FROM THE EDITOR: MATTHEW MORRISEY, MFT
There are four styles of waiting room: the drab, the sleek, the homey, and the neglected. Each style_s impact on our patients is manifold and unpredictable. While you might think that the best waiting room is the one that is as relaxing and inviting as possible, I_m not convinced. For example, what about the small delight, created anew each appointment, of entering into a sumptuous office after waiting in a squalid antechamber? Besides, we therapists rarely get the chance to have a noticeable impact on the aesthetics of our waiting rooms. Previous tenants have long ago left their legacy of wicker or plastic, and if by a feat of collegial goodwill we succeed in a makeover, chances are it will be subject to a tight budget. No, there won't be an Architectural Digest feature on "Therapist Waiting Rooms" anytime soon.
Besides, the waiting room is supposed to be mundane and ancillary to the therapeutic hour's focus on the inner world. It is so denigrated in our thoughts, we take it for granted. We let our guard down and forget our manners. Therefore, the waiting room can be a space where we reveal how we behave in our everyday life when we feel no one is watching us. In his Introductory Lectures to Psychoanalysis, Freud introduced the idea of neurosis by relating an anecdote of how some patients behaved in his waiting room on their first visit. If they arrived and found the waiting room was empty, they would not close either of the double doors behind them after entering his office. Freud found that this action was an unconscious expression of their contempt: his prospective patients had fantasized that his waiting room would be crowded with others likewise wishing to be dazzled by the physician's authority.
Since Freud, the waiting room and behaviors associated with it have given rise to much interpretive activity. For example, being early signals you value the therapist, yet being reliably so signals obsessionality. Some avoid the waiting room for fear of seeing other patients, out of denial or shame that they are in treatment. Others can't allow the therapist to find them (in the Winnicottian sense). Furthermore, don't you need a stable internal object to have the capacity for waiting? And so on.
While the above is useful to ponder, a further aspect of the waiting room deserves attention. The waiting room fundamentally is a transition. The essence of a transition is to link what is known to what is unknown, in the process dissolving both itself and what came before in order to foreground something new. In effect, transitions give the fabric of reality its "seams." We are transitioning at every second, yet we don't ever think much about it. Unless, that is, either a) the transition breaks down (what happens in a traumatic event) or b) we happen to enter a waiting room. In fact, the waiting room not only makes the transitional seam opaque, it invites us to linger in the seam. It's an insulting invitation. Putting our being in suspension and all plans on hold, we risk confronting our groundlessness.
So the next time you are in a waiting room, reflect on this moment from the thanatology of everyday life, and wink at the abyss before picking up that issue of Architectural Digest and once again connecting to surface.
Matthew Morrissey, MFT