Common Therapist Mistakes Part 1: Taking a Side
Updated: Feb 23, 2019
Although therapists are usually skilled in empathy and validation skills, we need to avoid taking sides and validating patients’ distortions or projections because such behavior can leave patients stuck in personal narratives or beliefs that may be ruining their lives. Suffice it to say that if the patients’ perspectives were always accurate, they probably wouldn’t need to be in therapy. Valuable therapy time is wasted when we follow a patient down a well-worn path of blaming others rather than empowering the patient to shift his thinking or perspective to be more effective. Although it goes without saying that our patients have probably been hurt by others, once the pain has been experienced it becomes the “property,” so to speak, of the one that felt it. Thus, it is theirs to manage and ultimately heal. I often tell my patients that if they want to blame others, they have every right to do so, but I want something even better for them, and that is that they focus on themselves and what they need rather than give that power to anyone else.
The first counseling split that I fell into happened when I was working as a youth director in a church. I was 22 and had a bachelor’s degree in psychology. A young girl in my group would talk to me about her mother and I would be very compassionate and make statements like “she shouldn’t say things like that to you,” for example. This girl would then, of course, go tell her mother what I said. Her attendance started dropping off at youth group functions, and I sensed some angry stares from the mother in church services. I was too young and inexperienced to understand what was happening. In my naïve mind, her mother would just be thankful that I was taking time to be with her daughter.
After leaving the job and going into my master’s program, this situation continued to bother me, and I took the opportunity to explore it in a class exercise practicing the empty chair technique. I played myself and then switched chairs and took on the role of the mom. In this role, I started saying things such as, “At 22 years of age, you judged my parenting—do you know how insulting that is?” “My daughter is fairly volatile and can exaggerate; did you ever think that she might have been exaggerating to get your sympathy?” “Did you ever come to me with your concerns?” “Your compassion actually made my job as a mother more difficult.”
I was flabbergasted at the things coming out of my mouth. Apparently, on some level, I may have sensed some of these things, but I hadn’t been aware of it until using this technique. I had royally fallen into a split. Of course, teenagers don’t feel understood by their parents, and this is, to some extent, normal. And, of course, parents make mistakes (this mom wasn’t very outwardly affectionate), but my offering empathy to the daughter had not helped the situation at all. Unless we are prepared to help a child separate from a parent, falling into a split just widens the split and has the potential for making things worse for the people involved. I consider it a rule of thumb that when there is any kind of split, whether interpersonal or intrapersonal, there is some wisdom on both sides, and the greatest wisdom is usually about halfway between the two. Therefore, effective interventions should be aimed at bringing the two sides closer together.
My book A Clinician’s Guide to Pathological Ambivalence: How to Be on Your Client’s Side Without Taking a Side can teach you how to avoid this and other common therapeutic mistakes by developing skills to work directly on resolving ambivalence. I would love to hear from you. Please scroll down to the bottom of this page (past the banner of recent posts) to leave a comment.