In therapy, there is a guest. That’s you. And there is a host. That’s me. Our roles are defined. They have to be. After all, if you don’t know where you stand, you won’t know if it is safe to fall, or to be vulnerable. Therapy is, if you like, a form of hospitality. It has all of the usual ingredients; an invitation and a warm welcome. I welcome you to come in and sit near the emotional fire, instead of running away from it or trying to fight it.
We start sitting together as two strangers – as all relationships do. I am reminded of what the playwright Tennessee Williams, evocatively said about depending on the kindness of strangers. For Greeks, hospitality is somewhat sacred; their word for it is philoxenia, which literally means friend (philo) to a stranger (xeno). Food is and has always been a key part of the offering, but during ancient times philoxenia was more about providing security; a visitor would be hosted, fed, bathed, given gifts and promised safety and shelter for the night, and accompanied during travel the next day. Therapy is a bit like that: as a therapist I am taking you for a walk, but I am also going with you.
The real gift of hospitality in therapy is listening. That is the kindness. It is strangely powerful –almost magical– to be properly listened to. Real listening is about togetherness. Being listened to offers a way for someone else to really and truly imagine what it’s like for you. Therapy therefore is more than just hosting a person in my space. I host the person in my mind and, as you see here on Cupboard Love, in my kitchen. Perhaps the best qualification for me to host is that I have been a guest myself. In my own therapy I have been welcomed as my whole self. The therapist’s role is to help you to know yourself more fully, and the point of therapy is to make it easier to live with yourself. In other words, to help you to be hospitable to yourself.
My client was known as Mary Poppins at school because of her generous offerings of bagfuls of sugar to other children. She was considered magically kind and practically perfect. Her parents owned a sweetshop. When friends came to her house to play she would give them teeny packets of sweeties as soon as they arrived; the gentle jelliness of gummy bears was her way of welcoming them. Her friends never left empty handed either; she would let them pick ‘n’ mix whatever they liked from the shop downstairs to take home. The humble hospitality of Haribo.
As a child, and even now as a grown-up, kindness was not something she welcomed – it didn’t go down easily no matter how sugary sweet and heartfelt it was. She was extremely suspicious of it, almost stubborn in the strength of her feeling. I could understand it; her experiences of relationships had been painfully inconsistent, with people giving with one hand and taking back with the other. At the start of our work together she remained in cold comfort, in the doorway – literally; she would move her chair there at the start of every session. Sometimes the offer to ‘make yourself at home’ isn’t that easy, and if you don’t feel at home in relationships therapy can feel challenging. I could see that she found some shelter being so near to the door, ready to run if my hospitality felt hostile. One day, just before she was due to arrive for our session, I moved the chair to her exact preferred spot. I wanted to show her that I understood her needs; that she was welcome as herself and could seat herself wherever she felt comfortable. She could, indeed, be just like Mary Poppins – she never had to explain anything. I wouldn’t judge. On my part, as the host, it was not the most supercalifragilisticexpialidocious of gestures. But there was a soft look of gratitude on her face when she walked into the room.
That day, it felt like we weren’t strangers anymore.
This story was the inspiration behind my sweet preserved watermelon rind.