Voices: Silence, Befriending Silence in Therapy. By Bruce W. Knight

How do I experience silence? Let me count the ways. There is that moment of silence that comes before the storm of shock, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance when first we realize that something valuable to us has died. There is that deadening, chilling silence that comes when the couple has reached that familiar state of impasse and has nothing more to say. There are those moments of focused centering, emotional regulating, and physiological calming silence in beginning my men’s group when we prepare ourselves to fully receive group’s benefits. There are those moments of intentional solitude with God, when we experience simultaneously the awe of his majestic presence and an intimacy as close as our own breath. There is the terrifying silence that comes when a client feels overwhelmed, sinking in the shame of his relationship-destructive behavior, and fights back a watershed of tears. There is the silence of the avoidant attachment style client who never learned to feel or deal with his emotions.

There are many forms, experiences, and occasions for silence, welcomed or unwelcomed. We may have missed the benefits of silence by surrounding ourselves with white noise or becoming too dependent on modern technology to notice. We have missed probably hundreds of thousands of moments of peace, insight, connecting, and truly healthy power by veering away from silence! One thing is absolutely true: Silence is an integral part of our humanity and as such, for a therapist, it is vital to become friends with it.

 

Personal Moments of Unwanted Silence in Session

When I have been tracking with my client, immersing myself into his story, her pain, their aloneness, and his shame, all of a sudden I find myself stymied by internal silence. Pause! In the midst of my work, I may float in and out of a task-oriented model, working with the client to establish a baseline sobriety, then shift my focus to potential attachment wounds as they present themselves in the course of the session, and then I may also transition to a significant point of spirituality before fully coming back to the client. Nonetheless, that internal silence can be very disquieting to me in the midst of a therapy session. I have found myself lost in their journey or in parallel thoughts momentarily. At times, I feel mentally bogged down and guilty for not providing the client a full session. In healthier moments afterwards I am reminded that this experience is part of being human. My performance expectations recede to reasonable levels. I take a number of deep cleansing breaths, center myself in my ongoing relationship with God, and utilize a sentence prayer I created years ago. “I am yours, you are mine.” Then, I continue with daily responsibilities. I repeat this prayer numerous times throughout the day.

 

The Isolating Silence of Shame

Often, this silence is evident from the time the client walks into our office. Posture, head positioning, eye contact, gestures, and tone and cadence of speech unveil it. During the course of the first session’s preliminaries, I observe the silent messages. Usually clients begin, “I have sexual issues,” or, “My spouse says I have a problem.” I watch for the telltale signs of silent shame.

As a certified sex addiction therapist tapping into my own recovery journey, I am equipped to more effectively enter my client’s internal experience. I continue to develop a healthy partnership with silent shame experienced in self and clients so that I hear the healing message underneath the isolating and demeaning one. Unhealthy shame draws attention to debilitating self-talk. “I am broken, warped, worthless, a pervert!” I create therapeutic experiences to enable these addicts to identify that shame and their underlying needs. Addressing this shame begins before a first session with overt and covert messages of acceptance. From the time the client makes the first contact, spoken words of affirmation in calm, comforting tones are offered. Comforting written words flow through emails. Clients are greeted in our center with soothing visual art, nervous system-calming tiered water fountains, and diffused relaxing essential oils. Clients’ ears are treated to relaxing and mentally stimulating music.

The male clients I see range in severity from sexual behavior impairing themselves and relationships to sex and porn addiction destroying marriages, damaging careers, and depleting finances. Typically, in a first session, although verbally silent, the client’s body language speaks volumes. He is fidgety, restless, uncomfortable, and sits with hands folded as if in a position of hiding. I begin each session with verbal, facial, and tonal assurances indicating this is a safe place of acceptance and I will honor his autonomy as the driver of each session. I also reassure him by normalizing his journey with the many others and myself who have been on it. “You are not alone.”

What I have gleaned from all the dead ends, the relapses, and the dangling needs of my spouse without appropriate help in our recovery journey is a deeper level of insight into the pain and shame of clients. Those benefits continue to inform connection and attachment repair with my internally isolated addicts.

After conveying those assurances, I turn the session over to the client to hear what brought him to me. His pre-existing anxiety begins to escalate. He may begin at discovery. After years of a silent double life, hiding behaviors out of fear of rejection or abandonment, shame or guilt, his spouse discovers an email, a text, pornographic history, or escort sites. If he has been wrestling with his addiction, he may begin from his earliest sexual memories, experience of abuse, and exposure to porn, or other entry points for coping that became compulsive.

Customarily, there are anxious facial expressions, eyes cast downward, or hand wringing. As I listen with rapt attunement, validation, conveying empathy, and matching the level of my emotion with his, a gradual relief begins to occur. If his shame begins to reach an intolerable point, I may bring that to the present, attune with his experience of the emotion, and depathologize his coping as impaired ways of attempting to meet legitimate attachment needs or cope with intolerable abuse. As he shares his story and experiences acceptance, validation, and empathy, silent shame is distilled into more beneficial information. His nervous system begins to quiet, and his dysregulated emotional state begins to be co-regulated. In the silence of his isolating shame, he has experienced comfort, acceptance, and freedom from judgment. This instills safety, security, and hope.

The silencing power of shame may continue for a long while in recovery. It is very common in a 3- to 5-year recovery journey that individuals will experience relapse. Lack of awareness tends to be the most consistent problem. The silent “killers” are the times of stress in which awareness of impaired thinking, emotional dysregulation, and relational distance are not addressed. These dynamics leave people vulnerable. Coupled with insufficient positive accountability, relapse is guaranteed.

The depth of silent shame’s grip is seen in individuals who have experienced acceptance and still struggle with keeping secrets until they relapse. Once they begin to disclose secrets, they discover again that they are accepted and valued and have their worth validated as inherent, not performance based. We have found that one silent thief of personal congruence is a life valued for its performance rather than its existence. As clients integrate inherent worth into their lives, they become more congruent with whom they are and experience healing.

 

The Silence of Distorted Intimacy

The silence of distorted intimacy is closely affiliated to the shame, because it interrupts one’s ability to initiate and maintain healthy intimacy on at least three levels: emotion, sexuality, and spirituality. It is a silent, dormant, and unrecognized issue. It is an impaired internal working model of relationship that displays itself in dysfunctional and ineffective attempts at connecting and comfort seeking. My clients’ experiences confirm that all three areas of intimacy are interwoven. Because of this, I find myself working persistently toward integrating four components: sex addiction recovery, attachment repair, spiritual formation, and restoration of healthy sexuality.

As I begin to conduct love/attachment style assessments and family-of-origin interviews and learn more about my clients’ coping styles, each displays similar themes. In early childhood they experienced insecure attachment. Many experienced emotional, physical, sexual, or spiritual abuse. Although they may not have experienced big-T Trauma, they experienced relational trauma with the same outcomes: children who became disconnected and avoidant or preoccupied and anxious.

As this silence of distorted intimacy continues, it displays itself in clients who conflate sexuality and connectedness, confusing a fundamental distinction. An example of this occurred during a group session on healthy sexuality. I floated the statement, “At some point each of you will get to the place where you can look at a scantily clothed woman and appreciate her God-given beauty without objectifying.” One guy looked dumbfounded! The obvious perplexity in his mind was, how could that ever be? At the foundation of this client’s perspective is the silence concerning sexuality and intimacy these clients experienced in their childhood homes. A sexuality survey that I conduct asks the question, “How did you learn about sex?” The predominant answer given is on their own, or from peers. Without impugning parents, we accurately identify where the client is to help him grow. In many homes, the issue of sex remains silent, and skewed notions and practices ensue. We work toward discovery of these notions, expectations, and confusion underlying the silence. After gaining sobriety, we help them integrate a healthy view of sexuality.

Another type of distorted intimacy we see is distorted spirituality. A number of clients have experienced spiritual abuse in childhood. A pastor’s son, whose father was relocated by the denomination as a way of handling his affairs, learned to remain silent about the affairs and all of his emotions. This particular client is working toward forgiveness, relinquishing resentment, and sobriety and recovery from sex addiction.

One client, riddled with shame, divulged that he had experienced a most disturbing and confusing message as a teen. His father, in need of blood transfusions, received tainted blood and died. The message from some of the members of his church was that his father had contracted AIDS and died due to some sin the teen committed. Can you imagine the sordid impact this message conveyed to this impressionable young man? His shame for sharing his sex addiction came with a dread of abandonment and rejection. Unfortunately, there was silence from the church that did not balance out that skewed message.

As a former church planter and pastor and one who experienced a painful church journey, I sat with mixed emotions. My heart broke for this young man’s experience of severe pain and spiritual shunning. In addition, I was livid over how his church had handled him and felt re-injured concerning the way our church treated my wife and me in the past. Then, I felt even more compassion for him and relished being an instrument of grace, mercy, and compassion.

Although imperfect churches may be silent on the compassion, grace, and mercy of God, God himself is not, never will be, nor ever was silent. Francis Schaeffer has authored a book exhibiting this reality called He Is There and He Is Not Silent (1972). I have been on this journey with the Christian God for 44 years and my experience is very diverse. Not everyone practices a lifestyle of Christian transformation. Those who merely have a cursory awareness of God can skew or abuse truth in numerous ways. Those who are well seasoned at walking with God are not quick to make erroneous representations. Their natural tendency is to be compassionate and humble.

My associate and I have been working recently with a couple in conjoint therapy that experienced a silent distorted intimacy. I will call this couple Bill and Coleen. They had experienced another breach of trust due to his affair. Their mixed agenda for therapy consisted of her desire to see the relationship heal while his was to placate her so he could get the kind of “kinky, dirty, exciting sex” he wanted. This motive became evident in his individual session.

Her silent fear was of a final loss of the relationship, being abandoned, alone, and a failure as a spouse. His silent fear, evident in individual session, was that of not having truly meaningful intimacy. This was another case of sex becoming indistinguishable from intimacy. We discovered in a family-of-origin interview that he grew up in a chaotic, sexually free, hippie-like atmosphere, was unattended as a child, and learned to cope by consuming sex. In addition, he revealed that he had been hurt badly in a former relationship. He had come home early one evening to surprise his wife and found her in bed with his best friend. His already insecure attachment had been scarred by this destruction of his trust. But, his view of self as worthy hardened into “I’m going to get mine,” and “to hell with others.” He developed what one view of attachment theory calls an avoidant and dismissive style. As a child, he learned to ignore his internal state as unimportant or irrelevant to survival. As an adult he preferred to “keep the past in the past,” as if somehow by ignoring it, it would not have a present influence. His controlling and avoiding kept him distant from his now traumatized spouse. He would bring her into his silent, distorted intimacy or end the relationship.

 

The Silence of Spiritual and Emotional Solitude

If it is true that approximately 30% of effective therapy is attributed to the quality of the therapeutic relationship (Thomas, 2006), then it behooves us first to attend to the mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual health of the practitioner. When I was a student at Richmont Graduate University, spiritual formation was a required area of general education. A significant outcome of that experience is my current daily practice of spiritual and emotional attunement. We learned numerous ways to help facilitate this by practicing the ancient church tradition of silence. Intentional solitude enables me to begin in a place of deeper knowing of my soul, being congruent first with self, with God, and with close others. These are intertwined and interdependent.

I have developed my personal practice of silence and solitude over 45 years of spiritual and emotional pilgrimage. I began some of these practices during my stint at Liberty University and Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. These ancient spiritual church traditions have been created and used for the development of our internal life for over two millennia. The first is the Franciscan tradition with a primary focus on sensing God in the present. Knowledge of self, other, and God derives from present awareness of the senses. The second is the Augustinian tradition with a primary focus on intuition, allowing God to transform. This practice focuses on quiet contemplation and mindful being. The third is the Thomistic tradition with a primary focus on thinking as one explores and reflects upon the deeper personal meaning of the truth of God. A practice called lectio divina is a key ingredient to this means of spiritual formation. Fourth is the Ignatian tradition with a focus on the feeling of experiencing the love of God for us (Goehring, 2013). Practicing these disciplines as a lifestyle of desire motivated by love has enabled me to enter a place of internal calm, solace, and attunement that not only heightens my sense of internal awareness, but also puts me in a higher attunement with clients. My morning practices are critical to the effectiveness of my sessions regardless of when they occur.

In the morning, I get up in silence practicing deep breathing techniques, prepare myself for my walk of prayer and meditation, make coffee, turn on the You Version or Abide app on my phone, and spend the next 30 minutes or so attuning myself to the rhythms of my creator. Part of this entails listening quietly and reflectively to Hebrew wisdom literature—Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, or the steamy, sensuous Song of Solomon. In these moments I experience the fears, doubts, longings, passions, anxieties, angers, losses, joys, and sorrows of ancient ones who experienced the wisdom, compassion, and presence of the Ultimate Attachment Figure. It is often reminiscent of being immersed in my clients’ experiences. As I listen to these comforting words, they lift me up and align me properly with myself, God, and those close. I reflect, pray for myself and clients, and gain insights into working with clients. While contemplating, I find specific thoughts, emotions, or images come to mind. Often exercises that I create for group arise out of those times.

One instance occurred as I walked in listening silence. As I reflected on my men’s group, an ancient Franciscan tradition came to mind that focuses on a sensory way of being with God. I developed a sensory awareness exercise that I implemented with my men’s group. Part of the problem experienced was the tendency to compartmentalize self from self. Internal awareness is minimal due to addictions and attachment wounds. Since for much of their lives, clients experienced avoiding, numbing, or escaping, now that they do feel, it is difficult to know what to do with emotions. The new experience is positive, but often is unsettling and confusing and may trigger their addictive coping behaviors. This is one of our most powerful reasons for passionately insisting on full engagement in the group process. Group as a “good enough transitional attachment figure” provides them opportunity and freedom to identify, explore, and express a widening emotional experience in healthy ways.

The sensory awareness exercise I developed was implemented to further the integration of self with body, mind, and spirit. This exercise required a walk on the Greenway (a nature trail) near our office. The men were to walk 15 minutes out and 15 minutes back in silence. They were not to speak to one another or out loud. Instead, they were to seek to experience the walk with all of their senses: smell, sight, taste, touch, and hearing. They were to identify images, memories, reflections, thoughts, and feelings as they experienced the Greenway. We then spent group time processing those experiences. They were also asked to record what they had experienced in the form of images, thoughts, memories, and sensations while out on the trail.

During group processing they were asked to share what these images, memories, and sensations elicited. Each person acknowledged awkwardness with either the silence or the exercise and was more inclined to be on the Greenway because of the beautiful day. However, each man stated he had become more comfortable with silence and felt the benefit of a heightened sensory awareness. Many identified how this practice could help them attain a deeper level of internal calmness, emotional awareness, and a means of de-escalation.

 

The Silence of Pain, Loss, and Death

We have all experienced clients or personal events in which we have been touched, hindered, broken, devastated, or destroyed by a sliver, a wave, or an avalanche of pain, loss, or death in any form or a cocktail of assortments. Often it begins with a slow, silent, suffocating pain that comes from the dawning realization that something valuable has died.

Wilbur Ford had initially come because, he said, “My wife says I have a problem.” After assessments and interviews, he was diagnosed with a porn addiction creating impairment in both self and his marriage. His silent shame kept him away from group until finally “trying” it. After he began, that silence melted in the context of the accepting “good enough attachment” atmosphere.

He began to establish sobriety and regain his wife Nancy’s trust, while pressure grew in his occupation. His recovery plateaued. He continued in group but was not fully engaged. He relapsed after a year of sobriety. This disappointed him greatly, triggered his wife, and damaged trust. She felt vulnerable and betrayed again. He regained sobriety and established a greater level of honesty with group and conjoint therapy. Wilbur slipped again. This time not as drastically, but nonetheless, he went backwards. This time, he rebounded more quickly. However, Nancy became more skeptical, less trusting, and more suspicious. He continued to progress. She progressed in her own journey. Their couple’s journey, however, was halted. They decided on a therapeutic separation.

Two months saw good progress. Then the fateful day occurred. Nancy found a stash of old porn DVDs that Wilbur had forgotten to destroy. Although he had not used them for over a year, that did not matter. It killed trust. This in no way impugns her or him. It is understandable that she felt betrayed. It is understandable that he felt exasperated. Wilbur sat in my office; the silent pain he had inflicted on his wife with each relapse, he now experienced in her silence. I was watching this man experience the death of himself and his relationship with his wife, as he sat in silence at the turn of events. I was silent. For what could I say to console him? What could I say to encourage him with her journey? What could I do but sit in silence with him? The sad truth is that it was not just he, but she as well who felt the deafening silence of the pain of attachment wounds, betrayal, disconnection, and loss of emotional safety and bonding. This client has been with me for almost three years now and as such is close to my heart. Part of me wants to wave a magic therapy wand to bring about the healing. The other part of me realizes that it may ultimately be through more pain that full healing comes. David Benner writes,

Taking up our cross requires that we accept the realities of our life that we wish were otherwise. As Richard Rohr reminds us: “God is found in the actual—not in the idealized.” There is no need to change the circumstances of our life, even of our heart, in order to meet God. But we must first accept reality. God is far too real to be found anywhere else (Benner, 2015, p. 92).

Whether the silence is unwanted, unwelcome, desired, treasured, avoided or embraced, it is a reality of the human condition, a teacher of the soul, if we allow ourselves to embrace it with a curious mind and willing heart. When I was first presented with the opportunity to write this article, I literally paused in silence and thought, “That is an odd subject for therapy but maybe has merit.” Since then, I have reflected and become more emotionally and mentally attuned to silence. I have come to a new and greater appreciation of how cathartic it can be and how loud it often speaks in sessions. My heart’s cry now is, “Let me be even more attuned to the message it conveys and respond in the most therapeutic way possible in that moment with that client.”

 

References

Benner, D. G. (2015). Desiring God’s will (Expanded edition ed.). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Goehring, M. (2013). Traditions of Christian spiritual formation. In Richmont Graduate School of

Counseling traditions of Christian spiritual formation (pp. 15-40). Atlanta, GA: Richmont Graduate University.

Schaeffer, F. A. (1972). He is there and he is not silent. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House.

Thomas, M. L. (2006, March 24). The contributing factors of change in a therapeutic process. Contemporary

Family Therapy, 28, 201-210. https://doi.org/DOI 10.1007/s10591-006-9000-4

Copyright 2018 American Academy of Psychotherapists (AAP). All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of Voices: The Art and Science of Psychotherapy and the American Academy of Psychotherapists, from Vol 54, No 2, 2018.