The Encounter

By Tori E. Owens

Therapy is a relational encounter.

The skittish mom of three entered the office smelling of a combination of coffee and stale smoke. She had dark, swollen circles under bloodshot eyes. Eyes that never settled and darted at each unfamiliar sound or muffled voice. She wrapped herself up with arms in oversized sweater sleeves. Maybe she could cocoon herself up and away from every unexpected sound, sight, smell, or touch. She was exhausted and could not remember the last time she had slept through the night.

The skinny girl in pink leggings and a t-shirt couldn’t stand quietly or sit still. She moved around the office in fits and starts, unable to stay in one place for more than a few seconds, touching everything whether she should or not and without asking permission. Relentlessly compelled to move without limits or boundaries, her mouth, too, spoke every word or thought unfiltered and unabashed.

The teenaged young man, shrouded in a black hoodie, Vans, and ripped black jeans, hid his eyes behind long, unkempt hair. The weight of loneliness and deep sadness pressed him into the chair. He moved slowly, imperceptibly, as if limbs and torso and head were made of lead and his reservoir of energy had already been spent.

The beautiful, wispy teenage girl born a boy. Struggling less with her own identity and more with callous Bible-quoting peers, high school teachers dead-naming her, and the oddity and spectacle of walking solo—and for all to see—to the single faculty bathroom two halls over.

The small boy barely waist-high made eye contact without blinking, chin jutted out defiantly and with teeth clenched. He cussed a stream of words he must have heard time and time again, threatened to remove his belt, and slowly walked forward. He had been engrossed in play and just realized his mom had stepped out of the room without notice.

The young woman in college with raised pinkish-white lines peeking out from under the edge of her sleeve cuffs did not say a word. She wouldn’t say a word for months. Sitting with feet firmly planted, hands grasped in her lap, and head bowed. No sound. No movement. No emotions. Yet she always returned, deliberately and promptly.

Each person’s story is unique in the complex layering of personal hurts and traumas, family history, and perceived inherited generational “curses,” yet so much the same in their courage, vulnerability, and intention in showing up for therapy, often for the very first time.

It begins the same for most everyone: introductions after having emailed or texted or briefly talked on the phone, sometimes in person, but these days, most times via telehealth. Then I say something like, “Tell me a little bit about what brings you here,” or “What’s on your mind?” or a gentle “Talk to me.” Sometimes it’s a quiet: “I’m here.”

There are different responses depending on how many times we’ve been in session, such as a sheepish smile and a glance away, saying “I’ve never done this before, “or a shrug accompanied by, “I don’t know how to explain it.” Other times, it’s words like, “I’m just so hurt,” or “I’m afraid that you will be disappointed in me.”

Even with all this difference, in some ways, it’s the same. Two humans. One encounter.

I don’t even remember my first impression of therapy. I recall sitting in classes listening to lectures on Freud, Jung, or some other person of privilege in psychology, reading about another theory or model and wondering how I would explain my own approach to future clients.

I stopped thinking in those terms when I met the woman in college who remained silent for months. I started out talking, asking questions, stumped, and confused, and probably even exasperated at times. She did not say a word. I would offer up breathing exercises, coloring, Play-Doh, Legos, puzzles, stress balls, origami. Nothing. Zip. Zero. Nada.

One morning on the day of one of her sessions, before she promptly showed, I sat there flummoxed, “What am I supposed to do? I have no idea what I am supposed to do! She can’t keep NOT talking!”

But… what if she did? What was I going to do then? What if I stopped hoping and wishing for her to talk, and instead just accepted her? Instead of trying to come up with “things to do,” forcing a battle of wills, and seeing who could hold out the longest in silence… what if I intentionally held space, relational space, and we just were…together?

Trust me, this had to be Divine inspiration. I was at my wit’s end.

She arrived. We went into session. I told her, “I’m going to try something a little bit different today. We’re just going to sit here together if that’s okay with you?” She nodded.

She nodded. I think it was the first time she acknowledged something I had said. The therapist finally got a clue.

I wasn’t dictating the terms. I wasn’t assuming what she needed. I wasn’t trying to fix her or change her. I wasn’t expecting anything from her. I wasn’t just filling space. I wasn’t telling her what she was doing wrong. I wasn’t telling her what she was doing right. I wasn’t coddling her. I wasn’t talking to be talking. I wasn’t assessing for a diagnosis. I wasn’t developing a plan of care. I wasn’t even determining her symptoms.

I wasn’t controlling the session; therefore, I wasn’t controlling her. I just accepted her for who she was and what she brought into the therapy space. Finally.

I believe she had been waiting for this from me for a very long time. I am still ever grateful for her patience.

Therapy became more about energy and holding space, not words, not theories, not models, not privileged men’s (or my own) beliefs or diagnoses. None of that mattered in the end. It still doesn’t. It was and is the relationship, the encounter, the intentional space, the open acceptance.

We sat together for hours. Not waiting, not assuming, and not expecting. Just being. She taught me to hold the space with Love, to listen with my heart not just my ears, to see with my spirit and not only my eyes.

In time, we developed a routine. We would sit. I would breathe and listen with my ears and my heart. Sometimes, I would say what I felt I was receiving from her energy—a few words, a random thought—but only with her expressed permission. I did nothing without her permission.

At some point, she began to email me after sessions. She was a beautiful, intelligent, and thoughtful writer, expanding on whatever word we had exchanged earlier, and revealing, bit by bit, her story. I was honored to bear witness to her journey, the past and the present.

I don’t know if she knows how much she changed me with each encounter. Most days, in the mornings or when I walk the dogs, I will breathe in Love and breathe out thanks and well-being for my clients. But, sometimes, still, I will breathe in Love and breathe out thanks and well-being for her, especially.

Tori E. Owens is a licensed professional counselor in private practice and a domestic violence shelter in North Georgia. She is also a registered neutral/mediator. Tori earned her M.Div. from Nazarene Theological Seminary and her MA from Argosy University. She recently completed the Living School (Center for Action and Contemplation) and is currently training in Child Parent Psychotherapy (ages 0-5). Tori was recently accepted to study under Dr. Thomas Jay Oord in the Open and Relational Theology doctoral program at Northwind Theological Seminary. You can find her at:

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love