Therapists Can’t Fix Clients

If your therapist is giving you advice, you need a new therapist. Giving advice is not counselling. It’s not therapeutic, and it doesn’t help you, the client. After almost 30 years in counselling, though, this is probably the single most common request from my clients. “Tell me what you would do.” Or, “Just tell me what the right answer is here.”

I usually ask some variation of, “What do you need to hear?” Or, “Why is it important what I would do?” Or, “What do you think is the thing to do?” Only in very rare instances do my clients not know (or don’t at least have a really good idea) what is best for them. What they really want, is to hear the solution from me. There’s lots of reasons for this, but the bottom line is that if I do offer solutions or advice, it’s not therapy.

Angry client

If a client thinks s/he is actually paying me for advice, or to offer solutions, then anger is often the response. And clients do get angry. Sometimes, “enraged” is a better adjective. One of my clients became so irate that I wouldn’t tell him which option I thought was his best choice, that he stood up, shouted at me that I was “useless,” and then stepped over me on his way out the door. (At 6’7” this was not difficult for him.) I was so stunned I didn’t even think to duck.

As a new therapist, I was pretty shaky, but after debriefing with my clinical supervisor, I knew two things – I am not responsible to solve my client’s problems, and, never sit between a client and the door. I’ve not always remembered not to take responsibility for my client’s problem, but I have always remembered not to get between my clients and the door.

Today is National Psychotherapy Day.  Alexandra Stevens, via Elephant Journal, offers some reasons why clients become angry with their therapists. Worth the read.

From Where I Stand

Those who will not reason, are bigots, those who cannot, are fools, and those who dare not, are slaves. ~ George Gordon Byron

I have a standup desk. Bill made it. I mean really made it for me. I found a picture on Pinterest, showed it to him, and he magicked it into existence. We usually try to upcycle or recycle when we make stuff for ourselves, but this time, we just didn’t have the resources or the time to hunt for appropriate materials. So we trotted off to Home Depot and bought the lumber required. Bill did his usual amazing job of crafting something from nothing and voile! I have a standup desk, a filing cabinet, and shelves, all made by my husband and installed by him and a son-in-law.

I am always awed by what they can do.

Anyway, all that to say that as I stand at my desk, off to the left is an original painting by Reham Al-Reshaid. There are all sorts of reasons why I like this painting, but mostly, I love that every time I look at it, I see something different. Add to that, I know the artist and some of her ‘back story’ which adds a depth and poignancy to the painting that keeps me intrigued.

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It’s not a large painting, but it’s striking. Regretfully, at the time, Reham didn’t make it a point to sign her work, and I didn’t manage to connect with her again before we left for Canada. When I shut my office door, the painting is just outside the line-of-sight for a client, but the colours often capture their attention, and they will turn to look at it directly.

The interpretations of meaning have been varied and interesting. Sometimes, the meaning-making of my client adds to the therapeutic process, sometimes, it’s a distraction or deflection from a painful internal process, and sometimes, it’s a trigger.

All from observing the same object.

My favourite response (so far) was from a client (looking for a distraction to the moment) who said, “That’s a religious symbol. I don’t think that’s appropriate in your office.”

reham2To which I replied, “Well, it’s possible that painting could be a bit of self-disclosure if I were pushing some sort of religious agenda, but I’m pretty sure the Muslim artist didn’t have Christian icons in mind when she painted that.”

His response? “Oh.”

We find what we’re looking for, see what we expect to, and hear very little of anything that contradicts our internal belief framework. Every individual on the planet is subject to bias confirmation. It’s a human trait. It is in refusing to acknowledge this universal truth, and to intentionally and consciously make room for the possibility of error, distortion, or misunderstanding in our thinking that we go awry.

While in Kuwait, I was privileged to be part of a fairly large social group, all professionals,reham3 some expats, some residents, and some Kuwaitis. What made this group so enjoyable were the debates and discussions held over Friday lunches at various restaurants in Marina Crescent. Just name any global issue you care to mention and the opinions, experience, and knowledge around the table were as varied as the countries we hailed from. It’s quite the thing to put forth an opinion about some topic and have it vociferously challenged by people equally intelligent, educated, and passionate. Cultural assumptions, biases, and blindness soon became apparent. We all soon learned a universally-held truth or self-evident fact clearly wasn’t so ‘universal’ or ‘self-evident!’

The lesson in all this?

So much of our worldview is entirely subjective. Not a bad thing unless that subjective perspective is held to be absolute truth. This is the stuff of dogma. Fanatical investment in a position that has no foundation other than personal interpretation of an experience, idea, or situation. Development of extremism in the name of the deity, cause, or faction to which one adheres, whether Fundamental Baptist, Radical Islam, or the Jim Jones’ of the world begins with, “I’m right and there’s no room for doubt.”

We fool ourselves so much we could do it for a living. ~ Duma Key (Stephen King)

Amongst my psychology friends and colleagues, it is not unusual to hear, “Now that’s diagnostic behaviour.” Sometimes we’re being funny, or dry, or sarcastic, but often, it’s a genuine reflection of what we’ve observed. Individuals who have a close-minded or rigidly inflexible approach to life situations tend to exhibit behaviour at odds with the circumstances. We cannot hide the basic framework of our internal landscape for long, and never completely. When the words and the actions don’t match, go with the actions. They tell the truth.

My point?

reham4The subjective interpretation of life makes it interesting – unless that subjective perspective is imposed on the subjective experience of others. You experience a painting as glorious; filled with layers of meaning, intriguing, and captivating. Your partner thinks it’s the most ridiculous thing that the painting is even considered ‘art’ and even worse, that the gallery paid for it. With an open mind and a listening heart, the discussion over wine at the local tapas bar could be scintillating, energizing, and thought-provoking. As it would be with any subject in the same circumstances.

Or that discussion could be an argument; shrill, and hurtful as one or the other demands that the his/her  view be adopted with implicit judgment of the other for a contrary position.  It doesn’t matter the topic, the experience, or the circumstance. Rigid and inflexible perspectives lead nowhere good.

Is there objective truth? Absolutely. The world is round; gravity exists; the moon influences the tides …but the experience of those tides? Something else entirely.

When I move into my new office tomorrow, Reham Al-Reshaid’s untitled work is moving with me. It’s too glorious to leave behind.

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Feeling Chuffed

cover_issue_1_en_usThis week, after a year’s worth of work (and even longer time discussing) an article I’ve been working on with some really stellar professionals, has been published. Though I write much and am regularly published online and in magazines, this is different.

Collaboration with some very stellar peeps in the psych field produced a wonderful finished piece, much better than I could ever have done on my own. Thanks to Louise Lambert, Ed., for the idea, the encouragement, and the persistence in shepherding this idea from mere discussion to a published article.

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