Last fall, the Society for Existential Analysis in England held a conference on technology in psychology. My first thought when seeing the topic was that some presentations would address in some form the relationship of cell phones and texting to therapy.
Curiously, cell phone use did not make the cut in the conference presentation schedule. Given their presence in the therapeutic space—phones belonging to both therapist and client—I naturally, but wrongly, assumed this would be a hot topic. I thought this would be especially true given the new research on using smartphones to provide therapeutic support as well as to help with psychological research, enabling participants to provide researchers with data about their daily life in real time.
But then recently, on one of my LinkedIn email discussion groups, a group of psychotherapists started querying each other about how they deal with cell phones in the therapeutic space. So far, there are more than 450 posts from practitioners discussing how they handle the issue.
In the days before cell phones, if a therapist had a phone in the office, “etiquette” called for he or she to turn the ringer to silent during the session, unless there was an emergency, in which case the therapist would then explain the situation to the client.
According to the LinkedIn forum, many therapists still follow this practice with their cell phones, turning the ringer to silent, or even turning the phone completely off, during the session.
However, many clients do not follow these same “rules.” While some may put the phone away completely, others may leave it on a table or put it next to them during the session so they can easily see who is calling or texting while the session is in progress. Some will even take calls or text replies during the session. In certain cases, the client may state the occasional need to have the phone at the ready to address some emergency situation in their personal life.
Ernesto Spinelli says that the relationship between therapist and client is key to existential therapy and that it is in that space between where the real work happens. How does that space between change when the relationship is no longer simply therapist and client, but rather therapist, client, and cell phone. The dyad becomes a triad, and the cell phone becomes an “Other.” So the client’s boss, parent, child, or friend may unwittingly be brought into the therapy room.
Many of the therapists posting on this online forum expressed disgust at the growing presence of cell phones in the therapeutic space. They call the phones intrusive, and some feel the need to set clear boundaries around cell phone use—e.g., that the session is necessarily limited by time and any time the client spends on the phone will not be “added on” to the end of the session. There is a sense of here of a need to take action, often seemingly punitive, around the use of the phone. I expect that these actions might bring about responses akin to a parent telling a teenage child to stop playing so many video games.
But there is a way to work with the cell phones’ presence existentially by looking at what it means to the client to stay connected during the session. To ask how it would be for the client to put the outside world away for 50-60 minutes. The client’s need, and it is often felt more as a need rather than a want, to have the phone visible and audible can tell us as therapists much about how that person is in the world. How would it be for the client to engage in an “exclusive” relationship with the therapist for the duration of the session? How would it be for them to focus all the energy on the therapy?
The late Freddie Strasser, an existential practitioner in England and the author of several books on existential practice as well as one of my first clinical supervisors once told me that there was no such thing as a mistake in existential practice—that everything can be worked with. Not only was that comment the most inspiring, freeing guidance this beginning existential therapist ever received but it is also applicable to the introduction into the therapeutic space of such so-called extra-therapeutic elements such as cell phones. And by engaging with the questions surrounding the presence and use of cell phones, perhaps the therapist and client can transform their relationship, and by extension, their world.
— Sarah Kass