YouTube cut off the very first line of this clip and the first line is:
“You’re always telling me to love myself…”
OK, got it? Good.
Here’s the setup. That’s Rae (the young woman who starts the clip) and that’s Dr. Kester, her therapist. That’s all you need to know.
Now watch the clip, which is from My Mad Fat Diary (a UK show that’s pretty terrific). Remember the first line is, “You’re always telling me to love myself…”
Powerful, eh? This is something I’ve talked about with clients before and when I saw this episode I felt like it did a great job of illustrating this epiphany.
You are still who you were way back when. You still deserve kindness.
(The show looks like it’s available on YouTube — both seasons. If you came of age in the 90s you might like it especially since it takes place in 1996.)
Here are two things that everyone everywhere needs to know about everyone else:
- People do the best they can with what they know.
- All behavior makes sense when viewed in context.
This is true for ourselves and our friends and family and definitely for our kids.
Knowing this about each other can make it easier to understand — if not approve — of other people’s choices. Likely if we could stand in their shoes at just the right moment, that thing they just did that we think looks like a very bad idea would make perfect sense.
Take Amelia Bedelia. Now when I was a kid, I could not stand Amelia Bedelia because she was so silly. Amelia Bedelia, in case you did not know, is a fictional maid in picture books who is forever doing dumb things like putting raw chicken in baby clothes (because her employee asked her to “dress the chicken”) or putting sponges in cake (because her employee requested a “sponge cake”). But Amelia Bedelia is certainly doing the best she can and if you stood in her shoes — shoes that are on the feet of someone extremely literal — her choices would all make perfect sense.
Kids can be a lot like Amelia Bedelia (grown ups can be, too, but let’s stick with kids here because I’m filing this entry under the “parenting” category). They can do something that we can clearly see is a very bad idea and we can say to them, “Why did you do this?” And kids say, “I don’t know.” Because they don’t know; it just made sense when they did it. That’s why they lose their homework and hit their baby siblings and eat the last cupcake that didn’t belong to them and watch television instead of picking up their toys. It made perfect sense at the time.
If you assumed your child really was doing the best she could at the time — even if at the time she was leaving her lunchbox at school — how might that change how you consider and deal with the problem? Might you think about the last time you left your cell phone at work or left your wallet on the kitchen table? These things happen when we’re overwhelmed or under slept or chatting with friends while we pack up to leave. We do the best we can and then sometimes we have to deal with the consequences when the best we can do isn’t so great.
What about your child who hits his baby sister every time your back is turned? What if you thought about the problem with the belief that he’s doing the best he can with what he knows. What does he need to know? In what way does his behavior make sense to him? I’m not talking about letting him off the hook but when we understand what’s going on our interventions are more likely to work. Maybe he needs more supervision. Maybe he needs help with emotional regulation. Maybe he’s imitating his big brother.
Assuming there’s a reason behind behavior — even if it’s a lousy reason — gives us tools to solve real problems.
Some of you know that I have Wonder Woman all over my waiting room. Wait, scratch that. Some of you may know that I have Wonder Women all over my waiting room. I have artist renditions of different kinds of women — fat, thin, young, old, hip and matronly, different ethnicities — all as Wonder Woman. Some of them are very serious and dignified and some of them are silly. They are all awesome.
When I was first decorating my office I went back and forth about hanging them all up. If you’ve been to many therapist offices then you know that most of them are pretty neutral and I wondered if it would be too much of me there in the waiting room. I thought maybe I should go with a tasteful Pottery Barn neutrality or maybe just a touch of Ikea blank hipness. I thought about having, you know, a gentle beach landscape on my wall.
But then I decided that I am not really a neutral therapist. I mean, I crack jokes a lot. I’m not always all that dignified, much to my chagrin. So I figured that since the research says that our success depends on the relationship that we build together then we would all be better off if my clients knew what they were getting right up front and what they’re getting is someone who thinks it’s appropriate to have a comic book character all over her waiting room.
So why Wonder Woman? Why not Bat Girl? Or Buffy? Or some other out-sized heroine of justice and truth? Here is why.
When I was a kid my mom had a Wonder Woman picture hanging in our kitchen. (You can see it in my waiting room now — it’s the one on the wall you’re facing when you are heading into my play therapy room.) I wasn’t much for comic books and if I was reading a comic book it was much more likely to be Sabrina the Teenage Witch but I liked that Wonder Woman picture. I liked the TV show, too, and I liked the Saturday morning Super Friends episodes with her in them the most. I liked the idea of her. I used to run around my neighborhood pretending I was this character I made up, Shadow the Midnight Panther, leaping off my Huffy bike to fight the powers of evil. I’m not so sure that I would have invented Shadow if I hadn’t had Wonder Woman as an example. (The reason I was not actually Wonder Woman is that I really wanted a cape — Shadow had a cape — and I liked cats a lot and panthers are super cool.)
Later when I was a loud young feminist my mom mentioned that Wonder Woman was on the very first issue of Ms. Magazine. That’s when I realized that Wonder Woman meant something to a lot of women — not just to my mother and not just to me. I still liked her only now I liked that she was a touchstone. I liked that she reminded me of the terrible 70s fashion of my youth and of the specific feminism that I grew up with. (When I was little I would read Ms. and flip to the No Comment in back, then the “click” letters in the front and finally to Stories for Free Children.) That specific feminism taught me that it was OK to be angry, to be strong, to be outspoken and to have a sense of humor.
All of that is to say that Wonder Woman is hanging in my office as a way to share that I’m a feminist therapist. Now you don’t have to be a feminist to come see me — that’s the great thing about feminism, it very clearly says that we all get to be who and what we want and need to be — but I want people to know that they’re seeing a feminist therapist because, again, you should know what you’re getting right up front if you’re thinking about seeing me.
Very often clients will tell me that they saw a Wonder Woman thing — the book that just came out, a doll, a t-shirt — and they’ll say, “I thought of you!” But I’ll tell you the truth, I really hope that someday my clients will see Wonder Woman and think of themselves, of what they worked at and what they learned in our time together. I have all of these Wonder Women in my office because I want my clients to see their own strength and power and heroism. I want them to see themselves reflected in the Wonder Women on my walls.
I’ll add that while I do see men in my practice I mostly see women and kids — boys and girls. Someone — not a client — asked me why I don’t have male super heroes on my walls and my answer to that is that we get to see lots of male super heroes everyplace else. We get to see them at the movies and on television and on the shelves in our toy stores. I have nothing against male super heroes — I especially like Spider-Man — and you’ll find them in my sand tray toys. But I like to do my part to even out the representation in the world a little bit, which is why Wonder Woman gets the prime real estate in my office.
Note: I haven’t blogged the last two weeks because as some of you know I slipped on the ice and jammed my finger by sliding hand first into a curb. I think the technical term for what I did to my finger is “stoved.” It was my middle finger, which made wearing a splint super hilarious since just by wearing it I was inadvertently flipping the entire world off. The most annoying thing about it was not being able to type. Years from now when I’m filing away my client case notes I will notice that two weeks worth are all lower case, terse and filled with typos. I will see them and remember, “Oh yes, those were the splint weeks!” And I will once again be reminded to always be grateful for spring.
I have a basket of miscellaneous toys on my shelf and the kids like to rummage through them. Most popular are the real cell phones even though they’re not smart phones. The kids really like the ones that slide out so they can “text”. There’s also a magic wand, some rubber balls and a toy gun. Toy guns in play therapy aren’t as controversial as, say, toy guns in preschool but they are still part of an ongoing discussion that play therapists have with each other.
We all agree that a fully stocked play therapy office needs to include some ways to be aggressive like rubber swords, dragon puppets, lion figurines or guns. Most of us are ok with guns and some of us are not. We have different ideas about what kinds of guns can be used (at the agency where I used to work we had Nerf-type guns that shot spongy “bullets”) and we have different rules about how they can be used (some therapists don’t allow kids to point a gun at the therapist and some do — my decision depends on context).
The gun I have looks an awful lot like the cowgirl cap gun my mom bought me from Sears to go with my red-with-white-fringes cowgirl Halloween costume. I think that was 1975 so this one is a little different — it has more plastic, less metal and it has the orange tip that they started adding to toys in 1992.
I chose this gun because it is so clearly a toy. It doesn’t look like a modern gun (it isn’t black, you have to cock it) and it doesn’t actually shoot anything. Lemme tell you, I got really tired of helping kids dig under chairs for those spongy yellow “bullets” so when I set up my own office I decided no Nerf-type guns.
Some kids are very excited when they find the toy gun. Other kids don’t care one way or the other. Very, very occasionally a child will tell me that he or she is not allowed to play with toy guns and ask me to remove it and of course I always respect this request and we talk about that.
My decision to allow toy guns in my play therapy office is indicative of my belief that kids should have a full vocabulary in the language of play. As a mother I struggled with gun play and it was something my friends and I discussed at length. We all fell on different sides of the decision — some of our kids had full arsenals and some weren’t even allowed to play with figurines that had guns attached to their tiny hands — but we all thought about it a lot. Other weapons like swords, knives, and bows and arrows didn’t cause us as much concern. I suppose there are vestiges of this struggle in my decision to use an anachronistic cowboy gun in my play therapy room. But I never considered not having a gun available to my clients.
Kids are smart. They get that the play therapy office is different then the rest of the world. They understand that the rules I have aren’t the same as the rules that their parents or their teachers have. Children who aren’t allowed to use guns in the rest of their lives but who welcome the one in my basket are OK with leaving it there when they go. (Although they are usually super excited about showing it to their parents — sometimes they even run out to the waiting room with it when they find it!)
Some of the children I work with use the toy gun to work out feelings of helplessness or power by shooting my stuffed dragon or the picture of the guy doing a handstand on a horse that hangs above my couch. Some of them don’t use it at all but keep it near them while they work in the sand tray or color; having the gun nearby makes them feel safe.
Sometimes children shoot my Feelings poster (a grid of pictures featuring kids making faces to illustrate different emotions) often as an indicator of their own frustration at their inability to understand or name their own feelings.
Sometimes kids tell me who they would like to shoot or announce that they’re shooting someone while they aim into the middle distance. This can be upsetting for parents to witness but I liken it to an adult saying in my office, “I could kill my boss!” or “I wanted to throttle my brother-in-law!”
Often children just want to use the gun because they think it’s fun. This includes both the kids who can play with guns at home and those who aren’t allowed to. Some of them include it in their play because it’s part of a language that’s familiar to them. Others use it because it’s novel and they’re excited to explore. Many, many children glance at the gun, cock it and pull the trigger a couple of times and then put it back never to play with it again.
Frankly the cell phones are way more popular.
If you bring your child to see me and have concerns about the gun or any other toys I have in the playroom, I encourage you to bring it up.
Two VERY DIFFERENT bosses
When you look at the ethical guidelines for therapists a whole lot of them are in place to address the power imbalance between therapist and client. In the minds of our clients, the things we therapists do or say hold greater weight than the same thoughts that, say, your hairdresser or mechanic might offer. (Except when it comes to how to do your hair or fix your car.) When we share our reflections about your life choices and relationships then we need to be aware that our clients will likely take those thoughts very seriously, which is why it can be painful and even dangerous to have a therapist get things really wrong with you.
I remember the second therapist I ever saw when I was a freshman or sophomore in college and was in love with a boy who didn’t love me back. (That’s what brought me to therapy although it turns out — no surprise — I had a lot more going on than just that.) Anyway, the therapist just loved all my stories about my super interesting boyfriend and would agree with me, “He does sound amazing! And in a band, too, wow!” which was not what I needed to hear. Now I understand that likely he was just trying to join with me (this thing where therapists go along with you to help build rapport) but at the time I thought, “Well, it’s hopeless. My boyfriend is too amazing for me to ever get over him and even my therapist loves him” and I quit going to therapy. What would have been better is if I’d come back and said, “Hey, I’m sick of hearing about how great you think my stupid boyfriend is” and then we could have had a discussion about it.
Because therapists get stuff wrong. It happens. We’re not perfect and even the best therapist is not necessarily the best fit for any given client. We will get things wrong and it’s up to you, dear clients and potential clients, to help us get it right.
Sometimes we get things wrong because we don’t ask for enough information and sometimes this is because we don’t even know we need it. You say, “Hey, my boss!” and the therapist is sitting there merrily picturing Leslie Knope and really you’re talking about your boss who is more like Glenn Close in Damages only the therapist has already decided she knows what’s going on and so things just get confused.
That happens. Although eventually situations like that work themselves out if the therapist is a good listener and asks good questions.
What’s trickier is when the therapist is wrong only you don’t know she’s wrong because it’s nothing as clear cut as facts. Instead she’s operating with a set of biases that you don’t know about. Like say she is against beach vacations and thinks everyone should go hiking in Hocking Hills and you don’t know this so when she’s discouraging you from planning your vacation to Bethany Beach you think there really is something wrong with your ideas. You wonder, “Is this what’s wrong with me? That I always go to the beach?” and it’s confusing. Because sometimes it’s true — your ingrained thoughts or beliefs are part of the problem — but sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s just a matter of different priorities and opinions.
So what do you do?
First of all, if you feel like your therapist is being biased, tell her. Have a discussion about it. Heck, have a debate. Good therapists know their biases (we all have them) and will be willing to engage with you. She will be able to say, “Here is my bias” but she’ll also be willing to say, “My issue with the beach is not because I’m against beaches, it’s because you’ve told me that you are allergic to sand in previous discussions and I want to challenge your assumption that you should go to the beach anyway.”
Or the discussion might help you discover that your boss thinks Glenn Close in Damages makes a GREAT boss and that you should suck it up and let her murder people and violate legal ethics and blackmail everyone because your therapist places a high value on career achievement and that’s just her philosophical starting point. In which case you can decide for yourself if that’s the kind of therapist that you want to have.
Very often you and your therapist won’t agree about things and a lot of the times, that won’t matter because our ethical guidelines state:
Counselors are aware of—and avoid imposing—their own values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Counselors respect the diversity of clients, trainees, and research participants and seek training in areas in which they are at risk of imposing their values onto clients, especially when the counselor’s values are inconsistent with the client’s goals or are discriminatory in nature.
(this is from the 2014 American Counseling Association Code of Ethics)
In other words, even if your counselor would personally love to work for Glenn Close, she ought to be able to appreciate that you would rather work for Leslie Knope. But if you’re not sure, ask her. Have that discussion. Find out what’s going on there if you feel like she’s misunderstanding your point of view or steering you away from your goals. Because even though we are therapists and sit in the big comfy chair (or at least the chair with good lumbar support because this job is hard on your back) that does not mean we know everything or that we’re the boss of you. Sometimes we’re wrong. Call us out when we are; good therapists will appreciate the discussion.
(For the record, I prefer a Hocking Hills vacation as long as there’s air conditioning and obviously I would prefer to work for Leslie Knope because I like waffles a lot more than I like murder and blackmail.)