In today’s impersonal world many of our experiences are filtered through the mechanical middle man and personal interactions are conducted via the internet. As an online therapist I wonder about this process and the virtual world where one feels comfortable sharing one’s innermost feelings through an impersonal screen. My work as an online therapist has challenged many of the assumptions I hold about the counselling process and this article offers some of these thoughts and observations.
There is something almost disarming and deeply personal about meeting on the screen. In contrast to the more formal welcome and process of entering your space that face-to-face counselling involves, you suddenly find the client entering your space and yourself entering the space of your client. In traditional counselling you could sit comfortably in your tightly upholstered therapist’s chair surrounded by your certificates and an air of professionalism and authority. Online counselling strips you of all of that. You are face to face with another human being. The screen perhaps offers a glimpse to your client of a section of a certificate or a partial view of the books you have so proudly on display, but at the end of the day what is on offer is you. She’s read the blurb about you and maybe googled your name but beyond that she has no other reference for knowing you. No clues from where your office is located, the furnishings you so carefully chose or the gestures and welcome you give as she enters the room. Similarly for you there are far fewer clues as to who the person is in front of you. As the camera zones in, you face her at much closer proximity than you would usually engage with a client. She has only your face, your voice, your eyes and the occasional gesture of a hand to rely on and similarly you have to tune in to a far more select set of cues.
Yet you face each other through a screen. So while you are in some ways so much closer than in face to face counselling, on the other hand the distance across which you meet is vast. The connection at times uncertain, the communication muffled. Somehow that virtual presence feels at once like a presence and at once makes so apparent what is absent. You see a face and take in a presence that’s removed from your physical reality. Every nuance of communication is buffered by technology. A laugh or glance is filtered through the screen and speakers and somehow conveys the essence of the person but holds something back.
This “as if” presence is enough to create an “as if” space for connection, containment and a therapeutic process. Your combined virtual presence come together to create a virtual therapeutic space that allows for the work of counselling to be done. Within this intensely present absent space personal secrets are shared, life dreams and hopes are explored. Together you uncover the lightest, darkest and deepest parts and a way forward is navigated. It’s as if connection, containment and process are no longer defined or perhaps no longer tied so tightly to a physical realm. Or perhaps they are no longer even required for a process of counselling. Perhaps the change that is really reflected in the shift to online counselling is not so much a change in how we conceptualise therapy, but rather a change in how we as human beings conceptualise relating and connecting. Maybe in this strangely virtual, comfortably impersonal and undemanding zone of Internet communication we can do the work of therapy without having to connect too much.