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The Existential Moment: The Person of the Therapist

In the Oscar-winning film, Good Will Hunting, Will Hunting (Matt Damon) is a brilliant, troubled young man with a traumatic past. After Will is arrested for attacking a police officer, MIT math professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard), who has taken Will under his wing as a math prodigy, negotiates with the court for leniency provided Will enters therapy with Sean Maguire (Robin Williams). 

In their initial therapy session, Sean is the picture of patience and engagement in the face of Will’s combative and dismissive ways. Sean finally loses his restraint when Will antagonistically disrespects Sean’s deceased wife. He grabs Will by the throat and says, “disrespect my wife again, and I will end you.” Rather improbable, but great theater. 

Troubled, Sean spends the evening contemplating what happened. In the next session, modeling openness and vulnerability, Sean communicates how he watched bedside as the true love of his life, his wife, lost a long battle with cancer. Sean then explains to Will how he (Will) uses his intellect to protect himself, to guard himself from real vulnerability and intimacy. It’s a decisive moment in the relationship and in Will’s journey. 

The second element of the Four Dimensions of Therapeutic Encounter is “The Person of the Therapist.” In E-H Therapy, the therapist is less the authority and more “fellow traveler.” Moreover, like our clients, we are human. We have self-world constructs and protective notions guarding vulnerabilities just like them. 

We react to our clients. Our emotional reactions can be highly informative. They can help our assessment, tell us something about what a client is feeling, how others might feel in relation, and how our clients “see” the world. 

Our behavioral reaction can then help or potentially hurt. Do we “act out” crossing boundaries, creating dual relationships, acting with our interests at heart? Or do we keep certain impulses in check or leverage them, thoughtfully, toward healing and freedom for our clients? 

The Person of the Therapist, with all our humanity, is a critical, often overlooked, healing tool at our disposal, and understanding who we are as therapists, as people, is an essential part of an existentially oriented therapy training. 

Links to Related Resources and Blog Posts:

The Four Dimensions of the Therapeutic Encounter [PDF] by Orah Krug, PhD, LMFT

The Four Dimensions of the Therapeutic Encounter Existential Moment posts on the EHI Blog.

Read all the Existential Moment series posts on EHI’s blog.

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