by Martha Stark, MD / Faculty, Harvard Medical School
What is the impact on a patient of the therapist’s (compassionate) “witnessing” of her experience?
Whenever the therapist makes explicit that she is a witness to what the patient is feeling (“I see how much pain you are in,” “I see how frightened you become when we talk about what happened,” “I see how desperately you want to get better,” and “I see how committed you are to doing things differently going forward”), the therapist is not only legitimizing and validating the patient’s experience but also helping the patient gain more distance from that experience, become more detached, and achieve more perspective.
By explicitly naming what the therapist is observing, she will be modeling for the patient what it would be like were the patient herself to be able to step back from her experience in order to observe it through more objective – and compassionate – eyes.
Letting the patient know that she is being seen is perhaps even more powerfully impactful than simply letting the patient know that she is being heard.
Please note the subtle distinction between “I see how lonely you are feeling” and “I hear how lonely you are feeling” or “I see how sad you become when you talk about your mother and how she never understood” and “I hear how sad you become when you talk about your mother and how she never understood.”
It feels great to be able to know that how lonely and sad you are is being heard but it is probably even more validating and reassuring to be able to know that how lonely and sad you are is being seen.
As it happens, the technique of bringing the eyes to bear on emotionally charged material is used in a number of brief treatments, including psychomotor psychotherapy (which actually posits a virtual witness figure who provides running commentary on what that figure is observing about the patient’s experience) and EMDR (which, by way of bilateral alternating stimulation, brings to bear the analytic eyes of the patient’s left brain on desensitizing and reprocessing the emotionally charged material stored in her right brain).
In other words, the technique of bringing the eyes to bear witness can be used either to give the patient an opportunity to have her experience compassionately witnessed by an outside observer with more objective eyes (that is, by a therapist with a more evolved perspective) or to give the patient an opportunity to become a compassionate witness to her own experience as she taps into the more evolved perspective of her left brain and its more objective eyes.
Interestingly, the observer effect in quantum theory refers to the impact of bringing to bear a set of eyes, although here from a slightly different perspective.
In the quantum field, a wave of energy is thought to hold an infinite array of invisible potentialities, all of which are simply waiting to be actualized. Once attention is focused on the wave, however, it will collapse into an observable, finite particle.
This observer effect is relevant in the quantum-neuroscientific Model 5 of my Psychodynamic Synergy Paradigm because it speaks to the transformational power of the patient’s focusing of her attention and intention on the actualization, or the making real, of what she dares to let herself dream.
In other words, just as the therapist’s observing of the patient’s experience and then articulating what she is witnessing will make it more real, so too the patient’s envisioning of a future reality and then articulating that vision will serve to make it more real.
Indeed, as later “pieces” will demonstrate, Model 5 “quantum disentanglement statements” ask of the patient that she envision future possibilities; take ownership of her need to change; and, going forward, commit to acting in alignment with what she is naming as important to her – such that potentiality will become actuality as vision becomes reality.
Please stay tuned for subsequent “installments”!!