From One Therapist to Another: Not my Finest Moment - Episode 2
Updated: Jan 3
This is the second in a series of posts in which I focus on mistakes I've made in my career as a psychologist. I think we learn most through or mistakes so why not share them. To read the first one go here.
I have written and taught hundreds of therapists (through workshops and supervision), how important it is, that therapists be very cautious about taking a side when doing therapy. In fact, the subtitle of the book I wrote about ambivalence is How to Be on your Client’s Side without Taking a Side. There’s an art to that. And yet it’s the hardest thing to do. I continually make this mistake. In fact, I believe it’s the most common mistake that therapists make. One of the subtle ways that we can take a side is when we side with one part of a client while neglecting another part.
All people have parts and sometimes those parts are at
odds with each other within the same person.
This leads to ambivalence.
For example, Marsha came to therapy to work on her anxiety disorder which was fueled by high levels of perfectionism. As she explored the origins of her perfectionism, she began to talk about her dad who also had been highly perfectionistic. Although she said that he didn’t directly require perfection from her, she believed that he would admire her more if she did things perfectly like he did.
In therapy, Marsha began to recognize how perfectionism had affected her in childhood and actually harmed her in many ways since. Even though she had a close relationship with her father, she began to experience anger towards him. At this point in therapy, his birthday was drawing near. They had a tradition of going to dinner together on his birthday and she was having thoughts of wanting to confront him about the impact his perfectionism had on her.
I found myself saying things such as “you can use your voice” and “it’s good to share your feelings,” etc. However, when I would be supporting her regarding confronting her father, she seemed to become more agitated. It took a couple of sessions for me to realize that we were neglecting another part of her. There was a child part of her that very much loved her father and wanted the birthday dinner to be the loving tradition that it had been for many years.
Once I recognized the mistake that I was making,
I helped Marsha examine her ambivalence. She was able to utilize a strategy where she let the two parts of her talk through her various feelings using an empty chair.
The goal of this strategy was to help her come up with a plan that would honor both sides of her. When I stepped back from taking a side (the side that wanted to confront her father), she was able to come up with a plan that was better than anything I could have offered.
She decided that she would have the birthday dinner with her father, as she always did, and then call him to set up another time when she could talk to him about her feelings. This solution allowed both sides of her to get what they needed. Had I continued to encourage her to use her voice, which I think is a very tempting and natural thing for therapists to do, we would’ve continued to neglect a part of her and possibly prevented her from coming up with her own solution; a more empowering effect. It’s possible that she would’ve felt my encouragement as pressure and might’ve gone ahead and confronted her father without first acknowledging and resolving her ambivalence. Another possible scenario is that she wouldn’t have done what I was encouraging, which might have resulted in her feeling like she had let me down. Certainly not what I would ever want a client to feel! Both of these options could have had serious negative effects.
What I wish I had done as soon as Marsha began talking about confronting her father is take a more neutral stance. I would’ve said things like:
“it is often a wise thing to use your voice. As you think about it how do you feel?”
“Do you know what you would like to say?”
"Is there any part of you that doesn’t want to and why?”
It’s my belief that our clients would have already done
most of the things that we would advise them do
if it weren’t for ambivalence.
Therefore, it is more therapeutic to teach them how to resolve ambivalence through harnessing the wisdom in all their parts than encouraging a particular course of action.
For another article that focuses on this topic and strategies for remaining neutral while empowering your client, go here. If you like this topic, I have several workshops offered on demand through The Knowledge Tree that do deep dives into dealing with ambivalence, narrative therapy and common therapist mistakes.
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Blessings for peace and health in 2023, Linda