioned disturbed and violent man, I was myself going through some personal turmoil about my own marriage, my sexual desires and fantasies. Of course, if your view of the world is based on an assumption about individual identities that can view each other objectively or at least potentially so, then the experience of being stirred up by listening to such emotionally potent material may seem a sign that one is either constitutionally or temporarily unsuited to the job. That road in my view leads to denial, self deception and potentially damaging consequences for all concerned.
However, my own growing belief, supported by those who taught me, was that to be affected by the people with whom I worked was entirely to be expected if one was listening actively and imaginatively. By ‘affected’ I do not mean to be moved by or have sympathy for the client. I mean that the encounter with the client arouses feelings about or within oneself that reflect in some way the inner world of the client. This is properly, necessarily confusing and even disturbing especially when the experience is unfamiliar. It is particularly confusing because it challenges the security of the normal personal boundaries by which we live. It sometimes becomes hard to be sure what one is dealing with. Was it the problem of the client, or is it my own problem that I am reading into the client’s experience? The latter is a very common feature of human relationships, captured often in response to a confidence – ‘oh, I know just how you feel’!