As a licensed professional counselor, I am interested in what is helpful or effective for my clients. As a client in therapy, I am equally interested in what helps me to reduce my own suffering and develop better skills for navigating the larger world in which I live. Therefore, I consider myself a student in both respects. The clinician in me studies to achieve greater skill and experience, whereas the client side of me is ever sensitive to what is helpful in everyday life. I have had many experiences as both clinician and client that inform my approach, depending on which chair I happen to be sitting in on any given day.
There is one particular experience I had in therapy that has taken me years to integrate and use toward positive ends. At the time, I had been seeing a therapist for a few weeks. I was there to work through some old resentments and anger that were bogging me down and interfering with what was an otherwise good life. A trusted colleague and friend had referred me to this particular clinician, an older man with years in the field and a positive reputation.
After a few sessions, I remember thinking that the therapist was a little aloof for my tastes and perhaps a bit too professorial. He was kind but in a detached way. I had the sense that he did not think about me or my problems after he left the office for the day. Reflecting on my experience with him, I realize it was not what he did that sticks in my memory so much as how he taught me what not to do.
I had been attempting to work through some of my aforementioned anger issues with his help but had become somewhat stuck. He gestured toward a large, cube-shaped pillow on the ground in his office, measuring roughly 3 feet on each side. I hadn’t paid this object much attention until that moment, which is strange because a large cubed pillow in any office strikes me as noticeable in hindsight. The therapist asked me to repeatedly strike the pillow while verbalizing the very things that were upsetting me. I looked at him incredulously, and I remember specifically thinking, “This is stupid.”
I voiced my reservations, telling him openly that I did not think hitting a pillow and venting my anger in this way would be of much help. He smiled at me, trying to be reassuring, and encouraged me to try the exercise despite my misgivings. And so, I did.
Not surprisingly, I felt stupid. I was a grown man standing in a quiet therapy office hitting a large, cube-shaped pillow and trying to muster real anger in hopes that it would overtake my embarrassment. It did not. It caused me instead to feel like a petulant child who was not getting his way. Later, I would in fact feel the anger that was elusive in that moment, but my anger would be directed at the therapist rather than at the other people in my life.
What went wrong?
We processed this event immediately afterward in a somewhat perfunctory way, owing to my new resentment toward the therapist. I told him that I felt stupid, and he listened without comment. He was less interested in how the exercise reflected on him and more interested in my experience of it. The session ended on an anticlimactic note. I left his office and decided not to return. I should note that I could have given him more decisive verbal feedback about my experience, or inquired further about his intentions or technique. I did neither of those things, so in a way, perhaps I cheated him out of an opportunity to learn and grow. I take some comfort in the thought that his training and development were not my responsibility.
Upon reflection, I came to see that this therapist had disregarded valuable information and feedback I had given him in session. He used an intervention with me that he had likely used countless times before with other clients, and perhaps with some success. After all, he had gone to the trouble of purchasing that strange cube-shaped pillow. He executed a technique despite my obvious resistance because he thought he knew better than I did about what might be helpful. My experience was that I felt unimportant, unheard and embarrassed.
After reflecting on this somewhat minor event, I finally came to understand some of the dynamics that had played out in that room. The therapist was applying a technique without any soul — or, in other words, without first establishing an emotional bond or connection with me. Because he had not forged such a connection with me, the intervention was an abject failure. He assumed that the technique alone was powerful enough to overcome my reservations or, as I’ve said, that he knew better and I just needed to trust him. In my attempt to be the good client, I placed my trust in him, and he showed me that he had not earned it yet.
A basic critique I have of this method is that it does not translate to my life in the world. Hitting objects when one is angry has no application in the real world. We cannot repeatedly hit the table if we become angry in the middle of a corporate board meeting. This method is not encouraging the development of further skills; rather, it is reinforcing a negative human behavioral habit.
Although it took me many years to understand what I had experienced in that therapy session, I eventually arrived at an obvious answer: I went there assuming the therapist was, in fact, an expert, but the person who instructed me to hit the pillow was simply a flawed human being using a flawed methodology. He, like me, is in the process of learning and growing, and, as such, he is still making mistakes. I accept this, and I accept him as being in process.
Cause for reflection
Being on the receiving end of this intervention gave me license to truly examine its effectiveness, or lack thereof, in my own life. This small experience also led me to reflect on how often I — and perhaps, we, as clinicians — may be deploying techniques in a mechanical and disconnected fashion, whether we learned these methods in school, from a trusted mentor, or from a celebrity therapist. I have come to believe that when we do this, we are elevating and accenting the academic concept at the expense of an interpersonal connection.
What benefits our clients is subject to debate, of course, and reasonable people can disagree about this. We learn a variety of evidence-based practices, techniques and theories in the hope that we can help reduce our clients’ pain and suffering. I have colleagues I trust and respect enormously who approach therapy from a more scientific standpoint. They have a toolkit of interventions they use for a variety of presenting problems. Presenting problem A gets intervention B and so on and so forth. I also know brilliant clinicians who use a primarily interpersonal approach, in which the central and ongoing interventions are kindness, consistency, nonjudgment and acceptance.
I would be willing to gamble and say that the majority of therapists artfully blend the scientific with the interpersonal. What is scientific in counseling is by definition methodical, detached and concerned with evidence. What is interpersonal is by definition emotional, involved and subjective. There need not be tension between these two concepts; skillful therapists braid them together.
Carl Rogers, the founder of client-centered therapy (also known as person-centered therapy), came to the conclusion that the interpersonal approach actually produces scientific, measurable results. I will not dive too deeply into discussions of duality and what the superior approach might be (in part because I don’t know), but it is incumbent on the professional counseling community to ascertain anew each day what is effective versus what is ineffective.
My conclusion was that my therapist at that time was relying on pure scientific technique, which lacked warmth. Therefore, what I experienced was his detachment from me and his failure to respond to the verbal and nonverbal feedback I was conveying to him in that moment. My bias, of course, is the golden thread in this entire experience: I lean mostly Rogerian as a counselor, and my therapist had failed to honor one of Rogers’ most important insights — namely, that I am the expert on myself. My therapist put himself in the role of expert, which was a natural result of his unique life experiences, training, upbringing, biases and blind spots.
Undoubtedly, this therapist’s approach has been helpful and effective for many people over the decades that he has been in practice. With the enormous variety of human beings on this planet, an enormous variety of styles and approaches in counseling is merited.
I have concluded from this experience that technique without soul is dead. The cold application of scientific knowledge in the therapy office lacks humanity. However, using only warmth and empathy without technique can be amorphous and ungrounded. I occasionally find myself wanting to revert to technique alone for its definitive attraction — namely, that it is an intellectual and finite concept and therefore seems easier to grasp. Conversely, when I rely too heavily on an interpersonal connection, even as a Rogerian, I find this to be limiting in a different way.
For me in my process of development now, the interpersonal connection is what builds trust, and that is what allows techniques to flourish and gain traction. When techniques are successful and helpful, and when clients experience real change from them, the interpersonal connection thrives. In this way, a skillful pairing of these approaches serves to reinforce the strength of both of them.
I have tremendous empathy for my previous therapist, despite my obvious critiques of him. It was easy for me to see, both then and now, that he meant well. I also have the benefit of being able to evaluate his approach, whereas my own approach is not subject to his scrutiny. I have an inherent advantage in this sense because nothing I have done is under the microscope. That being said, readers of this article may find fault with my analysis, and I welcome a robust debate. I am grateful to him in a noncynical way for showing me what type of therapist I do not want to be: detached, professorial, expert. I strive to become more and more who I want to be as a counselor: someone who is involved, humble, and allied with my clients. In short, I strive to become the professional whom I needed that day in his office.
Peter Allen is a licensed professional counselor at East Cascade Counseling Services in Bend, Oregon. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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