Changing Places

When a therapist moves offices after 30 years, a lot of emotional issues get stirred up.

Magazine Issue
November/December 2019
A person holds a stack of boxes

When I started my practice, 30 years ago, I didn’t expect to spend my entire career in one office. But the brownstone and location were great, and I never felt the desire to move: that is, until the noise from a family who’d moved into the apartment above it became intolerable. Once clients started looking at the ceiling whenever the toddler jumped out of bed, I felt compelled to find a new space.

Moving isn’t something I take lightly or do easily. Since my parents’ divorce, when I was young, I’ve had a strong nesting instinct, and my office had become a source of comfort. When I was pregnant, I’d nap on the couch between sessions. As I’d close the door each evening, it soothed me to know I’d find the office in the same tidy condition the next day, free from normal household clutter and the accoutrements of young children.

It saddened me to leave this space, but I was fortunate to find a beautiful new office just three blocks away, with large windows and my own waiting room. I signed a five-year lease and told myself that the transition could engender important lessons for me and my clients. But in the weeks leading up to the move, I felt uncharacteristically unsure of myself.

To manage my anxiety, I sought out therapists who’d gone through a similar move. We all agreed that our attachment to our offices was a byproduct of the deeply meaningful work we’d done there, and that therapists’ offices reveal their personalities in subtle ways. The color of the walls, the choice of seating, the artwork—they all matter. For me, a complete makeover felt too unsettling. When the time came, I had the walls painted the same green I’d loved in the last place. Although I kept most of my old furniture, I added a new cabinet and changed the artwork from Gauguin to Sargent.

I told my clients what was happening a month before the move. One enthusiastically asked, “Where are we going?” Some were thrilled by our new proximity to public transportation. Others commented about how much they loved the tree outside my window, and wondered if the new space would feel as lush. A client with a history of sexual abuse told me that during many uncomfortable hours of therapy, she’d memorized the order of the books in my bookcase and counted the seashells on my windowsill when eye contact was too much for her to bear. She took time to say goodbye to the office and to reflect on the hard work she’d done there over the years there.

On moving day, I sat on my old office floor boxing up files. Like long-forgotten photo albums, they brought my connection with each person back to me. Some I’d seen for a single visit; others I’d known for 20 years. I grieved again the loss of someone’s son, and the tragedy of a terminal illness. I calculated the current age of past clients and let myself wonder: Had he found love? Did she have children now?

Too precious to leave to the movers, I carried the files myself to my new office. This gave me a certain confidence. Yes, I was moving, but all the people I’d worked with over the years were coming with me in a way. I wasn’t really starting over, just continuing on my path.

To my surprise, undertaking a move at this later stage of my career has reawakened the joy I felt when I first started my own practice so many years ago. After all, as someone once told me, “The therapist makes the office, not the other way around.”

Adapted from “Changing Places,” published by

Photo © iStock/Sezeryadigar

Maggie Mulqueen

Maggie Mulqueen, PhD, is in private practice in Brookline, MA. She’s the author of On Our Own Terms: Redefining Competence and Feminity.