Why (I think) my therapist lied
It’s not long after beginning the final stage of training to become a counsellor that the sheer enormity of the task ahead of you really sinks in. In addition to the classes, reading, group sessions and the assignments, there’s the parts of the learning that lie outside of the normal learning experience - the client work, the supervision, the time needed to try and unpack the often impactful and personally resonant topics of learning, and the mandatory personal therapy of your own.
I thought I would take some proactive action on that final point. Required for the entire two-and-a-bit years of my training, I decided to get the ball rolling before the course even started, settling into a therapeutic relationship I enjoyed with someone who allowed me to explore my apprehension about the course ahead of me.
Unfortunately, it was only once classes began that what constituted what kind of a therapist we could see were communicated – not the kind I was seeing - and I was off to find another counsellor, this time one who had to fall within pretty narrow parameters in terms of their qualifications, training, modality and length of practice.
It just so happened that the only suitable candidate I could find worked just a short journey away from where I lived, and so began a two-year-and-a-bit relationship, whether I liked it or not.
We were not a match, certainly not at the beginning. She stood for none of my nonsense and propensity to waffle, (likely evidenced in this article) and at times it seemed as though we almost spoke different languages, often taking the momentum out of the conversation.
She challenged me in ways I initially pushed back on, but later came to appreciate. In time, the good parts of our relationship allowed me to explore the darkest corners of my lived experience and she treated the delicateness of the silence between my revelations and hopes for validation with care and sensitivity. She helped me foster dignity, objectivity, perspective and taught me many things I find myself parroting to my clients today. She was patient and human and a number of words I’m not sure I would have used to describe myself before our work, but certainly have done afterwards.
However, her most notable intervention was one I’m not sure, to this day, she meant deliberately. It created a heated conversation that lasted nearly a year and a half.
I was talking about something – I can’t remember what exactly, but the metaphor will probably give you, the reader, a good idea of the gist – and remarked how I felt like Wile E. Coyote chasing Road Runner; always looking for a way to catch something which constantly evaded me and unable to take a moment to pause and ask myself why it was going to work this time having not done so countless times before, often at painful cost.
“I don’t know who they are,” she replied.
On the off-chance you, the reader, also don’t know who I was talking about, I think it’s important just to put her statement into perspective. Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner are world-famous cartoon characters known by children and grown-ups for generations. A fixture of morning television when I was growing up in the 1980s, they first appeared in 1949 and since in countless spin-offs, films, products and comic books, and have been translated into more than 150 languages. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, they featured frequently in adverts for Plymouth cars in North America, a time when my Canadian therapist had a young child and the choice of just a few television channels. Her children have had children. I’m not saying it’s impossible she didn’t know who I was talking about, but I never believed it for a moment, and she stuck to her guns until the end of our relationship.
“You know,” I replied, confused. “The cartoon characters.”
“Sorry, no. I’ve never heard of them.” She continued, and this is the important bit, “Can you please explain?”
This article is in part about why therapists sometimes withhold, misdirect, or have to protect the parameters of their role. It’s a necessary part of the job, and sometimes a very difficult one. The role of self-disclosure is a contentious topic among therapists of different modalities, but I believe that if chosen carefully, it can be a powerful tool. It’s also a lot broader than just talking about a similar childhood experience or whether or not you’ve seen a cartoon – every fibre of our personhood says something about us and has to be carefully considered; every action, word and movement we make.
It was driving home from the session later that evening when it suddenly all made sense.
Whether or not she knew what I was referencing in that moment, my therapist had seen someone trying to explain how they were feeling by giving it away, using a cartoon instead of an “I feel…” sentence in an attempt to keep whatever emotion I was trying to convey at arm’s length. Her therapeutic misdirection had given me ownership of it, and I was excited to talk about my no doubt brilliant realisation the next time I saw her.
As the week went on, I would find myself smiling at flashbacks of how easily I had been fooled by what I was sure was no more than a slight of hand trick. I made a mental note, eager to try this simple but effective technique when I began working with clients of my own. Thoughts would come to me of us laughing together knowingly during our next session, talking about how great those cartoons were and how we really both preferred Duck Dodgers in the 24th Century.
Alas, no. When I returned a week later, what I was met with was denial.
“A tactic? I’m not sure why you would think I would do that. I’m not here to manipulate you.”
“Oh come on, why else would you pretend not to know who they were?”
“Do you think I was pretending?”
“OK fine, you don’t know who they are. What about Bugs Bunny, do you know who that is?”
“David, you seem angry…”
And other, less comical, versions of this. In my angry moments, it felt evasive and dismissive. In my more rational ones, it felt just disconnected from the authenticity on which I placed a great deal of value. For a year and a half.
It frustrated me then, and it frustrates me even now, all these years later.
It’s also sometimes a therapist’s job to be the focus of an emotional state that doesn’t necessarily belong to them. I read a quote once that said “emotions are 10% reactive to the situation in which they’re felt and 90% history” and that can certainly be true in the counselling room, where the difficulty of facing a client’s misdirected anger or sadness or indifference is one of the more unpleasant aspects of the role, and one which can bring about a premature end to a relationship at a time of great opportunity to explore.
I, like many, have had experiences of clients ending sessions or simply not turning up, often after an emotionally wrought session previous. In hindsight, my anger at my therapist was as much to do with what felt to me like inauthenticity as it was the context of my personal history, but as time progressed and her position never wavered, what once felt insightful and wise and an opportunity to really cement that all-important therapeutic alliance became instead a barrier to trust.
I began to withdraw from the sessions emotionally. Perhaps the disconnect went both ways – after a conversation during one session, I returned to the next session to a printed article left out for me about an entirely different subject. “I thought about our last session when I saw this in the paper,” she said. To me, it just once again brought about anger “thanks, but this isn’t what I was talking about” I replied. “I have to admit it’s a bit galling that you can remember something, right or not, and look it up, but still insist that you’ve no idea who I was talking about that time.”
My working theory became that my therapist had dug herself into a hole that now became about a battle of wills from which she could not back down. But as I look back on it now, it feels like a huge missed opportunity. I would have appreciated the honesty; the admission that it was a manoeuvre and we could have moved on with our partnership intact, strengthened even. Of course, I constantly questioned myself and the source of my feelings, and even now although I have a working understanding of the necessity to put yourself in the client’s firing line from time to time, it still disappointed me that it was a conflict never resolved.
As the course came to an end and my qualification was confirmed, I was left with the question about whether to voluntarily continue in therapy, and it wasn’t a tough decision. In the spirit of our disconnect, much was discussed around the ‘loss’ of our relationship, about grief and about my experiences and growth during the time we had been working together. I never connected to the sadness. I was glad to be ending, and told her as much (with a little more conviction than I had intended, as I remember). As we approached our final minutes, she asked if there was any last thing I wanted to say before we parted.
“Yes,” I replied “You did know who they were, didn’t you?”
“I thought that might come up,” she said, bearing her look down on me. She turned her head to the side, a curiously unsubtle action she did at least half a dozen times each session to glance at a clock that was clearly put in the wrong place.
“That’s our time.”
I was trained to consider my words and actions carefully and a crucial part of my work with clients is to help them out of black and white thinking to embrace the grey; the goodness in bad and the drawbacks of well-intentioned action. I will often reflect to clients who present two supposedly opposite sides of a disagreement or thought that both viewpoints can be true.
When I was doing that training, one of my tutors said “there are no prizes for the right answers in therapy” and it took a while for me to work out what I thought that meant – essentially, that facts in therapy take a back seat to timing and to adaptability; to empathy and presence and choosing exactly the right moment to make that carefully observed and hard-hitting observation. That you already need to be thinking on multiple levels with clients, and being an emotional archaeologist helps no one, least of all the person looking to you for help. The most important thing I can be is human.
My therapist successfully held her ground and helped me express my anger. But in her permanence she became in-human, and as I continued my training, my intention to be exactly that with my clients only strengthened. Clients often come to therapy expecting answers and expertise, counsellors seemingly occupying similar spaces in their minds to doctors or other specialists who operate a symptom/medication model. But in this instance it wasn’t her expertise I was seeking, it was her normalcy.
It has its necessary place in the world, but the most successful therapeutic work is done in partnership as equals and with an ability to bear fallibility, the underlying subtext of a parent/child relationship replaced by one which promotes adulthood. It is working through this process that can define the work and its success. A lot of therapists become therapists for a reason – “wounded healers” the same tutor once said – and the importance of being human in the room is perhaps best embodied by this parable:
A guy's walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are steep and he can't get out.
A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, "Hey you. Can you help me out?" The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.
Then a religious man comes along and the guy shouts up, "Father, I'm down in this hole can you help me out?" The man writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on.
Some time passes. It’s getting dark and cold and the guy is losing hope. Faintly in the distance, he hears a voice calling his name and he calls out, drawing the voice closer until someone he recognises is staring down into the hole below.
"Hey Joe!’"the man calls out. ‘It's me, can you help me out?"
And the friend jumps in the hole.
Our guy says, "Are you stupid? What did you do that for? Now we're both stuck down here."
"Yeah," the friend says. "But I've been down here before, and I know the way out."