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Two mad men on a bus: a case of mirroring

Two ‘mad’ men on the bus: a case of pre-verbal empathy and mirroring

Therapy can be done anywhere— not just in the consulting room—and, often, on holiday, I find myself doing some sort of therapy by the pool, at the beach or around town. I have been trained to be a good listener and, of course, I have empathy for others and this is immediately picked up by people in and outside my clinic. The work that I do is multi-modal: I am a psychotherapist, psychoanalyst, hypnotherapist and counsellor all rolled into one. On the way home the other day, I observed a rather dishevelled looking man attempting to get on the bus. In fact, there are a lot of people struggling to survive in my home town of Enfield, and this is true of many other areas of London. Wages have, for many, stayed the same and a lot of people are struggling to pay bills and their rent. One cannot pay for a bus fare using cash anymore. People run out of money and are unable to top up their Oyster cards. One can pay using a direct debit card; however, the same problem arises. People are out of cash and there is very often little money to spare. And, there are additional technical problems which include being cut off by TFL Transport for London and card clash. People are becoming more and more stressed and the need for counselling, compassion and empathy has never been greater.

It was obvious at the outset that this man had been having some problems – psychological or otherwise – in his life: his cards were not working and he spent a good two minutes attempting to get on the bus and pay his fare. Eventually, he managed to get one of his cards to work, but the bus driver was particularly insensitive to him and there were other disgruntled people behind him waiting to get onto the bus. When he sat down, I observed that he was distressed: he began to make some distressing grunting sounds and occasional screeches – ‘Ahhhhhh’. He also begun to mumble to himself and rummage around his bag, checking on its contents but without taking anything out. After a few minutes of this erratic behaviour, he began to hit himself in the side of his face, while, at the same time, making some other distressed vocalisations – ‘Wooahh’ and ‘Ahhhhhh’. I felt that I had to intervene and this is how I did so.

Every time that he made a loud vocalisation, I imitated it so that he could hear. When he noticed this, I gave him no contact whatsoever. I felt that someone needed to understand his anxiety without using words. This, I initiated a pre-verbal conversation using empathy in its purest form. Whenever, he rummaged into his bag, I mirrored his behaviour frantically, like a starving squirrel who has run out of nuts. And, when he hit himself in the side of the head – obviously I was distressed about this – I banged my feet in time with the beat. On the second round of distressed behaviour, which consisted of loud and distressed vocalisations, rummaging and self abuse, I, again, copied his behaviour; and, for a second time, he stopped and looked at me. Again, I gave him no eye contact, although in the corner of my eye I could see that he looked quite confused. Someone on this carriage seemed more disturbed than him, he might have thought.

At this point, he looked more calm, and there was a longer gap before the next wave of distressed behaviour. And, inevitably, he began to make his distressed sounds and I again copied him. He also started rummaging in his bag and I mirrored, as best I could, this frantic behaviour; but when he started hitting himself again, I turned to him and authoritatively, but not threateningly, said ‘No’, and lifted my finger. I, then, smiled at him and said, ‘I know’, in the way that a mother would empathise with a baby who was hot and tired on a long journey. He looked very confused. I say confused – he was not as confused as the rest of the people on the bus who were ready to commit us both to the local lunatic asylum, not that they, thankfully, exist any longer. There was a long pause and it seemed to have worked. He looked at me again, and I just smiled and said that it was ok. After about ten minutes he made a final utterance which seemed to be some sort of test that I was still there. Again, I said ‘No’, and smiled.

For the remainder of the journey, we sat in a silence while, occasionally, we glanced at each other. And when I got off the bus, again I smiled at him and, to my surprise, he smiled back. This story illustrates the power of non-verbal communication (silent counselling?), using empathy and mirroring in a relaxed and non-affected way. I have to say that I felt quite sad after the episode, although, at the same time, I realised that I had done some quite useful therapy with him on the bus. I hope that he gains some strength from the experience but I am not sure what his future holds. However, perhaps, this story will provide readers with some useful insights into how to deal with distressed people out and about.


David Kraft, Social Psychologist  

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