When silence fills the therapy room, do you find yourself fidgeting, avoiding eye contact with your therapist, or feeling awkward? Silence can be a strategic tool when used mindfully, and it serves a purpose for deeper thinking and grounding yourself within your environment to decrease stressors and increase awareness. Let’s think for a moment, when there is silence at dinner or when you’re alone, how do you feel? Where does your mind wander? Is it a different feeling when it is silent in therapy versus on social outings? Do you feel insecure, pressured to fill the space, or experience the fear of being judged? You’re not alone in those feelings, especially if life often feels loud and chaotic.
There are a few reasons you may experience silence in therapy. Bringing attention to why there is silence is an integral part of understanding how silence is a tool or resource and less threatening.
When you first begin therapy, it may feel uncomfortable and even foreign to sit with a stranger and share intimate parts of your life. You may find yourself pausing and catching yourself before going deeper and opening up. Silence, in this case, can be viewed as resistance before vulnerable disclosure, which is common while still building trust between you and your therapist. You may have also just disclosed something personal that you’ve never shared with anyone. You may feel yourself withdrawing and going inward out of fear of being judged. Embrace the silence, and give yourself compassion and grace while learning to navigate a safe place to be vulnerable with someone new. Your therapist may use this silence to offer you the space to be heard and release harbored emotions. Recognize your inner resistance and hesitation during this silence and when you’re ready to continue your therapeutic journey.
Silence allows you to be more in tune with your inner thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. Senior Associate Therapist at GTS, Antoinette Bonafede, LMSW, mentioned, “Silence can be intimidating in therapy, as it can almost feel like it violates the overall expectation (which is that both parties talk through it!!) In reality, however, silence allows clients to sit with their emotions, process meaning, and even build up the courage to be vulnerable and explore further. It creates space for mindful and intentional communication as opposed to talking to avoid the discomfort that feelings bring.” The benefits of silence include purposeful reflection, the ability to acknowledge feelings of discomfort, allowing one to pinpoint the root of their emotions, and challenges one’s ability to cope with them at the moment. This silence will question your perspective and lead you to conclude using the skill sets you’ve developed in therapy. Mindfulness is an essential part of leaning into this period of silence as reflection. Being present at the moment with your inner thoughts, feelings, and beliefs will reinforce your personal growth.
During a period of silence, a therapist may be bridging connections between your present and previous disclosures. They may make clinical observations that will benefit you when the conversation resumes. Allow this period of silence to organically flow since it may be serving a greater purpose for your therapist. Silence allows time and space for the therapist to understand, process, and interpret your thoughts. You should fully embrace silence during transitions, which is a direct way of understanding that the topic is changing. Both the clinician and client can sense the end of a conversation through non-verbal cues, which give space for new content and direction. Founder at Be You Psychotherapy, Madeline Weinfeld, LCSW, describes silence in therapy as “a unique opportunity to slow down, process and reflect in a way we often don’t in other interpersonal relationships. It can be uncomfortable at first, for both the client and therapist, but becoming comfortable in silence is one of the most valuable parts of the therapeutic relationship.”
At times silence may feel counterintuitive, and you may ask yourself, why am I paying to sit in silence with my therapist. Silence shifts the power dynamic within the room between the clinician and client. The client often views the clinician as the person “in control,” and silence will intentionally shift the power back to the client. It challenges the client to be fully engaged and navigate the session however they see appropriate. When the clinician encourages silence, the client can lead the conversation with their objectives and at their own pace.
When the client can sit in silence during the session for a few moments, this suggests an increase in self-esteem, confidence, comfort, trust, and progress. The client trusts the environment and clinician when they use this space as they need at that moment. Whether it is entering a moment late after a delayed commute and needing a few moments in silence to gather themself and fully collect their thoughts. Or, after recognizing your response to a triggering situation, you met self-compassion and appropriate skills sets. Using silence intentionally facilitates emotional awareness and emotional intelligence.
There are many reasons why silence may be present in the therapy room. Senior Associate Therapist at GTS Caroline Brown, LMSW, believes, “Silence in individual therapy is so valuable because it provides space for what we may not yet be able to put into words, e.g., processing, sitting with a new realization or big emotions, building the courage to say something aloud. Silence is an act of honoring the importance and validity of all that is going on internally without minimizing it by talking over it.” How often do you genuinely get to sit with your raw emotions and thoughts without being pressured to speak? Silence in therapy is much different than silence in any other setting. Silence in social settings often goes against society’s norms and expectations. Redefining silence in therapy is a beautiful experience when used as a tool, fully embraced, and accepted.