May 2024


We all have dreams where we find ourselves wandering through familiar rooms. Often these rooms existed in our distant past and they now serve as entry to a memory, for they create the ambience of a time gone by. Sometimes the rooms we dream of, and their locations are totally unfamiliar but, in their particularity, reveal something important or new to us. 

So, in our waking lives we find ourselves shaping and being shaped by our immediate environment, the rooms in which we work and live. We all have a need for a certain degree of privacy. Some people call it private space and even visualize a space within themselves that is inaccessible to anyone. I see that space within as akin to a room. We often call it euphemistically our inner space, or inner world. We carry it with us wherever we go. Some people experience their most intensely private even profound moments outdoors on a mountaintop or watching the sun set. 

How we locate ourselves in the world, cast anchor, and settle in a place is our story. The spaces we live in are usually extremely important to us. The reasons are complex and varied, but I’ll name a few. We see our homes as extensions of ourselves. They reflect something about us, about our identity. They can project an image about us…even if we’d rather they didn’t. 

We designate some rooms in our homes to be public and some to be private. Some people have a more intense feeling about their bedrooms as sanctuaries than others. Most people have a private space (even a chair) for their own personal use. Our public spaces in our homes are meant for guests as well as family. An American home frequently contains a formal living room as well as a family room. In some families the kitchen is the hub of family life. These subjective and cultural definitions of our spaces reflect the degrees of intimacy even within our homes. 

Many working people have little, if any, control over their work environment. Those of us who work in clinics and other public institutions often share space with others and our office rooms reflect a shared taste as well as the policy of that institution. Even so, most people put touches of themselves into their work environment, as if to mark their presence there. I once worked in a windowless clinic in New York City. The building had once housed a part of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atom bomb during World War II. The rooms had low ceilings and thick walls painted a functional hospital green. Thick columns planted throughout the clinic upheld the structure. My room had once been occupied by a Viennese psychoanalyst who had fled the war and had settled there for many years of work prior to retirement. One day she decided to paint green vines entwining the column in her office. Her room was transformed, humanized. 

Those of us who are private practitioners are in a unique position to create our own environments. Our rooms are public, in that they are open to complete strangers, yet the rooms are intensely private and intimate once those strangers have decided to reveal themselves. Such is the paradox of our therapy rooms. We cannot make them so exclusively personal that others fear to trespass, nor do we wish to make them alien to our own needs. We must create a space that is at once accessible, inviting, private and quiet. That space exists somewhere between the personal and the public. There is no such thing as a truly impersonal room. Our offices reflect how we see ourselves and our work and their atmosphere have an impact upon how others see us. For example, Freud’s antiquities collection on his desk revealed his penchant for uncovering memorial antiquities in his patients and then displaying them in his writing. 

In the process of giving a private touch to public spaces or making private space welcoming to the public, psychologists must decide whether to display personal and family photos, what to hang on the walls other than obligatory licenses, and what memorabilia and objects d’art to place on surfaces. They also need to decide what kind and how much furniture to use. Seating arrangements are of particular importance. There are differences in the critical distance patients prefer in their choice of seating. Therefore, it can be helpful if there are several optional distances between the therapist’s chair and other chairs or couches. Of course, most therapists choose a particular chair to designate as their own. Usually, once a patient has chosen a seat, they tend to resume that same seat in other sessions. There are locked and private areas in most offices that are off limits to visitors. These include but are not limited to files, computers, desk contents, as well as cabinets. Finally, of course there is the ubiquitous clock. Since time is of the essence, clocks generally have a significant status in most of our offices. 

Patients internalize an image of the psychologist’s office even long after they have left therapy. In phone sessions I’ve frequently been asked, “Does your office look the same?” Should they return after a long absence they often observe any minute changes, and should I change something in my office while working with a patient the reaction is frequently quite vocal, for I am now altering the space that has become theirs. 

We never know how a decorative object might affect others or what their response to it might reveal. I once put a blooming white orchid on a shelf in my office. The sun pouring in caused it to cast a reflection against the wall. A young suicidal patient looked up and said, “Isn’t that shadow beautiful against your wall!” I knew she’d turned a corner. 

Antonia Meltzoff, Ph.D. (1939-2020) was a talented psychologist and writer who was a Fellow of SDPA. This article was first published in the San Diego Psychologist.