Regular readers here know that a portion of my practice consists of working with patients via telephone and FaceTime and Skype. In fact I have been working with people via telephone for more than fifteen years. This past week as efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, the need for social distancing crashed into the psychotherapy world. It is now the firm recommendation that all psychotherapy be done online or via telephone rather than face to face in person. This has created its own anxieties about what it is like to be in a session away from the therapist’s office. So let’s explore a little.

What is online therapy like?

Some years ago the New York Times published an article on what was then a strange new thing, Online Therapy. And published it in the Fashion and Style section, which might give you an idea of some problems they inadvertently come off as supporting.

When I agree to work with someone who does not wish to or cannot come to my office , I set the same basic frame that I have with people who meet me face to face. We meet at the same time each week, for a set fee, and I expect that as far as is humanly possible we will both be seated in the same place each time, I in my office and my patient in some place where she can expect to be uninterrupted and have privacy. The vessel for therapy conducted by telephone or Skype needs integrity just as that in more traditional settings does. I have often done sessions with my analyst via telephone. When I talked with him, I knew he was sitting in his office in the chair he uses for any session. He didn’t walk around or go off into the kitchen to get something. He was in the same place where I saw him when I was in the room with him. Similarly, each time I sat in the same chair in my house, in space that I knew was private and where I would not be interrupted.

So I was a bit put off by several things in the article like:

“She mixed herself a mojito, added a sprig of mint, put on her sunglasses and headed outside to her friend’s pool. Settling into a lounge chair, she tapped the Skype app on her phone.”

Really? A cocktail and a session by the pool? Is drinking alcohol during a session really a good idea? Does the therapist raise this issue? Does he even know? And what does it mean to do a session out of doors, the antithesis of a vessel, a contained space? Therapy isn’t just another social occasion.

Or this :

“There’s that comfort of carrying your doctor around with you like a security blanket. But because he’s more accessible, I feel like I need him less.”

I’m skeptical. There is even the suggestion that “The anxiety of shrink-less August could be, dare one say … curable?” implying that the pain of vacation breaks need not be felt, much less that working through it might actually be meaningful and helpful.

Different and yet the same

To my way of thinking, therapy via telephone or Skype differs from therapy face to face only in where it is conducted. The rest of the elements of therapy remain the same. My experience has taught me that it is not inferior to sitting in the same room with a patient, only different. Different in that I must rely more on what I hear  or what I see on my computer screen than I do in my office, where I have rich sensory cues as well. I have learned to listen to the rhythms of my patient’s speech — changes that come when more difficult material arises — changes in tone, volume, inflection. These cues too are rich but often paid less heed when we have all that visual material available. It is interesting to me that several people who started on the telephone with me, when we switched to Skype, after trying video Skype, opted for voice only. And some simply never want the video element in the first place and find talking on the telephone less inhibiting.

Some therapists will not feel comfortable working outside of the usual mode of patient coming to the office and they do well not to work this way. As a supervisor once told me, we practice what we believe, and it is important that the therapist be comfortable working in and with the differences that come from working online. Good therapy is good therapy no matter whether in person or via telephone and what makes for good therapy is the same regardless.

There is a Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times”, and we certainly are doing so. If you are feeling anxious and needing and wanting to talk with someone, this is a good time to seek a therapist if you do not already have one. I have openings now — reach me via the contact form on the Home page.

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