When I first started my practice, trying to feel professionally armored I suited up in quasi-corporate business attire – compensating with my clothing and pearls for my youth and inexperience. Still in training, I knew I had good instincts for this field and could assure a new client that their investment in low-fee therapy with me would provide some return. I’d learned some good tricks, some useful skills – but none of them were my own. Hence: the uniform. I knew what to “do” and tried to make myself near invisible – ridding myself of any adornment that would draw attention to me, away from the client.

It eventually became clearer and clearer that knowing what to “do” in the office was far less important than knowing who I am. The more I am authentically, honestly myself – cognizant of my weakness, respectful of my history, vigilant against inflation – the deeper the work. When I am comfortable in my own skin, and can admit, at least to myself, when I am not, it gives my clients more permission to inhabit their own lives honestly.

I’ve grown less and less worried about the ways that my reality, my self-definition, my taste, my sense of humor, or stray bits of my biographical data comes into the room. I’ve found, at least for the clients who seek me out, that their projections onto me were not so easily disrupted. When spotted on the street with my interracial adoptive family, or seated next to clients in a restaurant while on a date with my husband or any of the hundreds of random moments when I cross-paths with clients in this, the largest small town in the world, I’ve learned that my clients’ fantasies and fears about who I am are rarely dissuaded by reality.

Then there is the tattoo.

A four-inch-long stylized flower, tattooed along the outside of my lower left leg, starting just under my knee; it peeks slightly over my dress boots in the winter and throughout the summertime, it’s prominent – my feet perched on my shrink-chair ottoman – anytime I wear a skirt, which is often.

I must admit that when treating very religious/Orthodox Jewish clients for whom tattoos, “marks in the flesh” are forbidden by the Torah – and for whom it was a big anxiety-provoking leap to see a clinician outside of their faith – I learned how to open the office door facing the client with my unmarked right leg. I would then masterfully maneuver the few steps backward to my chair, keeping my right leg in position, and then quickly cross my right leg over, tucking my left leg under my seat for the duration of the session. I imagined that I pulled it off with out looking completely peculiar.

It is this kind of mark to me: The Dictionary of Myth, Folklore and Symbols discusses tattooing as demonstrative of ancient covenant, a symbolic bloodletting that indicates devotion and eternal allegiance; Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols refers to tattooing pre-historically as a “cosmic activity” – a sacrificial brand which acknowledges and reciprocates the sacrifice of another, an initiation which refers to a “turning point.”

I have, of necessity created a snappy self-deprecating social narrative which tells the mundane story of the tattoo – for the curious “did it hurt?!” types. I don’t share, in or out of the office, my most personal, multi-determined associations – the many recorded dreams in my journal which led up to it, the external synchronicities, the persistent wish to make an indelible spiritual, psychological, emotional commitment manifest in/on my body; to acknowledge and reciprocate, in a very small way, some primal sacrifices made by others which have expanded my world and my being in unimaginable ways.

That’s it really.

I knew what the tattoo meant to me – but who knew how helpful and diagnostic it would be professionally?

It’s an enfleshed psychological test – gathering the projections – good, bad, and indifferent – of many of the clients who walk into my office. It takes the temperature of the transference for many clients who can’t easily share their fantasies about who they wish I was, and who they fear I am. It also gives me a huge amount of information about their own relationships to their tribes, to their peer groups, to their autonomy and individuation, to their feelings about conformity and non-conformity.

Each spring, when the boots come off, a new crop of clients notice it for the first time. The more traditional, conservative, are often startled: “You have a tattoo!!!! I had no idea!” I watch their narrative of me reorganize in front of my eyes.

I respond: “You seem surprised – does it change how you have been thinking of me?”

“I just thought that…. No! Not at all!! You just didn’t seem the type – I guess you had some wild years like everyone else…. ”

Or this:

(With a snide smile:) “Mid-life crisis, eh?”

Some clients are fearful that I am hiding a fully tattooed torso, that I am an entirely alien creature. Others are concerned about whether I experience stigma from other professionals or clients (themselves?). They wonder if I have been cast out by the Collective – or if I’ve exiled myself from the land of the “Normal” that they are striving to live up to.

The non-tattooed iconoclasts see the tattoo as evidence of my caving into common trends – straining, self-consciously, narcissistically, to stand out by falling in line with all of the other tattooed hipsters – my identity collapsing into unbecomingly youthful faddishness, my individuality washed out by collective forces.

Some lightly tattooed or pierced clients have been relieved that I am enough like them, and see it as a point of identification – even if our values, intents, and purposes bear little resemblance to each other.

To be like, to be different, to be lost in the crowd, to stand out, to demonstrate allegiance, to differentiate, to be a false self, a poser – these all get projected onto this self-imposed mark.

At the magazine stand in the subway station, a headline on a dishy magazine reads:

“Tattoo Do’s and Don’t’s!”

I smirk, imagining the headline attached to an article in a psychoanalytic journal –

“For shrinks considering an occasionally visible tattoo:

DO be prepared to discuss the fantasies, prejudices, anxieties, projections and archetypal implications of your tattoo with your clients.

DON’T worry about covering it overmuch; you are who you are, and people’s fantasies about who you are and what it means says more about them than about you. You can tell them ‘what it really means’ or not, depending on their readiness to tolerate the presence of a two-person therapeutic process.

DON’T FORGET that what ever symbol you choose, for what ever reason, none of us can ever really know another person, or even our own unconscious, and your tattoo will be a permanent, perpetual reminder of that.”

copyright © 2011 Martha Crawford