On a recent episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, as Larry David neared the end of a therapy session, he turned his attention to just how uncomfortable the chair was that the therapist had chosen for his patients. As I do embarrassingly often when watching Curb, I found myself wholeheartedly agreeing with Larry: After all, shouldn’t a therapist’s office, of all places, be comfortable? (Larry also goes on to point out that putting a clock behind him would be more efficient than the therapist constantly checking his watch, which rings equally true.)
This got me reflecting on the times I’d gone to therapy myself. One office was simply a rent-by-the-session space, so the walls were pretty bare and the chairs weren’t comfortable at all — the other was a more luxurious, homey environment. While both experiences were fine therapeutically, I do remember finding myself much more willing to open up in the comfy space.
So how much do therapists think about their set up?
Short version: A lot.
The most important part of any therapist’s office is likely going to be where the actual therapy takes place, i.e., the chairs. “In the old days they used to have sofas because people would lie down, but that kind of therapy is less common now,” says Eva Ritvo, author of Bekindr: The Transformative Power of Kindness. Instead, nowadays you’ll usually find a comfortable sofa to accommodate one person (or a couple if the therapist also does couples or family counseling). For the therapist’s chair, they’re going to want to be very comfortable because they spend a lot of time sitting. Production designer Neil Patel shares that when he was working on HBO’s therapy-centric show In Treatment, Gabriel Byrne’s character, “had a very expensive Scandinavian chair which is very popular with therapists, because it puts you in a correct posture, has many different positions and is extremely comfortable.”
How those chairs and sofas are positioned is given even more thought. Environmental psychologist Sally Augustin shares, “A very popular choice is to put them in a position where the direction of both seats don’t directly face one another.” Instead, they’re placed in such a way that the direction each is facing would make an “X” with each other. “This way, if they want to make eye contact they can, yet if they’re talking about a particularly difficult subject, they also can look away gracefully.”
At the center of that imaginary “X” may or may not be a coffee table, and whether or not there’s one there may say a lot about what kind of relationship the therapist is trying to foster. Augustin explains that tables in other settings — like a dinner table on a date, or when someone sits behind a desk — create a physical and psychological barrier between the people conversing. No table at all, then, would likely lend itself nicely to a completely open conversation. Even with a coffee table, the surface is so low that this psychological barrier will be pretty much eliminated. Augustin recommends a regular-sized coffee table, as one too small may invade the personal space between therapist and patient, while one too wide would create distance between them.
Its shape is also important. “Some therapists may prefer a directorial approach, as if they’re in control of the therapy session,” says Augustin, continuing that for them, a square table may work because the hard angles are less soothing. On the flip side, therapists who have a “we’re in this together” approach may find that a table with rounded edges will better relax their clients.
Therapist office decor will probably include more rounded edges altogether, in fact. Augustin explains, “People are generally more comfortable in environments that have more curving lines than straight lines.” Clinical social worker and addiction counselor Mary LeRouge adds, “I decorate with circles when dealing with objects like lamps and mirrors, because if you look at the concept of feng shui, sharp corners create blockages of energy whereas circles create a flow of energy.” This effect can go overboard, though — Augustin states that while, ideally, the space would have primarily rounded edges (which, along with a muted wall color like a light sage green, will lend themselves nicely to a calming environment), if it’s all rounded edges, this will create a sort of disconcerting funhouse mirror effect.
When it comes to background decorations, the clichéd office walls you might see on Frasier reruns usually contain artwork from the Far East, along with African masks and statues. And while this may ring true for some, decorations aren’t just about the personal taste of the therapist — consideration is made for how they may impact the patient. For example, Rivto notes that therapists may not want to put super expensive art on their walls, as it may be a reminder of how much you’re paying for their services. Additionally, LaRouge says that she decorates her own office with some elephants because, “They’re my favorite animal, but also because they symbolize strength and wisdom.”
While personal taste is fine, personal effects may not be, at least when it comes to family photographs. Connecticut College psychology professor Ann Devlin — who has written extensively about therapy offices — explains, “There are some theorists, primarily psychodynamic, who don’t recommend the display of personal effects in the office because [they] argue that reminders of the therapist’s personal life have the potential to impact the client.” Rivto shares, “If someone is going in for infertility treatment, the last thing they want to see is a picture of your two-year-old.” But this guideline is totally dependent on the therapist: LeRouge notes that she has a picture of her kids up because she feels that opening herself up a bit helps to allow others to open up.
No matter how they decorate, though, most therapists would be careful not to have too much of anything. Devlin claims that “orderliness matters”: In studies she’s conducted, she says, “Words such as cramped, cluttered and uncomfortable were used to describe the lowest rated offices.” This may be, in part, due to the fact that too much visual complexity can make people feel uneasy. Augustin notes that humans naturally survey their environment, and if a space is too cluttered or busy, this can becomes stressful. For example, green, leafy plants can be great, “but you wouldn’t want a jungle,” Augustin says.
As for diplomas, Devlin shares that four to nine credentials is a good amount, as less than that may make a therapist appear less qualified. If they put up too many, though, it can be overwhelming — as Ritvo says, “They don’t need to note every good thing that’s ever happened to them.”
Finally, there’s the clock. While some therapists don’t mind having several clocks up so that everyone is aware of the time, the most important one, Patel shares, is “usually set right behind the client so that only the therapist can see it, but that the patient won’t be aware that they are keeping track of the time.”
Right again, Larry David.