Don’t you get bored sitting there all day listening to people complain?
What may sound like a complaint to you is likely to hold deeper meanings for me.
When my patient Ruth tells me it’s infuriating that my elevator is still broken, I accept her comment at face value. But, especially as I work on the second floor and Ruth’s in good physical shape, I then ask myself: “What could this statement also mean? Is Ruth telling me she’s been experiencing her daily life/job/family as a climb she’s been doing alone when she had expected some help?”
Then I’d look for messages she might be sending about the two of us. My guess on this one: she’s letting me know she feels like recently she’s been having to do all the work in therapy by herself – to make ‘upward’ progress. (Alternately, she could be implying that she’s exhausted by her attempts to ‘elevate’ her mood. Or that she’s worried I’m not going to manage to ‘fix’ her.)
These are only guesses, gleaned from hints, and I make sure to regard them as such. But let’s say I toss a hunch to her – “Ruth, do you feel like you’ve been having to do all the work around here recently?” – and her reply is, “I hate to say it, or even think it, but I feel like you haven’t been focusing much on me for the last few weeks, Maggie,” I’ll believe I’ve listened between the lines successfully.
My broken elevator is real, but it’s also functioning for Ruth and me as a symbol. (As a symbol, it’s functioning fine.) After we discussed what was going on between us, Ruth apologised for complaining; on the contrary, I told her, I was glad she had. It opened up a conversation that had been too hard to tackle head-on.