As clients we’re vulnerable. It’s on my mind right now because yesterday I met with a colleague and we discussed a couple of situations where a therapist said, “If you don’t do X than Y and Z will happen.” As in, “If you don’t make these changes I recommend, you will get divorced.” Or, “If you continue to allow your child to do that, he will end up in the court system.” I’ve been a client, I know how it feels to sit in front of a therapist and unravel your life. I know how easy it is to be influenced by what a therapist has to say.
There are times when it might be easy for a therapist to hedge her bets. A person who leaves rehab early is likely to continue drinking. A partner who chooses to cheat on a spouse is likely to end up divorced. But there’s a big difference between saying, “likely” and “will without a doubt happen.” Also some of us are apparently prone to making prediction on much more benign choices like, for example, co-sleeping (“You will never get your child out of your bed”). Unfortunately they don’t hand out crystal balls with our licenses so we can’t actually predict the future. (Even the celebrated Gottman predictions are more complicated than reports might have you believe.)
Those of us who come from families of origin where their selves and their futures were predicted (“You always were bad at math” “You never were able to handle criticism”) are especially vulnerable to know-it-all therapists. If those therapists label their clients, too, or contradict them without question, or tell them what to do the vulnerable clients might have trouble unlocking themselves from what can be a destructive — rather than therapeutic — relationship.
Therapists aren’t supposed to dictate your life to you; we’re supposed to help you figure it out for yourself.
There are times therapy can and should make you feel uncomfortable because growth is uncomfortable, which can make it even more difficult to know if you’re in a counseling situation where the counselor is doing more leading than guiding. But there are clues:
- Is the counselor dismissive of your feedback? If you say, “But I read…” or “But I think…” do they interrupt and contradict you or do they listen and engage with you? Your therapist might respectfully debate with you but they should never dismiss you.
- If you come from a family or have experienced an intimate relationship where your feelings were dismissed, do you leave your counseling sessions feeling the same deflated way?
- Do you feel pressured by your therapist’s ideas for you? For example, if you’re a welder are they trying to get you to go back to school and be a dancer?
- Do they predict that things will go badly for you if you don’t take their advice? Are they coercive if you want to suspend therapy or come less often?
People are complicated. You are complicated. I am complicated. Research can be useful and informative but we know ourselves best. A good therapist can help you know yourself better so that your decisions are true to the person you are working to be or hope to become. A good therapist leaves room for you to craft your own vision; not one they hold for you.
Psychotherapy is a soft science, meaning that our research is murky and mucky. People are too unique, culture is too pervasive, and there are too many details in all of our lives to make us as easy to read as a math equation.
To my mind, a good therapist is one that is able to say to their client in a variety of ways, “I don’t know but we can find out together.”