One Spring day, after returning from lunch, I discovered a women sitting on the stairs to my office. She was large, dressed in a rumpled skirt and blouse, and appeared to be in her mid-fifties. I noticed her stringy grey hair that was hanging over her face. Her face was red and her eyes swollen from crying. I asked her if she needed anything and she responded that she was waiting for the psychologist whose name was on the sign. I told her that I was that person and asked her why she was waiting. She said that she was “confused” and needed to talk to someone who could help her.
It was apparent that she was distressed, confused, and did not know how to phone for an appointment. I did not want to leave the women crying on the stairs and, equally important, I did not want to talk to her. This brief encounter was unsettling to me. I had intended to use the half hour before my four o’clock client to take a nap. Yet, the way that she conveyed her anguish and confusion touched my heart. I could not ignore her request to talk. I decided to give her a few minutes before my next client and perhaps refer her to a colleague. I asked her to step into the waiting area of the office and tell me why she wanted to see a psychologist.
She rapidly told me fragments of an entangled story about her husband dying of pancreatic cancer, her wanting a divorce, her care of him during his painful illness, his physical abuse of her throughout their marriage, and her children’s anger at her for staying in the marriage. She punctuated each part of the story with “I’m so confused”. Although I was empathic with her, I too was confused by the profusion of information as she went from one part of the story to another and then back again. It was too much information too fast. It was difficult to stay attuned to her changing affect and discombobulated story.
She continued to talk for the full 30 minutes before my next client arrived.
Unexpectedly I was drawn to her emotion-filled story in some way I did not understand. As a result I offered to see her the next day. I added that we could only have a maximum of six sessions since I would be leaving in seven weeks for a trip to Europe. I knew it was not the time to begin a psychotherapy relationship with anyone yet I spontaneously offered her the six sessions.
Later that day I wondered how I had become ensnared in such a counter-transference trap. That evening I arranged to see a trusted colleague to talk about my encounter with the woman and how, against my better judgement, I had arranged to see the women for six psychotherapy sessions. As I told the story my eyes fill with tears. I talked about how I wanted to comfort the woman…a woman with whom I did not yet have a relationship. It seemed necessary to explore the countertransference feeling I was having.
In our conversation my colleague used the word “compassion” a few times to explain my intense reactions to this women I had just met on the stairs. We talked about the meanings and significance of compassion as well as our professional commitment to the welfare of our clients. My colleague’s discussion of the concept of compassion opened a new awareness for me. That night I had an enlightening dream about protecting a woman from being physically attacked by a man. I was filled with a desire to protect and help. It was as though COMPASSION had a deep hold on me. I had felt a similar sense of deep interpersonal connection several times in both my personal and professional life but I had never thought of it as compassion — a deep desire to provide the other person with relief of his or her suffering.
The next day we began our limited series of therapy sessions. I soon realized that I was again experiencing compassion via my intense affect attunement when Agatha told me more of the details of her life story. This was the beginning of a significant therapeutic relationship that was eventually transformative in Agatha’s life.