Editor’s note: This article is the sixth in a series exploring why use of the term “patient” is harmful in the context of psychotherapy. For the fifth part, click here. For an introduction on the topic, click here.
Without challenging the myths outlined previously—that (1) the therapist has better access to the most important information, (2) is more powerful than the person seeking change, and (3) has it all together—some mental health professionals will continue to behave:
- As if they know the inner world of the people they work with better than those people do, or than they have the potential to
- As if they are the authority on the lives of the people they are trying to help
- As if they are flawless
When a therapist behaves as if he or she knows the inner world of a person better than the person knows or has the potential to know, it puts those in therapy at a disadvantage and eliminates numerous opportunities that would otherwise exist for the person in therapy to begin to trust inner wisdom and to discover how to tap into inner resources for calm, confidence, reassurance, self-compassion, creativity, insight, and many other positive qualities. The goal of healthy therapy is for the person seeking help to advance from reliance on the therapist to being in the driver’s seat of therapy, to being co-therapist, to becoming his or her own therapist. An individual will continue to seek redemption, love, affection, acceptance, re-parenting, and everything else he or she needs from a therapist if the therapist enables this dependency through significant over-giving, knowing, and authorizing.
Similarly, when a therapist maintains the misconception that he or she has it all together and is nearly flawless in his or her behavior, communication, relationships, emotional intelligence, and the like, it sets an unrealistic expectation for the person in therapy and encourages an unjustified idealization of the therapist. This unrealistic expectation can reinforce shame and self-doubt for people in therapy rather than reinforcing the idea that we’re all OK, even with our flaws and limitations. The shame and doubt leads to self-criticism and contempt, which in turn leads people to want to get rid of the parts of themselves they don’t like.
Sadly, there are some mental health professionals who still advocate for the removal or mental/emotional amputation of certain human aspects because they are destructive or self-destructive. This method does not lead to wholeness, health, or happiness because the underlying burdens which fuel the destructive behavior are not addressed. There is an akido to psychotherapy that Carl Rogers referred to when he wrote, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” By not emotionally amputating an aspect of a person and, instead, by bringing it closer, a person has a chance to change.
So it’s in the best interest of people in therapy for therapists not to focus on removing flaws, but rather to set the example that we’re all born loving, lovable human beings who are doing the best we can based on our experience and the physiological limitations we were born with. Certainly, there are a small percentage of individuals who are born without the capacity for empathy or remorse, but this doesn’t mean that they are necessarily evil or unlovable. You can read more about sociopathy. The point is that very few of those in therapy are born with the issues they have. They might have predispositions or propensities for certain coping mechanisms or symptoms, but the issues people struggle with are largely a result of life experience, not some chemical imbalance. Any chemical imbalance is most often a symptom, not a cause. The fact is we all suffer, we all struggle, we all face challenges, even therapists, and we’re all OK nonetheless.
What the world needs is for all of us to accept and love ourselves, despite our limitations and difficulties. Therapists have many beautiful opportunities to help make this shift happen through recognizing and treating people with the dignity they deserve. But first, therapists need to find their own humility, self-compassion, and self-acceptance. Only then will a therapist see those coming to them for help as people.
When a therapist sees a patient, therapy is not being done. When a therapist sees a person walk through the door, half of the therapy is already done.
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