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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.)



Who needs parenting classes?

family-insideBecause parenting classes are often mandated for parents who are having trouble, some people are turned off by the idea of them. So I wanted to talk about who could benefit from parenting classes because that person might be you.

  1. Anyone who feels like he or she is parenting at odds with his or her partner. If you’re parenting one way and your child’s other parent is parenting another way and you find yourself knocking heads or arguing about what to do next, going to a parenting class together can help you get on the same page. Parenting for Attunement encourages parents to sit down and map out exactly what their goals are for their kids. Sometimes co-parents are very surprised to find out that what they value is a little lower on their partner’s list. Understanding the other person’s goals and point of view can be a huge help in discussing parenting dilemmas.
  2. Anyone who feels like they’re having to reinvent this whole parenting thing as they go. Some of us stride forward into each new developmental territory with absolute confidence. And then there’s the rest of us who are periodically baffled by this or that child’s brand new stage. Parenting for Attunement gives parents an overview of the typical stages of development and looks at the different temperamental types, which helps parents get a handle on where their child is now, why she’s there and what she’s likely to do next.
  3. Anyone who is baffled by any particular child at any particular time. Because we discuss the unique needs of different kids, parents who come to these classes walk away with a better handle on each child in the family and how their interactions are influenced by individual styles and temperaments. We also talk about our own place in the family and how who we are influences our children’s reactions and our own expectations. In other words, sometimes we really are speaking a different language than our children are and that’s nobody’s fault.
  4. Anyone who is anxious about their child’s future. In the course of the workshop, we examine and challenge the fears that can limit our options in ways that aren’t helpful. We work to understand when we’re being appropriately responsible and when we’re unnecessarily constrained by our worries.
  5. Anyone who worries that they’re not a good enough parent. There are many, many ways to be a good parent. Parenting for Attunement is not a class that tells parents to put tab A in slot B to build a perfect child; this is a class that understands that every single family is unique and every single parent is unique and every single child is unique. People leave the class with greater confidence in their own abilities as a parent and the resources to learn more.
  6. Anyone who has ever been frustrated, annoyed or angry at their kid (i.e., all of us).

I hope to see you at the next class!

If you want to know what it is to be a kid

My favorite illustrator for Ramona is Louis Darling, who drew this lovely portrait

My favorite illustrator for Ramona is Louis Darling, who drew this

Parenting is infinitely easier if you remember what it was like to be little yourself. If you can remember the frustrations, the fears and the satisfactions of childhood then you will know what it is that your child is experiencing now.

If your memory is foggy or if you had a childhood that doesn’t offer you much in the way of inspiration, you can always turn to Beverly Cleary.

I loved the books when I was a kid and I still love them today because when I read them I am immediately transported to what it is to be a child and to be afraid of ghostly gorillas who might be able to flatten themselves and squeeze through cracks in the walls. Or to feel like a cozy little bunny just by putting on flannel pajamas. Or to worry that my teacher doesn’t like me and to be too anxious about it to tell my mom.

Beverly Cleary takes children very seriously. Her books are funny but never poke fun. Her children are smart but not brilliant and special but absolutely ordinary. They are like the children we were then and the children our kids are today.

Sometimes I ask parents to read them and they actually do (often they don’t because they think I’m kidding — I’m not) and I promise you that they enjoy them. They also learn from them. They remember that being a kid isn’t easy and that sometimes what we don’t understand from an adult point of view makes perfect sense to a child.

I will leave you with an excerpt from Ramona the Brave. I have a lot of favorite scenes in the Ramona books and one of them is this description of Ramona’s game, Brick Factory, that she plays with Howie, the boy down the street. I think it’s such a wonderful and accurate portrayal of child’s play, of how it’s essential and true, how it serves a purpose for the children not recognized by older kids or adults, the concentration and the work of it. Next time you’re asking your child for the third time that night to put down her Legos and come to dinner, think about this passage and remember how very serious and how very absorbing the work of play is for kids. Your understanding won’t make her come to dinner any faster but it might make you a little less frustrated.

Ramona ran out to meet Howie, who was trudging down Klickitat Street pulling his little red wagon full of old bricks, the very best kind for playing Brick Factory, because they were old and broken with the corners crumbled away. “Where did you get them?” asked Ramona, who knew how scarce old bricks were in their neighborhood.

“At my grandmother’s,” said Howie. “A bulldozer was smashing some old houses so somebody could build a shopping center, and the man told me I could pick up the broken bricks.”

“Let’s get started,” said Ramona, running to the garage and returning with two big rocks she and Howie used in playing Brick Factory, a simple but satisfying game. Each grasped a rock in both hands and with it pounded a brick into pieces and the pieces into smithereens. The pounding was hard, tiring work. Pow! Pow! Pow! Then they reduced the smithereens to dust. Crunch, crunch, crunch. They were no longer six-year-olds. They were the strongest people in the world. They were giants.

When the driveway was thick with red dust, Ramona dragged out the hose and pretended that a terrible flood was washing away the Brick Factory in a stream of red mud. “Run, Howie! Run before it gets you!” screamed Ramona. She was mighty Ramona, brave and strong. Howie’s sneakers left red footprints, but he did not really run away. He only ran to the next driveway and back. Then the two began the game all over again. Howie’s short blond hair turned rusty red. Ramona’s brown hair only looked dingy.

Ramona as hipster. Well, she is growing up in Portland.

Ramona as a hipster. Well, she is growing up in Portland.

Ramona, who was usually impatient with Howie because he always took his time and refused to get excited, found him an excellent Brick Factory player. He was strong, and his pounding was hard and steady. They met each day on the Quimby’s driveway to play their game. Their arms and shoulders ached. They had Band-Aids on their blisters, but they pounded on.

Mrs. Quimby decided that when Ramona was playing Brick Factory she was staying out of trouble. However, she did ask several times why the game could not be played on Howie’s driveway once in a while. Howie always explained that his mother had a headache or that his little sister Willa Jean was taking a nap.

“That is the dumbest game in the world,” said [big sister] Beezus, who spent her time playing jacks with Mary Jane when she was not reading. “Why do you call your game Brick Factory? You aren’t making bricks. You’re wrecking them.”

“We just do,” said Ramona, who left rusty footprints on the kitchen floor, rusty fingerprints on the doors, and rusty streaks in the bathtub. Picky-picky spent a lot of time washing brick dust off his paws. Mrs. Quimby had to wash separate loads of Ramona’s clothes in the washing machine to prevent them from staining the rest of the laundry.

Compromising for the greater good

I was reading Mary Pipher’s Writing to Change the World and I came across this:

Theologian Reinhold Niebuht wrote that to effect change, we need to practice “spiritual discipline against resentment.”

Pretty heady instructions, that.

Sometimes even recognizing another point of view feels like giving in, you know? Sometimes it feels scary to say, “I can see how you’d feel that way.”

When I was a young feminist taking my first women’s studies class one of my assignments was to interview a woman who worked for The Child Assault Prevention Program (“Living Safe, Strong and Free!”). I’m not positive, but I think she helped create that child abuse program, which is now used nationwide. In any case, she was a radical feminist and we were talking about activism and creating change. She told me that she used to not shave under her arms or her legs. She used to buzz her hair crazy-short (it was still pretty short but styled) and she didn’t wear skirts or make-up. Then she started working for CAPP and part of her job was development, which is the getting of money. And she discovered that these fancy-schmancy business guys in suits were more likely to listen to her if she wore some make-up (this was the eighties after all when we all wore at least four shades of eyeshadow) and if she wore a skirt and she noticed that her unshaven legs didn’t look so hot in hose (again, it was the eighties and we didn’t go around bare legged much then) so she started shaving her legs.

“I did this,” she told me. “Because I wanted the program to have money because I wanted to prevent child abuse.”

But some of her friends were angry. They said she was giving in. They said she was selling out. There’s no doubt that it was a sacrifice for her but it was a sacrifice she was willing to make in the interest of a cause that was more important to her than not shaving her legs.

I’ve thought about this off and on in the years since that interview. I’ve thought about how powerful it can be to change things from the inside out and how compromise, used with discretion, can be a good thing.

Sometimes it takes more strength to work with the perceived enemy.

Interesting topic

On a writing list I’m on, someone asked how a person manages to do the writing that sells when it’s not the kind of writing that she wants to do.

Good question.

When my son was two, I began my writing career with plans to write creative non-fiction — essays about life as a mother — and occasional articles to illuminate the populace. Really. I pitched crazy stuff to Parenting, subjects they would never touch with a ten-foot pole, because I thought I was there to educate their readers.

As I kept plugging away, pocketing rejection slips as I went, I learned some basic truths:

1) Every writing mother out there is writing about her unique experience of mothering. Sadly, there’s not enough room for all of us to make a decent living at it so most of us will eventually have to expand our repetoire;

2) Parenting doesn’t publish crazy stuff because their audience doesn’t want to read it. Obvious, right? But realizing that helped me see that very often my role as writer would be to entertain informatively not bludgeon people with an extreme point of view.

I also realized some other things:

1) I enjoy the skill of writing a well-turned phrase enough to exercise that skill on writing about pretty boring subjects;

2) I like getting paid for my work;

3) Publishing credits beget freedom.

Honestly, I would rather be Louise Erdich or Anne Lamott but since those two lives are already taken, I’ve decided to have fun being me.

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