In Therapy

A user's guide to psychotherapy

The World's Best Therapy Client

Trying too hard in therapy

Brown nose not included
You know who you are.

You pay on time, never miss an appointment, respect every therapy rule and boundary and read all the recommended books and articles. You're thrilled with every session, never raise a concern with the therapy or therapist and are careful to point out how helpful it all is. You're the World's Best Therapy Client (WBTC). What could possibly be wrong with that?

In your quest for the gold star of client perfection, you might be missing the whole point of therapy.

First, my disclaimer. It might look like I'm contradicting myself. I've spent three years blogging to help clients make the most of their therapy. I give tips about showing up early and journaling and generally engaging in the process. I talk about timely terminations and the dangers of small talk. I've even written about therapist's ideal client (in brief: motivated, open-minded, introspective). You might say I've tried to help people become good clients. And now I'm saying being good isn't always good. What gives?

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I'm not asking you to stop being a hardworking, prepared and conscientious client, I'm asking you to look at your motivation.

Let's go back to the "whole point of therapy." Is it getting your therapist to like you? To become her favorite client? To brighten her day and help her feel good about her choice of career? Is that it? OR...is the whole point to resolve your problem? To find relief, healing, growth and acceptance? To experience a deeply understanding, empathic and real relationship in a safe environment? I would imagine it's the latter.

The problem is, the WBTC is a role, it's not real. Who is receiving therapy - you, or this polished, sanitized, teacher's pet version of you? We can't resolve deep issues if we're busy playing nice and keeping up appearances.

So why would you work so hard at this? Could it be:

...you're a people-pleaser extraordinaire, leaving a wake of charm and ingratiation wherever you go? You've never had an exchange you couldn't thank you card or found a conflict you couldn't sugar coat, and therapy is no exception.

...you're playing a trick? You tell yourself "Maybe if I can convince a therapist I'm okay, then I really am." For some, introspection is so uncomfortable they'll try to get time off for good behavior. But to quote every 9 year-old teachers pet: "You're only cheating yourself."

...you're scared to let me see the real you? This is a biggie, rooted in shame. There's the polite good girl that you feel comfortable showing, and then the unpolished bad girl that yells at people on the freeway and secretly wishes your friends get divorced. You're afraid the raw you is crazy or bad or broken and you don't want anyone to find out. 

...you're another therapist or a grad student and you're afraid that showing me your baggage will lead me to think you shouldn't be a therapist? You've got it backward. I'm scared when I find therapists who aren't willing to admit to problems, or worse yet, who won't even go to therapy. I'll refer to someone who's willing to own up to their junk over Pollyanna any day.

...you're afraid I'm sick of hearing you complain about the same thing week after week? You know what? I'm not sick of it, you are. A therapist growing weary of people's problems, even stubborn, repeating problems is like a chef getting sick of food. It's my chosen profession and if I'm burned out I need to find another line of work. You're tired of hearing yourself talk about problems and you want to hurry up and get better. Fine by me. Let's talk about your frustration with any stuckness and see if we're on the right path. Maybe we need to take another approach.

Or maybe you're just hoping the following statement is true: "If I put my best foot forward and give an impressive performance in therapy I'll earn the good results I'm seeking." If therapy worked like school or work, with success measured by grades or 360 evaluations, this might be true.

But this statement is actually closer to the truth: "If I put aside any masks and let myself show the real me, the healthiest parts as well as the most dysfunctional, the therapist and I can make an honest appraisal and get to work."

There's good news. WBTC is a curable condition.

Take all that WBTC energy and aim it toward a different goal: being your most honest and real self in the therapy room. Talk about it all, the good, bad and ugly. Share the darkest, "craziest" thoughts and beliefs about yourself. Share half-baked, spur-of-the-moment ideas that seem to have no relevance. Tell your real feelings about your therapist and the therapy. If you disagree with something, say it. If you don't want to be in therapy today, or at all, say it. If you swear alone in the car, swear in therapy. Use that hour to do what's best for you, WBTC. You're not there to stroke your therapist's ego or win a popularity contest. 

You see, this isn't really a mixed message. By all means, keep showing up, journaling, paying on time and collaborating on the work. This kind of thing helps us work well together. But shift the goal from being the best, most impressive client to being the most honest and real. That earns the gold star.

 

*** Before you stop people pleasing, will you do me a favor and shoot over here and give me a like? Apparently this Facebook thing is more than a passing fad.

Ryan Howes, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, writer, musician and professor at Fuller Graduate School of Psychology in Pasadena, California.

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