Resonance is the transmission of a vibration from one body to another. Bodies are so constituted as to be amenable to vibrating in distinctive ways. Thus, soldiers crossing a metal bridge are generally commanded to break step while on the bridge because there is a small but significant possibility that the rhythm of the synchronised treading steps might just hit a frequency that will make the bridge itself start to vibrate, amplifying the effect and even, in extreme cases, causing the bridge to fall apart or collapse. Similarly, if a mucical instrument plays a certain note, the string of another instrument in the room may start to vibrate with it.

By extension, we use the term resonance for the transmission of emotional vibrations between people. The term is especially used to refer to those situation where at least one of the participants is not consciously aware of what is being transmitted or received.

The first psychotherapy case that I ever dealt with was that of an adolescent girl who suffered a form of blindness that was preventing her from doing her school work. Ophthalmic tests revealed nothing wrong with her eyes. The condition was judged to be hysterical. The girl was intelligent and a good student and had no conscious reluctance to study. She regarded her ailment as an impediment she wished to be free of.

At the time I was a new intern in a psychiatric clinic with, as yet, few skills and little experience. I was learning family therapy and saw the patient together with her parents. I had only a hazy idea of what I was doing but I had good supervision. I took a social history, attempted to be empathic, and facilitated communication within the family as best I could. There were times when the emotional pressure in the room was so powerful that I felt as though it might push me bodily out through the window. I did my best not to be squashed by this experience. I had a genuine sympathy for the young woman. My feelings for the parents were more mixed, but I made every effort to understand their points of view. I saw them for half a dozen sessions and at the end of it the girl could see normally. I had no conceptual understanding of what might have brought this change about but was duly gratified. In fact, I was deeply impressed. If psychotherapy could make the blind see, then there was clearly something in it, and I wanted to study more. I have now been doing so for more than half a century and there is still a good deal that remains mysterious.

When one is with another person one feels things. I want straight away to limit my definition of the word 'feel'. We often use the word feel when what we are really talking about are thoughts, hypotheses, or judgements. We say “I feel that…” This is not feeling in the narrow sense. One feels anger, sadness, shock, jealousy, envy, lethargy, anxiety, misery, heat, cold, hunger and thirst, but when one says “I feel that it might rain tomorrow,” it is a hunch, thought or judgement. It might be based upon a feeling, as “I can feel a certain dampness in the air this evening, I think we might have rain tomorrow.” The feeling here is that of dampness on the skin. Similarly, if one says, “I feel that you are angry with me,” this is a judgement or a hypothesis. Again, it may well have a real feeling as foundation. The whole matter may be something like “I felt a shock when I heard the abruptness in your voice when you spoke to me just now and I am wondering if that means that you are angry with me.”

If you can follow me in this tightening of the definition, then we can say that feelings are facts. They are things that actually happen. Often when we have a feeling we follow it with a rationalisation of some kind, as in the examples just given. These rationalisations do not refer to facts, they refer to speculations. They might or might not be true. All that is factual is that one had a feeling and then one made a rationalisation.

Now in psychotherapy we make a deliberate effort to open ourselves to the vibrations of the other. This is empathy. We listen and try to make sense of what the client tells us and imaginatively enter into his world. As soon as we have a sense of that world we start to feel things and these feelings often provoke a host of hypotheses about what might be going on. To work with precision it is important to distinguish what is fact in our experience from what is supposition. When I was with my first client’s family, it is a fact that I felt a great pressure. It is then speculation that this must have been due to something in the interaction between the family members, that the client must have experienced similar pressure in some way and that her doing so had some connection with the symptom formation. In theory hysteria is the conversion of emotion that cannot be faced or admitted into a physical symptom. This theory well fits this case. However, one cannot be certain, and even if this diagnosis were correct it still left a lot unknown about precisely how, why, where and when.

As therapists we have to learn to live and work with uncertainty. As good scientists we should not dismiss hypotheses until evidence disproves them, but nor should we attach a sense of certainty to what is still tentative. Nonetheless, the feelings we experience are factual, whether we are in a position to explain them or not.

Of course, one learns to be more sensitive but many feelings pass through us without our being strongly aware of them. Some are distinctly more salient than others. Some we do not become aware of until after the session. We try to learn, as far as possible, to recognise things as they are actually happening, but we cannot expect perfection. Not only do feelings happen for reasons, but our own blindness toward them is also motivated.

In regard to the kind of feelings that are likely to infect us when we are in dialogue, many have to do with sense of identity. Typically a client will act in a way that subtly invites the therapist to play a role in his life drama. She, the therapist, may be invited, for instance, to be the client’s ally in his battle with his mother in law. Now there are two things to note, firstly, that this is entirely understandable in that the client comes in order to talk about his struggles and he expects the therapist to be on his side. Secondly, it is unnatural. The therapist does not know the mother-in-law. She has no real place in this drama. She can sympathise and empathise, but she is, in effect, being asked to play an unreal role.

At such points the therapist will notice a tension within herself. This tension is related to her own sense of her own role. On the one hand she genuinely wants to help the client. On the other hand she does not want to get into a false position. Of course, none of this gets said clearly. The client does not say “I want you to be on my side in the fight with mother in law,” he just acts as though it is taken for granted that that is what the therapist will do. The tension she feels is a fact. Therapist’s have to get used to accepting that such feeling arise, must learn that they are always significant, and must accept that when the feeling first comes they are probably not going to be able to formulate exactly what it means. This means that the therapist must note such feelings and dwell upon them while as yet uncertain of the full significance.

The ordinary common sense attitude is to blame the other. If the therapist feels bored, is it because the client is a boring person, an uninteresting case? If the therapist feels irritated, is it because the client is wasting her time? If the therapist is making a genuine attempt to be empathic and such feelings arise it is far more likely that what is happening is that she has picked up something that he is experiencing but not articulating. Perhaps the client himself feels inferior and is doing his best to entertain the therapist and keep her happy because he does not really believe that his own life is worthy of examination. Perhaps the second client, while presenting himself as cool, calm and collected is inwardly seething about an affront that he has never managed to come to terms with. When she feels the feeling she can look into herself and think, “That’s interesting.” As yet she does not know what it may presage, but she should not deny it nor attribute it to the client’s character. It is saying something about an important dynamic that hopefully will become clear in due course.

Another occasion when mysterious feelings arise is in situations where the client is carrying an emotion and, perhaps, has been doing so for a long time, perhaps to the point where the client no longer notices it. It is just his normal now. He does not talk about it. Perhaps it is a grief from the death of his sweetheart twenty years ago. He is now married to somebody else and has come to see the therapist because although everything in his life seems to be in good order he gets unaccountable periods of lethargy or melancholy and loses motivation for his work and activities. He comes to see the therapist and tells her about his life, but there is no mention of the previous sweetheart. Nonetheless, while she is with the client the therapist feels a distinct pain around her sternum bone in her chest. She perhaps has no idea what it means.

After the session she goes home and ponders on what happened. She recalls the experience. "I did definitely have a pain here," she says to herself, putting her hand to her chest. As she does so she feels tears behind her eyes. "It’s almost as if somebody close to me had died," she thinks. The next session, she share with the client what she had experienced after the session. The client does not react at first, and starts talking about something else. The therapist wonders if she has made a fool of herself. Then, abruptly, the client’s manner changes completely and he starts to weep uncontrollably. In due course the whole story comes out.

Resonance is not always about feelings. Sometimes the parallel process between client and therapist generates imagery. The therapist is listening to the client’s story and suddenly an image forms in her mind. The image might seem to have nothing to do with what the client is talking about. However, it is a fact that it formed. The therapist has to make a judgement whether to share it or not and a good deal depends upon the strength of the client and the relationship. The therapist might say, “I feel a little embarrassed sharing this because it seems very much at a tangent, but while you were telling me about your brother an image came to my mind. It was an image of four strong white horses running across a meadow and jumping over a fence.” Now at this point it is possible that the client is going to say, “Well I’ve no idea why you saw that,” dismiss it and go on talking about his brother, but often enough clients do say such things as, “That’s extraordinary. How did you know? My brother used to have four horses and one of them caused him a serious accident while jumping.”

We can call this intuition and we can be confident that it is the result of some kind of parallel process going on in a non-verbal manner. The therapist has picked up something. Sometimes it is possible to trace back and discern what the trigger was. Often it is not possible to find it.

Resonance works both ways. I imagine that my first client picked up something from my manner and way of being that helped her in some way, but I cannot substantiate the hunch and I don’t suppose she could have articulated it either. Perhaps the fact that I, another human being, was able to experience the emotional tsunami and survive made her realise that she could do so too. I shall never know. It is speculation.

My general conclusion from all this is that some things are factual and some are hypothetical and in therapy we have to work with both, giving each their proper due. We strive to act naturally, if that is not a contradiction of terms, always fail to do so to some degree, but can learn from the distortions that arise. We can become more shrewd and experienced, not fall into traps of over-identification or over-hasty dismissal, but, nonetheless, humility is essential, for the most important things that go on in therapy probably mostly go on subliminally.

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  • Yes, there is always more hidden behind the wall.

  • I feel your discussion and the resonance simile  illuminate the heart of therapeutic or enlightening encounter. Understanding a mechanism this way or that can be perhaps but one of many paths to caring, enabling a patient to go beyond walls, to sense an empty aspect of that which impedes his or her ability to go beyond. How wonderful when it works !

  • Dear Dharmavidya,

    Thank you for all of this.  It is very helpful. Much to think about.  It helps me to see where I feel things but then tend to veer off into stories and assumptions... the idea of not sharing the possible hypotheses with the client, but perhaps sharing the images that arise that might seem to have no immediate connection, but may resonate, in turn, with the client and allow them to bring things forward.  

    Something you put forward as an illustrative story made me pause in some surprise and wonder how chains of resonance might run from one person to another.  You have created the story of the man who lost a sweetheart many years ago.   I have no idea what made you think of that story as an illustration:  what is most curious to me is that this actually IS something that  this client/friend shared with me (and which I had almost forgotten until I read your notes). Along with sharing with me that he  had no intimacy with his wife, and along with the feelings that I had— which he did not articulate— that he had little love for his wife — he talked about a sweetheart he had had when he was younger who he really did love.  They had broken up, as young people do — he couldn’t even remember why, only that it was some folly of youth, when she was killed in an automobile accident.  He described the accident in great detail: who was in the car, what had happened.  It was clear that this loss still haunted him...   After which he married someone else... I asked him some questions and there was no sign in any of his responses that he had EVER loved his wife.  He seemed to justify staying in the marriage because of his daughter.

    Funny, in writing this I am reviewing my own feelings in listening to him.  I have just noticed something else.  When talking about his wife, I was feeling anger from him under the surface, I hadn’t actually identified it until just now.  There was nothing at all he said about being angry.  In fact he had originally presented himself as a grieving widower.  But the feeling during the conversation was of hurt and anger. The story I find myself telling is that he is angry at her for being who she was, angry for losing three years of his life caring for her, angry for the suffering his daughter has gone through and angry that his wife may have passed on her genetic time bomb to his/their daughter.  He only ever spoke of the daughter as “his daughter”.  Never as their daughter. But all of this is hypothesis.  Only the feeling is real... 

    Yet if he IS angry underneath and not wanting to admit it to himself, as it would not accord with his identity of himself, it could, perhaps, account for his repeated telling me that he was a good person.

    Am I understanding what you are saying?

    And, perhaps rhetorically,  how might you have intuited the loss of his sweetheart from what I said?  

    So interesting.


  • Very astute and sensitive reading David of the space between client and therapist, friend to friend. Thank you!

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