The work of therapy is done by the client. The practice of therapy is conducted by the therapist. What that means is that the therapist can, with the client's agreement, lay down some loosely structured parameters for the work the client will do, leaving room for the client to change the parameters as new information comes forth. But the actual work done on the psyche and well-being of the client is done by the client, not the therapist.
The troublesome part of therapy is that it can amount to the therapist acting as the-rapist, or it can amount to the therapist acting as an invitation to heal. Unwittingly, however, the client often asks for the therapist to play rapist.
Here’s what I mean. Clients very often want a therapist to sprinkle pink foo-foo dust over them and heal them. They want a quick fix, answers to the big questions of life and they want it all right now. They will even, quite often, ask the therapist questions like “what should I do?”
That’s okay. The client is not responsible for the practice of ethical, skillful and responsible therapy. The therapist is. But if the therapist takes the bait, the therapist has become the-rapist. Why? Because the therapist has taken over the work of the client, doing it for her—thus dis-enabling the client to empower herself to grow.
A client gives great power to the therapist when he opens the door to his own soul and allows the therapist to peer in there. But what the therapist must, absolutely must, keep in mind is that the client is not giving the therapist facts. The client is only giving the therapist his perceptions about life events, circumstances, even the definition of his own identity. The therapist must keep in mind that the story told by the client about himself and his life, are but perceptual narratives and nothing more.
When a therapist believes that the client is giving facts, the therapist has a tendency to invite himself into the life of the client, giving advice and well-intended, but misguided feedback about how life should or should not go.
For example, suppose that a sexually traumatized client comes to see the therapist, and during the evaluation phase of their therapeutic relationship, the history of sexual trauma is disclosed. If the therapist is not careful she might begin to make assumptions regarding the reason for the client’s current problems. She may, therefore, assume that the reason the client is drinking too much, is feeling a great deal of anxiety and depression right now, and is frequently sexually acting out, is because she has unresolved issues regarding the sexual abuse. But what if, for example, the client is actually drinking and acting out sexually because she wants her rigidly dogmatic father to come to love her no matter what she does and this is her way of taking the risk to find out if in fact it is possible for him to love her unconditionally. What if, in fact, the sexual trauma has already been largely resolved, but she is now depressed and anxious because she'd wanted to show her father her wild behavior in hopes she could prove that he loved her unconditionally, but now lacks the nerve to go through with the act of telling him how "bad" she's been. Instead, she keeps it secret from him, thus proving to herself that she is unworthy of his love anyway and thus adding to her depression and anxiety.
But the therapist doesn’t know all this because she’s stopped exploring any further. The vortex of causation for the client’s behavior is now only related to the sexual trauma—so the parameters of work assigned to the client have nothing really to do with the client’s real issues. They have only to do with where the therapist stopped practicing therapy, and starting connecting the factual dots for the client. Now the client begins in earnest to try to fix what is not broken, while what is broken continues to bleed out her precious life blood.
How did this happen? The therapist got lost in the so-called facts of the story, and began looking for cause and effect, without really allowing the client to explore her own emotions, thoughts, and experiences long enough to come to her own conclusions.
This client will likely go from one therapist to another, looking for someone who will help her with her pain. All the while she is reliving the sexual trauma again and again as the only story she can tell in therapy--thus enabling an unnecessary identification with the sexual trauma.
Every now and then I encounter a client like this, who has been from one therapist to another telling the same story again and again, never getting any better. And they often say, “Oh, I’ve told this story so many times, do I have to tell it again?” And I say, “No. As a matter of fact, in here, now we are going to talk about everything in your life BUT those experiences.” And we do. And do you know what happens? They start to hit on the real issues. And then they do the work, the hard work of improving their own well-being. And it goes pretty rapidly—because they are now finally working on the right issue.
In order to avoid this very real danger, therapists will need to develop a philosophy of trust, in which they come to know that the client has the answers already, and needs no more from us, as therapists than to open the door, to invite healing and then to assign the parameters of work to fit that healing. More coming on this topic in the next blog.