Many of us have cringe-worthy thoughts when someone mentions therapy. THE COUCH still looms deep in people’s psyche. We get images of disconnected professionals peering over their glasses at tear-soaked clients.
Freud has been gone for awhile, but the concept of the therapist who holds themselves apart from their clients, “analyzing” them, remains. I think that’s what scares people about therapy.
When we can’t feel someone, it gets creepy.
Think about all the horror movies where the evil-doer wears a blank mask. We put all of our own fears on that thing, and that’s why it scares the hell out of us.
That’s what makes people uncomfortable with the idea of telling their secrets. They don’t know how it will land. When the therapist remains “a detached professional”, the client is left uncertain about the relationship.
For me, the essence of good therapy is about listening, feeling into what I’m hearing, and then giving feedback around that experience.
Therapy is about telling our sacred stories, our secrets, the things that we often hide even from ourselves. That’s scary, and it doesn’t happen all at once. Our clients test us. They toss out a little firecracker to see how we handle it before they start lobbing grenades.
Our clients need to know a couple of things before they really start to trust us. They need to know we can handle it, that it’s safe for us. They also need to know that we aren’t going to shame them, that it’s safe for them. Once we travel together past those two gates, we can start in with the real work.
If the therapist is not congruent, that is, if what they are saying does not match up with what the client is feeling from them, then that relationship is flawed. If a client comes into the office looking disheveled and out of sorts and states “God, I just couldn’t get myself together today“, the therapist could say “Oh Mary, you look great, come have a seat“. Mary is going to know that therapist is lying to her. even though it’s done to try to be polite, Mary now might be wondering what else that therapist has been saying that is not true. It becomes similar to most other relationships.
On the other hand, if her comment about her appearance is met with “yes, you do look like you are having quite a day, come tell me about it“, the therapist has just modeled something very important. They were genuine. They didn’t try to make it all nice. being polite is not what we do in therapy. That’s not to say we are not kind or gentle, but often polite is not honest, and it damages the connection that is so crucial to the therapeutic relationship.
So, what is therapy?
The reality is, it looks different for everyone, but it often begins by talking about things that can make the rest of the people in your life uncomfortable. The effective therapist will lean in and ask for more when most others would start desperately grasping for a new subject.
The other part of good therapy is accurate feedback. It’s a container that’s safe enough to hold a real conversation. If Mary comes in looking like hell, we’re not going to tell her she looks fine, we are going to say, “you look like hell, get on in here and tell me why”.
Why is this part important?
Commenting on Mary’s appearance is fairly easy, but it’s an important first step. It lays the groundwork for harder stuff. If the therapist finds themselves cringing when Mary talks at length about how great she is at this or that, her friends and family probably do too. It gives the therapist a window into how Mary might be perceived in her social circles. In time, the therapist should be able to give her some honest feedback about some of that.
Why is that important? (stay with me, this is the good stuff)
Chances are Mary hasn’t had many people give her honest feedback about how she’s coming across. If the therapeutic relationship is strong enough, if the container can hold it, and if the therapist has gauged all of that accurately, then she will be able to hear this feedback as coming from a place of genuine affection and caring.
It may or not make a difference in her behavior.
But, the other side of this coin is often the most important.
When the therapist can lean in, look Mary in the eye, and tell her what they really like about her, what they appreciate, what they carry around with them in the time between their sessions, she’s going to be able to receive it in a very different way. Specifically because of the care and attention given to building this authentic relationship, one true compliment can change the way Mary sees herself, which may have a profound impact on her need to boast about her accomplishments.
Without the relationship, none of that happens.