We evaluate. That’s what we do. We ask question after question after question, and when we’re not asking questions, we’re noting answers to questions we haven’t asked. We’re so curious, professionally curious. It’s a trained curiosity, and if we’re not careful, a habitual curiosity, a distractive curiosity, a harmful curiosity.
Psychologist James Hillman (1967) warned: “Curiosity awakens curiosity in the other. He then begins to look at himself as an object, to judge himself good or bad, to find faults and place blame for these faults, to develop more superego and ego at the expense of simple awareness, to see himself as a case with a label from the textbook, to consider himself as a problem rather than to feel himself as a soul.”
There is often a contradiction between my image of a person in therapy through their self-assessment of their issue and my actual experience of the person. There is also a vast gulf between the diagnosable issues as seen through the lens of psychological expertise and the essence, identity, strengths, and hopes of the person before me.
Therefore, I must cultivate space to come to know the whole person. This begs the question of what “knowing the whole person” entails. But let’s be clear: trained curiosity and assessment are not the soul of psychological change. Therapists mean well, but I know at times even I have strayed outside the bounds of helpfulness. Here are seven ways therapists sometimes irritate people in therapy and get in the way of therapy:
When people come into session in the midst of an emotional storm, the last thing they need is to be inundated with endless questions on the basis of an agenda that is likely intended more to fulfill organizational protocols than to promote a foundation of therapeutic empathy and rapport.
Questioning always runs the risk of interrogation. The details learned about people’s lives ever tempt helping professionals toward distraction. There is a distinct difference between a personality and a person, a diagnosis and a destiny. It is our responsibility to stir hope and catalyze strengths rather than to stew history and analyze at length.
The concept of “mental disorder” is rigid and misleading. In short, diagnosis is description, and by and large, mental health diagnosis provides description of “software” issues rather than “hardware,” so to speak. It’s a language of understanding what type of struggle a person is experiencing. When therapists refer to people by these diagnostic labels, we overgeneralize a person’s experience and distance ourselves from a critical resource: the powerful, complex, and fluid process of therapeutic understanding, the power center of effective therapy.
It is our responsibility to stir hope and catalyze strengths rather than to stew history and analyze at length.
One of my professors, Bill Collins, taught me “pathology” is a dangerous categorization of a person’s experience. He contrasted “providing treatment to people” with “puzzling through a process with someone.” He told of one friend whose father, growing up, would never let him finish anything without taking over. His friend would, as his father asked, begin to screw in a nail with a screwdriver, and before he could finish, his father would grab it from him and say, “Oh, just give me that.” Those kinds of experiences, he noted, leave long-lasting impressions on a person in regard to self-worth and competencies. Bill said we are to “help others to unpack their conclusions about who they are.”
We ever risk a false sense of expertise about people’s lives against the backdrop of anxiety about our own. If we’re not careful, we may find ourselves reinforcing the tyranny of the perceived should. Should is shame’s accomplice, and therapists must take care not to aid and abet them.
Researcher Brené Brown (2010) rightfully proclaimed, “Empathy fuels connection, while sympathy drives disconnection.” Saying you understand is unhelpful and probably not true. And let’s be honest—it’s usually a ploy to rush people out of their emotionalism, which sends the message, “I really don’t care enough to walk with you through your suffering.”
Psychologist and psychotherapy researcher Les Greenberg (2002) wrote, “Darwin, on jumping back from the strike of a glassed-in snake, having approached it with determination not to start back, noted that his will and reason were powerless against even the imagination of a danger that he had never even experienced. Reason is seldom sufficient to change automatic emergency-based emotional responses.”
With a surge in cognitive therapies, there has been a surge in their wrongful implementation, with many therapists engaging in power struggles to convince people of faulty beliefs in order for new, more positive truths to simply work some magic ripple effect into their lives.
As an emotion-focused therapist, I have been prone to, for instance, encourage couples to engage in safer, softer, and more emotionally responsive interactions, yet when I have stood on my own soapbox, encouraging them to do so out of pace with their own readiness, I have violated my own guidance. Miller (1986) observed that people will “persist in an action when they perceive that they have personally chosen to do so.”
Silence can provoke anxiety, even for therapists, who think they should surely be redirecting, conjecturing, advising. I find myself observing people in therapy watch me watch them watching me watch them. And I have found a power in it. Like a Rorschach ink blot, presence has power in and of itself to nudge a person’s anxiety so it presents and speaks up for itself.
Another of my mentors, Blanche Douglas (2015), wrote: “There was a method in Freud’s madness when he prescribed the analyst be as undefined as possible, not disclosing details about his life and sitting behind the patient out of sight, saying little. This forced the patient to make meaning out of an ambiguous situation, and the only way he could do this was by recourse to his own experiences.”
If a psychotherapist is lifeless or their technique too technical, their efforts to help may be worthless. Therapy, in this case, is not a relationship but a poor excuse for scientific experimentation. The mechanisms of some psychotherapies undermine their therapeutic value. When we fixate on therapeutic modality, we run great risk of missing prime opportunities to interject the most valuable therapeutic tool we have to offer—ourselves.
Additional reading: The Elements of Good Therapy.
- Brown, B. (Speaker). (2010). Brené Brown: The power of vulnerability [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability?language=en
- Douglas, B.D. (2015). Therapeutic space and the creation of meaning. Context. Warrington, England, United Kingdom: Association for Family Therapy and Systemic Practice. [Edited by Edwards, B.G.]
- Greenberg, L.S. (2002). Emotion-focused therapy: Coaching clients to work through their feelings. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Hillman, J. (1967). Insearch: Psychology and religion. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
- Miller, W.R. (1986). Increasing motivation for change. In W.R. Miller & N.H. Heather (Eds.), Addictive behaviors: Processes of change. New York, NY: Plenum.
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