Language in Psychotherapy

Posted on October 16,2010 by pfuentesmoadmspp

“ I don’t express myself in my paintings, I express my not-self”. Mark Rothko

One of the things I REALLY LOVE about Boston and being a student at MSPP are the wonderful conferences held throughout the area on different mental health themes. You can find a conference really on anything, and a lot of these conferences are for free. This morning I attended a very inspiring presentation on poetry and psychoanalysis at Cambridge Hospital. The quote above is just a tiny sample of the many wonderful things I got to listen at this talk, which definitely made me think a lot about the therapeutic relationship, the multiple expressions in the therapeutic encounter and my latest obsession: language.

This is the first year I work all the time with patients in another language other than my first language, and as much as it has had its ups and downs in terms of feeling that sometimes words don’t come out in a spontaneous way (really, as with other things – like hair - with language some days are just better than others), I feel that overall this is a wonderful opportunity not only for getting better at being a bilingual clinician, but I see it as an opportunity where other ways of speaking and listening are created in the subjectivity of each person's language.

Bad language days can be tough, in the sense that sometimes a barrier can be felt between the speaker and the listener. Nevertheless, I find that when working in a different language other than our first language one has the opportunity of stepping back from the obvious and submerging in the own subjective language of each person, and what can be at first glance experienced as a barrier is a wonderful opportunity for encountering the other in their own subjective experience, with their own particular narrative, which is after all, what the therapeutic encounter is about.

I guess what I am trying to say is that being able to struggle in some way with the nuances of language has really accentuated in my work with patients the desire of understanding each patient from their own particular language; ranging from the objectivity of English language, going through the subtleties of Spanish from different countries, or narrowing to the language of art. And then we have each person's language which goes further beyond these languages. In some way I guess that for me, that is what diversity awareness in our field means: understanding the other person from their own experience of themselves, and with this, each person’s language and culture.

For those of you interested in the work in psychology in other language than your first language – perhaps those of you interested in pursuing the Latino Mental Health program – I would really encourage you to take the dive into doing the work even if your grammar or your spelling or your vocabulary feels far from perfect at this time. For me, doing therapy in another language has been like learning a new language in itself, that really helps me to see more easily those parts of the self, and of the not-self, in each personal encounter.

Like art, the therapeutic encounter is the place where the self and the not-self can be expressed, found, and transformed through the search of the unique therapeutic language that allows this expression.