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When therapists are wrong

Patty vs Leslie


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.)



Talk More

jump-sliderI know that a couple of weeks ago I told you to talk less when you’re redirecting your kids but in most other situations I’m going to advise you to talk more — especially when it comes to talking about the hard stuff.

What hard stuff? The usual: Sex, drugs, body image, bullying and other important topics. Many of us schedule these discussions for particular set times. We might sit our children down to have The Talk when it comes to sex. Or we might create loving rituals to talk adoption, like the families I know who say a prayer to birth parents every night. This is great. Formal talks are great and loving rituals are definitely great. But our kids need more talking. They need it more often and in more places and in more contexts. The big talks and the rituals are terrific but they’re meant to be jumping off points to a bigger conversation.

Back when I taught preschool we had a big alphabet banner that ran across the side of our room, right at 3-year old eye level. The children in our care liked to tell themselves the ABCs using that banner. They would sing their way down the line, pointing at each letter. Or they would whisper to themselves, “A is for apple. B is for ball,” pointing to the letter than the picture next to it. But many of them couldn’t go and find the same letter in a book or on another banner. They knew the alphabet in that context — there on the wall  in our room — and not when they found it in the rest of the world.

The same goes for sex and drugs and all the rest of it.

These topics need to exist in the everyday world to make sense, otherwise it all stays theoretical. Bringing it up in other settings also creates opportunity for your child to reconsider the discussion in new ways.

The preschoolers I taught eventually understood that A was for apple on the banner but also at the grocery store and that A was for Annie when they read Henry and Mudge. They learned that because they had exposure to more and opportunity for more.

When should you talk about the things that are hard to talk about it?

  • When they ask questions. And they might ask questions at weird inconvenient times (my kids both had the uncanny knack of asking deep philosophical questions when I was merging on the freeway) partly because they are feeling self-conscious about asking. If they can toss it off when you seem distracted then it’s not as risky as sitting down and asking you point blank. That’s one of the Catch-22s of parenting; you have to be prepared to answer questions when you’re least prepared. As tempting as it might be to put it off, if you get an unexpected question grab the opportunity. If it really is a bad time then promise to answer later and keep the promise. 
  • When they don’t ask questions. Maybe one evening you’re watching a family movie and it makes you think, “Man, this reminds me of XYZ. I wonder if it reminds my child of it, too?” Chances are it does. But don’t wait for them to tell you; bring it up yourself. Speak your thoughts out loud and see what happens. If they haven’t experienced it the way you have (if the movie hasn’t made them think about adoption or about grandpa’s illness or about the friend who’s moved away), you’ve still let them know that it’s a topic that’s open for discussion. That’s important. You’re paving the way for future questions. So if you feel an unspoken question hovering in the air go ahead and give voice to it.

It’s ok to be awkward talking about hard things. It’s ok to not be sure and to say, “I don’t know.” Like most of parenting, we get to learn as we go. It takes practice to move these discussions out of safe context and into the rest of our lives but it’s worth it. And it might make merging on the freeway infinitely more interesting for your family, too.

Making sense of things

brightbulb-insideI’m working on my symposium presentation for next September and then last week I went with Kate to the Wells Conference on Adoption Law. Kate and I were talking about being at the point with adoption where we know what we know and it feels like commonsense and so it’s hard to figure out what other people don’t know. I thought of that a lot during the conference because I didn’t learn anything new. Well, that’s not true — I learned the names of some bills that theoretically exist to support adoption and I learned some about Hague but everything else I knew. It helped that the conference was supposed to address disruption and I wrote that article last summer so a lot of the stories the lawyers told in the last panel were stories I already heard from the people I interviewed.

But it was good to sit there because it got me thinking about the symposium and I took some notes that’ll help when I’m putting together the presentation.

A few weeks ago a woman wrote me and said she was adopted in a fully open adoption and it was awful and now she’s an anti-openness activist. She wanted to know if I knew of a forum where she could present her anti-open opinions. I got to talking to her and the reason her open adoption was awful is that her birth parents were manipulative and abusive and terrible. And I told her (she doesn’t really buy it — like all of us, she’s prone to thinking her experience is the norm) that the issue isn’t open adoption; the issue is abuse. It’d be like (I typed to her) if I was against fatherhood because my mother’s father was an abusive sonovabitch. But of course I’m not against fathers; I’m against abuse.

It’s frustrating to talk about openness and have people say, “Yeah, but what about THIS situation” because of COURSE in an unhealthy, damaging situation the family is going to have to be much more thoughtful about handling openness. It may mean supervised visits, it may mean no visits and contact only through a third-party. It may mean no contact until XYZ happens. It might even mean no contact ever but an attitude of openness. But instead of debating openness, we need to discuss HOW to do openness in the context of our children’s individual experiences and histories. In the case of my anti-openness emailer, I told her the issue there is an adoptive family who didn’t manage her birth family relationships well when she was a child, which speaks to post-adoption support but does not shore up an anti-openness argument IN GENERAL.

The other reason (besides philosophically) is that the era of closed adoption is OVER. I don’t believe you can adopt a child now and trust a closed adoption will stay closed — not in the age of the internet, no way. So better get a handle on it now and figure out how to manage it.

(NOTE: One thing Adam Pertman said is that the next project the Evan B. Donaldson Institute will be doing is looking at how social media and especially Facebook have changed and are changing adoption because boy howdy, it’s changing.)

Anyway, I think I’ve got some things to start my presentation, which I think will be good and helpful but I still need to work on the middle more.


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