"You're just saying that because you're my therapist" remarked client Z when I suggested that their pattern of emotional avoidance makes sense given their experience of chronic emotional neglect in childhood. I have heard some iteration of the above sentiment time again in my psychotherapy practice. I often wonder how another can misinterpret my compassionate stance and sincere desire to connect with them through their suffering? The answer lies in their statement. An obvious truth that I somehow missed for much of my career. Shame blinded me to this truth, because as a therapist I am not immune to the same dilemmas my clients face; doubt in self and others. When my own inner critic is in full swing it tells me I'm an imposter. I then succumb to the misguided notion that if I had just approached my practice from the place of an expert with authority punctuated with cool emotional detachment that my sincerity would not be questioned as much.
For a while this approach worked with generally good clinical outcomes. Nevertheless, there were folks with whom I worked where this approach wasn't working as our work together was not progressing. "That is the most understanding and validating thing you've ever said to me" shared client Y at the end of our work together as she was moving to a new city. All I said was "anyone in your situation would feel ineffective." I was new into my career, so I hustled to prove I was an expert hoping that it would cultivate trust and confidence in my work. However, my most effective moments occurred when I was kind and organic in my presence not a walking textbook of clinical knowledge. I was profoundly grateful to Y for being so brave to share such an important truth with me.
So what was this 'grand' truth I gleaned from the sentiments that, I as a therapist, only want people to feel better no matter the reality of their circumstances? Societal messaging stemming from hetero-patriarchy and stoicism teaches us that unconditional positive regard and emotional warmth are the stuff of Disney; nothing more than fairy-tales, gumdrops, and unicorns. Chronic emotional neglect coupled with a pervasive belief that vulnerability is weakness alienates us from ourselves and others. We become suspicious of the the kindness of others. The School of Tough Knocks is our 'preferred' way to grow and learn because it rests on the protestant work ethic of pull yourself up by the bootstraps; a cornerstone of our late capitalist society.
'I suffered and didn't feel weak, so I'm better for it' sums up our ethos around growth and development. The School of Tough Knocks shifts the burden of proof and the practice of trust to grittiness not compassion and interconnectedness. Though the question I pose here is if trusting compassion is so difficult, is it not a sign of strength that we are able to do so? Is being vulnerable in the presence of another not the most courageous thing we can do?
Therefore, a therapists' unrelenting kindness is not naivety or practice of placation, but a deep understanding of our intrinsic need to be seen, validated, and connected. It us our role as therapists to hold space for pain with unconditional positive regard, so that people can unlearn the toxic beliefs born of a society that operates non-congruently with our neurobiological, evolutionary, and spiritual drives. Moreover, kindness is never about lying rather it's about the sharing of truth through a medium that helps us see how our inherent worth can still reside in our most imperfect moments. Kindness in a world that demands aloofness and stoicism is anything but naive, but is a rather transgressive practice.
The myth that a therapist will go to anything lengths to help you feel superficially better is not only untrue, but inconsistent with the evidence on the profound healing qualities of a warm and nurturing relationship. Whilst some therapists may be conflict adverse, an issue they must redress to be effective, most therapists, however, do deliver the 'harsh truths' we need to hear in often direct ways that go unnoticed, because we may be conflating kindness with insincerity. I urge folks in therapy to listen to the words beyond the tone to see the lessons and gifts being offered to you by your therapist.