Silences are an inevitable and potentially helpful part of the therapeutic process. However, a number of people I see as a therapist express a feeling that they are not getting something right when a silence arises in our work together. The psychotherapy world (in particular the psychoanalytic and group analytic fields) has also had some difficulties historically with accepting the value of silence.
A few years ago, I wrote about silence in relation to group analysis (Barnes, 2015) I felt compelled to do this as I had been working with a psychotherapy group that was gripped for some time by long, crippling silences. These silences affected the whole group and were intensely paralysing – for the group members and for me. I found it hard to help the group but also wasn’t helped myself by the general absence of clinical literature on this subject.
In my paper I made a case for the value and role of silence in therapy and specifically therapy groups. I explored how silence is a part of speech and that all speaking relies on pauses and breaks for our communications to make sense (this is, perhaps, most obviously understood in music). These rhythms and patterns in our communications are particularly important and central to the processes of therapy.
By just seeing silences as unhelpful we lose the opportunity to be curious about the different kinds of silences and what they might mean. Below are some of the kinds of silences that can come up in the therapy relationship.
- A common silence in therapy arises when both therapist and patient, or members of a therapy group, pull away from verbal interaction and retreat into a more internal space. Often, in my experience, this is when a discussion then moves onto a deeper level.
- Sometimes silences are used to protect from scrutiny. Using silence as a defense can be bound up with early experiences of intrusion or a difficulty in asserting one’s self in interpersonal relations – the only protection then is to withdraw.
- Then there is the paralysed silence, like the one that seemed to incapacitate my group for so long. People often say they can’t think in this kind of silence. When we’ve explored it more it seems they feel increasingly self-conscious in the silence and under pressure to break it – like it’s all too much responsibility. This seems to me bound up with shame.
- But sometimes words just fail and just don’t feel enough. Silence can be used to convey this. Or to show a respect for the enormity of what is being felt.
In thinking about silence and speaking it’s also important to bear in mind the thoughts of French psychoanalyst Andre Green who pointed out how “behind the noise of words speech can be silent” (Green 1972). At times we talk in order to silence something uncomfortable, or just too painful.
Holding a silence can be a way – perhaps sometimes the only way – of staying with what feels difficult and communicating this.
Barnes 2015 ‘Speaking with Silence. An Exploration of Silence and its Relationship to Speech in Analytic Groups’, Group Analysis, Vol 48 number 1
Green 1972’ On Private Madness,’ reprint Hogarth Press 1986
Further reading by Claire Barnes