Off the Couch

Thoughts about the therapeutic process, and the dynamics of client-therapist interactions.

Don't Know Enough? Not Good Enough? Think Again.

When criticism is wrong and not knowing is good.

Grace* teaches in a school for at risk children. These youngsters can be extremely difficult, but other than occasional in-service training days, the administration does not offer the teachers much in the way of support. From what she describes, they have also not encouraged mutual support among the teachers themselves, so Grace often feels that she is hanging on by her fingernails. She also feels caught in an impossible bind between parents who feel criticized when their children are not succeeding and a school system that criticizes teachers for failing to bring the classroom up to grade level.

At one point in a session, I offered her what I thought was a piece of friendly advice. Years ago I had worked as a childcare aid in a residential treatment center. I had also taught pre-kindergarten for a while before I went to graduate school. So I felt that I had a little bit of hands-on experience and could both empathize with her situation and possibly offer a way to cope with a specific problem. I wondered if it would help to break down a topic that the children were having troubles with into smaller lessons. She nodded her head, and then she changed the subject to another issue altogether.

Several days before her next session, she called to cancel, saying that something had come up that made it impossible for her to get in at her scheduled time. When she came the next week, she started the conversation by saying, "I have something to talk about." I nodded and indicated that she should go on.

"What you said last time made me think I really can't keep working with you," she said. "I talked about it with some of my friends, and they were horrified that a therapist would say something like that. They didn't think you should have been saying things like that to me."

I was distressed by her words and tried to recall what I might have said that could have been so upsetting to her. I told her that I was troubled that something I had said had been so hurtful to her, and said that although perhaps I should know what it had been, I was not sure at all what she was referring to. I asked her if she would mind telling me what I had said.

She shook her head as though this was simply one more sign of what a bad therapist I was, but said, "You told me how badly I had been handling my class."

"I actually said that?" I asked, more than a little taken aback. "I don't remember either thinking or saying that, although I know obviously that we all can say things that we don't realize we've said."

She sighed. "Okay, you didn't say those exact words. But I'm not stupid. I got the point."

I nodded. Now I had gotten it - finally. "I think I must have said something that made you feel like I was criticizing you," I said. "I'm sorry about that. My memory is that I wasn't feeling at all critical. I was feeling concerned about how badly you were feeling about yourself. But I think I must have said something that communicated something very different from that to you. I don't remember my exact words. Can you tell me what I did say?"

It turned out that Grace had heard my words of advice as being both condescending and critical, as if I knew all of the answers and she knew none. Since this is not an unusual reaction even to well-intended advice, my guess is that this is one reason that psychotherapists are taught not to give instruction, but rather to encourage clients to think out loud till they get to a solution on their own. Most of us hear even well-meaning counsel as critical - and in fact, in a way, it's true that anytime someone gives us advice or constructive criticism, they are implying that they know better than we do. So Grace's friends certainly weren't wrong when they said that no psychotherapist should be telling her how to do her job. They were mistaken, however, when they assumed that I was telling Grace that I did not think she was a good teacher. In fact, from her descriptions of her work, it seemed clear to me that she was a skillful and talented young teacher; and that she was learning more and more about her profession every day. I said all of this to Grace; and then something very important became very clear.

Like many of us, Grace had no tolerance for her own learning process. She believed that she should know how to do the work already. I asked her if she expected her students to know things she hadn't taught them. "Well," she said, "When you put it that way, it seems pretty crazy. But maybe it just applies to me, not to anyone else." In the process of our exploration, we realized that Grace wanted to be as good a teacher now as I knew she would be in a few years. And that was impossible. She could be a good teacher now, with her level of experience and knowledge; and she could get better as she learned more.

Most of us don't like not knowing. We don't like living with what one psychoanalyst, Hans Loewald, called the "uncertainty and confusion that accompanies learning." Yet in order to learn, we have to not know - otherwise what would there be to learn?

Not knowing is not valued in our culture. No wonder we feel criticized or irritated when someone makes a comment that sounds like they know something we don't.  But if we remember that not knowing is necessary to learning, then we might actually even be less critical of ourselves.

For Grace, the lesson was even more powerful: As soon as she began to recognize that she couldn't know everything now that she would know in a few years, she felt a burden lift. "I can really enjoy the parts of the work I can do, and appreciate how much I already have learned!" she said.  "And I'm not worried about what the administration is thinking about me at all."

Which was funny, since two days later at a staff meeting she was praised for her excellent work!

 *names and identifying information changed to protect privacy

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F. Diane Barth, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist, teacher, and author in private practice in New York City.

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