Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Staying Curious

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on November 16, 2017

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Stay curious. This is my message for my current class, “Building A Psychoanalytic Practice”. To stay curious, I say, is to wonder how what you, the therapist says, impacts the patient, and how what the patient says impacts  you. “Find your voice of curiosity” I say, encouraging them to see psychotherapy/psychoanalysis as an art, in which each moment is unique, and each reaction to each moment is also unique. This moment by moment analysis of the session is the complexity of psychotherapeutic work. The therapist is challenged to think on multiple levels at the same time, and in so doing, there are many options about what to say and when to say it. Finding your voice means making informed choices about what to say, when to say it, and how to say it. With professional growth comes a shared interest, between the therapist and the patient about being curious, and how that curiosity can lead to compassion and understanding of deep suffering. With that curiosity comes a passion and with that passion, a practice is built, most often slowly, and with that slowness, nerves of steel help tremendously. There is both anxiety and shame in building a practice which makes staying curious quite challenging. No one wants to admit that they are skill-building, while at the same time, taking on the responsibility of a patient’s mental health. And yet, that is how we grow. We build skills the hard way, by watching people suffer, and at times, inadvertently adding to their suffering, and then we try to walk it back, and grow again. Again, it helps to be curious both about how we help people and also about how we don’t. Being curious means not having answers, but generating more questions? Why did that patient not come back to psychotherapy? What do you think happened? Those are the questions we need to ask, along with the opposite question of why did the patient come back and why do they keep coming back? Being curious makes it fun, but at the same time, allowing one’s mind to open to multiple answers, can be unpleasant and painful. That is why both therapist and patient often resist curiosity and that is why my class presents to me a welcome challenge.

2 Responses to “Staying Curious”

  1. Shelly said

    I know you enjoy the challenge of teaching and influencing the bright minds of tomorrow’s psychiatrists. With your skills and compassion, these young professionals will be well on their way to helping those with anxieties and other challenges through the maze of understanding themselves better and what makes them repeat their patterns of self-destructive behaviors. But how can your students always be curious, how do YOU stay curious if your patients consistently do the same things over and over, even after you’ve analyzed these behaviors to death. When you both know that these behaviors only harm them but they feel safe to repeat them, and it’s the only ones they know? Are you still curious afterwards? Doesn’t it ever get repetitive and boring?

    • Excellent questions…and the answer is yes and no. Repetitive and boring feelings should be a springboard to curiosity. Why does it get repetitive and boring..that is the major stimulus to going deeper. The challenge is to turn the ship away from repetitive and boring, into newly discovered ideas about one’s behavior, or as Freud famously said, it is an archaeological dig, such that with each grain of sand that is pulled away, a new discovery is made. It can be slow, but also endlessly fascinating. Thanks, as always.

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