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Therapists and Their Pet Phrases

Attack of the therapy one-liners

I received an email from a reader who respects her therapist but has grown weary of his oft repeated sayings. Sometimes she wishes he had an on/off switch. I know she's not alone. Along with the plentiful jargon tossed around in this field, there are a few dozen phrases therapists keep on auto-repeat. A brief sample:

"How does that make you feel?"
"Can we dialogue about this?"
"Let's bring it back into the room."
"And how's that working for you?" (thanks, Dr. Phil)
"Let's get in touch with your inner child."
Etc, etc.

I can actually hear your eyes rolling.

While these Therapy Greatest Hits are on the heaviest rotation, most therapists have a collection of their own go-to statements, stories and metaphors. Drawn from their education, supervision, past experiences with clients, their own life or even their personal therapy, these gems reflect their approach to mental health. You'd expect to hear a CBT therapist repeat sayings about negative self-talk, distortions or irrational beliefs. A psychodynamic therapist might regurgitate childhood themes or form metaphors around conflicted parts of self ("Your inner critic is sabotaging again"). They're shorthand pearls that capture our model of healing.

I certainly have my favorite reruns. The old "depression is anger turned inward" (sometimes) is a staple, along with "apply your oxygen mask first" and for couples, "you can be right or you can be in relationship." But for me, and I'm sure plenty of my colleagues, many of the repeated phrases are unique to the individual therapy. Within the relationship we develop our own themes, our own stories, and to some degree our own language. But even a phrase coined together can become tedious over time.

I recall a story told by Michael Crichton in his compelling autobiography Travels, where he recounts a stint in therapy following medical school in the early 70's (yeah, the Jurassic Park and ER guy was an MD). Crichton was skeptical of therapy, stating "I didn't think psychiatry did any good for people. It was just a lot of hand holding."

Beginning his work with Dr. Norton, a prominent psychiatrist and professor, he was startled by his nonchalant approach: "I'd tell him my story and he'd say things like ‘Time will tell' or ‘You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs.' I thought, Sixty dollars an hour to hear you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs? What good is this?"

Crichton stayed in therapy for some time and continued to discuss his failed dating conquests. Norton repeated platitudes like "Time will tell" and "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned" when a lightbulb went off for Crichton:

"I saw the point of these homilies. Dr. Norton was trying to get me to understand that certain rules of life had been around for a long time and that life probably wasn't going to make an exception for me. I was having trouble understanding precisely that. I kept thinking that things would be the way I wanted them to be. And I kept learning I was wrong." (p. 94)

The point is, sometimes therapists use repetition to convey their message. A persistent problem will elicit a consistent response (a brand new one, hot off the press!). But the broken record can get annoying. If irritation has reached a critical level, where you no longer hear the phrase and you just get mad, you might want to stop and take a look at it. Do you disagree with the message? Maybe you don't understand it? Or the statement is correct, but you don't know how to accept or apply it? This is all good material to discuss in session. Your therapist may have used the phrase so many times she isn't aware it's being lost on you.

In summary, have a voice. Bring it back into the room. Dialogue about it.

***** I'm honored that the hilarious cartoon blog Therapy Tales has chosen to immortalize this article through artwork. Take a look here.