It’s 4:00ish, no food or coffee since 11:30am or so – dinner break still a few hours away. Or maybe its after 8:00pm – capping the end of a satisfying, if long day with some later night sessions.

….and I feel it coming.

Yet, I am fully engaged, listening – completely caught up in the narrative being laid out before me.

So maybe I didn’t sleep so well last night, maybe my kids woke me up, maybe I need a new mattress.

I should have dashed out between sessions and grabbed a cup of coffee instead of returning that call or checking email.

Perhaps this is the extra oxygen intake that precedes a migraine in the next 4 or 5 hours. I’ve had them chronically since I was a young kid. I’ve got a pretty good treatment/wellness regimen – but every once in a while one slips through.

Maybe we’ve “sprung ahead” recently (I so much prefer to “fall back”).

I could have eaten too much lunch, and my bodily resources are being diverted to my digestive organs. It could be because I’m a 47 year old working mother of two elementary school aged children – or I could be perimenopausal.

Whatever the cause, however I am to blame; I am going to yawn. I feel the deep inhalation drawing in through my nose. It’s inevitable.

I’m not bored. I swear. Who really yawns when they are bored? Sometimes we feign yawning to act like we are bored, but do we REALLY yawn?

I once had a supervisor who instructed me to yawn very brazenly – to actively and intentionally look as bored as possible – with a client who provocatively enjoyed reporting manipulatively self-destructive/dangerous behavior, just to see my reaction.

It worked in that case. Extinguished the most dangerous provocative behavior. The symptom, the need for the wrong kind of attention, displaced onto less destructive outlets until it was brought into awareness. Good enough advice.

And, by the way, it often happens because YOU just yawned there on my couch without noticing – and yawns are damn catchy.

But I usually just yawn because, for whatever reason, I need more hardy red-oxygenated blood cells in my middle aged brains.

The cultural equating of yawning with lack of interest has forced me to develop the stealth yawn. Like the silent, squelched sneeze, I suspect that it can do some mechanical damage to the inside of my head. But sometimes, it’s just a necessity.

I flare my nostrils. Squint my eyes, furrow my brows, and lean forward, cocking my head slightly to the side. No matter what, I do NOT open my mouth, widen my throat, put my hand to my mouth, or even drop my jaw with lips shut tight. I’ve invented a displaced yawn that relies entirely on the nostrils and sinus cavities.

I hope that it looks like I’m trying to remember something just out of reach. Or am suddenly having an deep idea. More likely it looks like I am about to stroke-out. Inside my skull it feels like the deep intake of air might pop my eyes right out of my head (hence the squint).

I don’t have to use it all the time. Some relationships have been tried and tested; trust has been earned, over and over, through many mini-failures and reparative gestures. Some alliances, especially over the long term, run very deep. Deep enough to see me as fallible, finite, mortal.

Some know about my migraines – as they, and I, have both survived suddenly interrupted or cancelled sessions where I am struck down by one-eyed blindness, or flooded with migrainous nausea and can’t go on. They recognize my symptoms.

The relationships that have “worked through the depressive position,” in Kleinian terms, trust my intentions, my affections, my interest and commitment – even through a big old open-mouthed but politely covered yawn. Maybe even accompanied by a long stretch and a twisting attempt to crack my back – while the conversation and the connection between us continues, flowing and uninterrupted.

Yawning can be a very intimate act. Drinking in each other’s air. Picture a pride of lions, lying in a pile in the sun, safe with each other, eyes closed and trusting, yawning together.

Other relationships are more fragile. Some are simply newer. Some people anticipate that I am about to reject them, even when my heart is breaking for them or I am bursting with admiration and affection. A yawn, here, in a vulnerable moment in an untested relationship, could hurt terribly, no matter my intentions.

Much more than it hurts me to try to suck it in through my sinuses.

Many would decide that a yawn is proof that they are unlovable, neglect-able, uninteresting.

Some are merely offended that my humanity dare intrude into their time and space at all. Certain that they have hired my whole body and soul for the 45-minute session, my yawning establishes that I am: Weak. Inadequate. Deserving of contempt. A discredit to my profession. Others experience my yawn as a narcissistic injury, a direct attack, an insult – or an expression of contempt towards them.

Many, many people apologize for being boring – yawn or no. They assume that because the therapeutic process is repetitive that it must be tedious for me. I, personally, like repetition. I can, in fact happily watch multiple coats of paint dry – or a candle flame flicker for hours. Your re-stating and re-working an essential core conflict – building up a new muscle each time we pass through the reps, gaining and hanging onto some new piece of emotional or intuitive knowledge – that just isn’t boring to me, no matter how many times we repeat.

Also, remember this: I am NOT bored when you feel fine and things are running smoothly. An absence of pain is not boring. It is a way-station on a long journey. A time to rest and be nourished together. Maybe even take in some extra oxygen.

That is not to say that boredom is not a part of the therapeutic process. It is.

Boredom emerges when we have become disconnected from ourselves, or our own needs, or from each other, and haven’t understood or acknowledged it yet.

And I will absolutely have a response to that (which I will be glad to talk more about another time).

But it won’t be a yawn.

copyright © 2011
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

13 responses

  1. You are a wonderful writer! You captured what happens when a relationship that allows for two subjectivities develops: what happens when therapists become human to their patients. Then we are two people that are deeply engaged, so engaged and interconnected that “yawning” or shifting in one’s chair or stretching is not taken personally but understood within the language that was co-created in the relationship. This is a process as you say, and one that unfolds with the necessary specificity that our patients histories require.
    That being said, it takes time, trust and shared meaning to let out a big yawn!
    Velleda Ceccoli

  2. Thanks very much!
    I’m thinking of this as the first part of a few exploring the function of boredom in the therapeutic relationship.
    But I must admit, that focusing on boredom is hard to do! The mind-wanders…
    And, yes, exactly – yawning in a two-person relationship has very different implications than yawning in a one-person treatement.

    Thanks for reading and your feedback!

  3. I am fascinated by when I yawn with clients (and similarly have developed a stealth yawn). It has often seemed to me that yawning can form a really important part of my counter-transference, prodding me to notice a when a client isn’t saying something, or a defence of some kind at play between us.

  4. For my part I have become quite fascinated with the tiny litle mind-wanderings, the internal movies, memories, things to do, personal worries that suddenly seem to emerge out of the blue, but always, for me, prove to be a response, a reaction, a riff, a symbolization or a compensation for something that is happening in the transference/countertransference matrix. We all have our own idiosyncratic responses to ruptures in the relational feild – and its so liberating when you can decode yet one more of them! ie: “Oh! I usually do ______ when something like _______ is going on!” Solving the larger puzzle one riddle at a time. 🙂
    Thanks for reading, and for your insightful comment.


  5. Thanks!
    After reading your piece, you might be interested in some earlier posts of mine on self-care – (Practice, Practice Practice, The Lazy Illusion, and Unmatched Socks and Miracle Chili… )

    Thanks for reading and for your kind comments!


  6. I happened upon the ‘yawn’ post just two days after my therapist did his first real proper yawn instead of the stealth ones and my first reaction was that it was a message to say “whatever you’re trying to do won’t work” (I wasn’t saying anything for a reaction at the time) but after reading your post I realised that it may have indeed been a defence / counter-transference issue since I have noticed that one subject I raise is consistently met by the same discreet and presumably unconscious gesture so I appreciate your post for widening my therapy understanding.

  7. Thanks Elena,
    Glad it was useful.
    I’d encourage you, if you were my client, to take the next step and ask me about it, and share your expereince, your concerns, wishes, worries, about what is being communicated, consciously, or unconsciously… I always find it helpful when my clients help me learn about my unconscious responses. Good therapies can change and help both participants to grow…
    Thanks for your readership and your comments!

  8. I wonder if therapists get off on the fact that their slightest bodily movements have such importance to people. I wonder if the career is compensation for a childhood of not feeling seen.

  9. Supposedly Freud had his clients lay down because he couldn’t bear having his every tick, gesture and blink scrutinzed

    But absolutely – therapists become therapists for a reason: Excellent book on this subject is the old out of print editions of Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller – which was first called Prisoners of Childhood – all about her treatment of analysts for their training. Later editions she reorganized around her work in prisons with trauma survivors – and is a very different book from the old one – which is exactly about why therapists do what they do…

  10. I’ll look for it. I have all her books, but didn’t know about that one. She and I traded emails through the Reader’s Mail section of her website.
    I’m fascinated with understanding the reasons people become therapists, mostly because it helps me understand why my therapist is in the room with me.

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