Language in Psychotherapy

“ I don’t express myself in my paintings, I express my not-self”. Mark Rothko

One of the things I REALLY LOVE about Boston and being a student at MSPP are the wonderful conferences held throughout the area on different mental health themes. You can find a conference really on anything, and a lot of these conferences are for free. This morning I attended a very inspiring presentation on poetry and psychoanalysis at Cambridge Hospital. The quote above is just a tiny sample of the many wonderful things I got to listen at this talk, which definitely made me think a lot about the therapeutic relationship, the multiple expressions in the therapeutic encounter and my latest obsession: language.

This is the first year I work all the time with patients in another language other than my first language, and as much as it has had its ups and downs in terms of feeling that sometimes words don’t come out in a spontaneous way (really, as with other things – like hair  – with language some days are just better than others), I feel that overall this is a wonderful opportunity not only for getting better at being a bilingual clinician, but I see it as an opportunity where other ways of speaking and listening are created in the subjectivity of each person’s language.

Bad language days can be tough, in the sense that sometimes a barrier can be felt between the speaker and the listener. Nevertheless, I find that when working in a different language other than our first language one has the opportunity of stepping back from the obvious and submerging in the own subjective language of each person, and what can be at first glance experienced as a barrier is a wonderful opportunity for encountering the other in their own subjective experience, with their own particular narrative, which is after all, what the therapeutic encounter is about.

I guess what I am trying to say is that being able to struggle in some way with the nuances of language has really accentuated in my work with patients the desire of understanding each patient from their own particular language; ranging from the objectivity of English language, going through the subtleties of Spanish from different countries, or narrowing to the language of art. And then we have each person’s language which goes further beyond these languages. In some way I guess that for me, that is what diversity awareness in our field means: understanding the other person from their own experience of themselves, and with this, each person’s language and culture.

For those of you interested in the work in psychology in other language than your first language – perhaps those of you interested in pursuing the Latino Mental Health program – I would really encourage you to take the dive into doing the work even if your grammar or your spelling or your vocabulary feels far from perfect at this time. For me, doing therapy in another language has been like learning a new language in itself, that really helps me to see more easily those parts of the self, and of the not-self, in each personal encounter.

Like art, the therapeutic encounter is the place where the self and the not-self can be expressed, found, and transformed through the search of the unique therapeutic language that allows this expression.

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3 Responses to Language in Psychotherapy

  1. Dear Paulina,

    Be strong and keep learning every day. You will have some good days, some bad days and some others days that you don´t even want to think about it. Keep the good ones and don´t even think with the rest of them.
    I move to UK when I was 24. I am Spanish and my English was really bad. I have been reading Ivelisse post and I identify myself with her. Everything here is really challenging and still. I like the challenges and like you I have good days and bad days. The communication at the beginning it was really hard for me as well however you keep learning new words, new expressions everyday and everyday you understand everybody a bit more. If you dream already in English that´s a good sign of progression. I remember a lot of headache my first few months. Some people is capable to start thinking in English quicker some others they need more time.
    Be patient I am sure you will get there same as we did however don´t forget your roots. By the way if you meet somebody and you get married and you got children then speak always to them in Spanish. They will thank you later on. I have got two bilingual children right now are 6 and 8. They don´t know well the huge advantage they have got. Proper English accent and proper Spanish accent.

    I hope this help you


  2. Paulina Fuentes Moad says:

    Dear Ivelisse,

    Thank you for your kind words. This is the part I enjoy the most about blogging, which is how we can learn more about ourselves and others – and humanity in general – through sharing our experiences… So, thank you for sharing your experience… I must say your words are really encouraging for me, as I am originally from Mexico City and arrived to do the PsyD program 1.5 years ago, so my struggles between English and Spanish and feeling that I can’t really speak in either languages are my daily bread now… Yet I know it is part of the learning experience and I must say that reading that you thought my struggle was with mastering Spanish (as opposed to English!) really made me feel that maybe I am learning more than I feel (for instance, I am just going out of a period where my dreams had no spoken language to a mix of dreams some days in English, some days in Spanish, so something must be sinking in). Anyway, I am sure that many more people will feel inspired by your experience, just as I do, so thanks for sharing it. Gracias.


  3. Ivelisse Alvarez says:

    Your story brought my life back 20 years ago. I was only 18 then, when I decided to move to the US to get a college education. I only knew Spanish language and some English. I immediately applied to college to finish my bachelor’s degree, and I was denied the entrance to the program because of my lack of English language skills. I was devastated.
    From that day on, language had a new meaning in my life. The Spanish language represented my roots, my culture, my connection to my family – it was my “safety net.” The English language represented new challenges, new opportunities, and my future career – my ticket to knowledge. I craved to learn English, I loved to connect to people who could teach me, and I spent countless hours learning new words, and their meanings.
    The process of learning a new language not only refined my listening skills, but it also brought a higher level of understanding of others. Countless times I misunderstood what others said, because of their accent or simply they spoke to fast for me. I also mispronounced words – giving a different meaning to what intended to say. But, at the end of the day, I learned that in order to understand others, I needed to ask questions to clarify; I needed to learn the dynamics of peoples’ interactions; I needed to observed to learn the cues of what was accepted in this new culture I wanted to embrace. Little I knew that those skills would serve me well, and help me to be the best counselor I can be today.
    I hear your story, not too far from mine, and I command you for your passion to learn Spanish, when you had the choice to stay in your “safety net.” Instead, you decided to embark this new journey –that will indeed give you a new connection and empathy for the Latino population. A journey – that will expand your understanding of human behavior, and will polish your counseling therapeutic skills.
    My best to you,

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