If you said to your primary care physician, “My elbow is hurting” and he replied, “Yes, fine, that’s interesting, but let’s examine your ear,” you’d probably wonder what was going on and you might even ask him, “Why?” If he replied, “In my experience your ear tells me everything I need to know about your body,” what would you think?
Historically, psychotherapists have had their agendas and have demanded that clients focus their attention in a direction determined by the therapist. Two classic examples of demands of this sort are the demands in traditional psychoanalysis that the client free associate and that the client report dreams.
If, for example, you are a client in therapy with a certain sort of analyst and have the audacity to want to chat about something that did not happen to appear to you in a dream, that analyst is likely simply not allow it. This may strike you as far-fetched and yet it occurs all the time. Here is a report from one client, as reported by the analyst Louis Breger in his excellent Psychotherapy: Lives Intersecting, a book in which he traces his own journey from classical analyst to human analyst. The client reported:
“In my first session, this psychologist prompted, ‘Did you have a dream?’ I did. She listened attentively and then offered some interpretation. When I told her that the interpretation didn’t really resonate, she explained that this was due to my resistance. This irritated me. She indicated that my irritation was an indication that her interpretation had touched a nerve, and that we were, therefore, on the right track. I continued seeing her for several months. The sessions were always the same—I would begin by talking about events in my life—she would listen impatiently and eventually interrupt me with, ‘Did you have a dream?’”
It is as difficult to answer the question “Where do authoritarian therapists come from?” as it is to answer the more general question of where authoritarian leaders and their sometimes cowed, sometimes enraged followers come from. While we may not know where they come from, we should at least be alert to their existence. If you walk into therapy and find yourself sitting across from a bully, you will want to get out of there before real damage gets done to you.
Not all therapist toughness is bullying. It is completely sensible and appropriate for a therapist to be direct, clear, and even tough sometimes. If your drinking is out of control, you don’t want your therapist to ignore that fact, collude with you in your alcoholism, and in effect smile her way through therapy with you. That isn’t kindness. Her toughness on that score is warranted and in your ultimate service. You may not like it but she is right to demand that you look at your drinking.
That is very different from your therapist refusing to collaborate with you as one human being to another. If her chair seems several inches higher than your chair that is a kind of bullying. If she charges you with “resistance” any time you disagree with her that is a kind of bullying. If she uses diagnostic labels and professional jargon as gospel that is a kind of bullying. The forms of bullying in a therapist’s office are not the same as those on a schoolyard but they feel the same: that is, bad.
Yes, you have the job of distinguishing between whether you are feeling bad because you have been caught in one of your tricks or because you are being bullied. The very same action may amount to bullying in one case and compassionate intervening in another. Say, for example, that you are inclined to tell the same story about a past grievance over and over again. A bullying therapist might interrupt you so as to proceed with his agenda. A compassionate therapist might interrupt you but for a very different reason, because she wants to be of help rather than allow the session to be spent on you rehashing this same old story. Differences of this sort are on your shoulders to discern.
Good therapy is good relating. The therapist does her part to be as human and as wise as she can be; the client does his part by wryly admitting his own trickiness, by accepting that change is difficult, by actively affirming his life and by actually caring about his life, and so on. Even then mistakes will happen, impasses will be reached, and not every session will produce spectacular results. But that is still very different from sitting across from someone whose primary expertise is in bullying.
You don’t want to be bullied by your therapist any more than you want to be bullied by your primary care physician or your car mechanic. It is very easy for a person in a position of authority and power to abuse his position, especially when he is a putative expert in a very suspect system like the current pseudo-medical “mental disorder” model of psychotherapy. Indeed, if a bullying therapist were able to take off his metaphoric white coat, put his cards on table, and explain that he dealt in problems of living and not medicine, he just might instantly shed some of his need to bully.
If you are interested in how therapy ought to work, I recommend Psychotherapy: Lives Intersecting to you. Breger writes: “It is clear that the relationship between the patients and myself was at the heart of these successful outcomes. Experiencing my attention and affection, admitting and repairing mistakes, catharsis, insight gained from collaboratively constructed interpretations, self-disclosure, humor, flexible fees, and openness to concomitant forms of treatment, all played their roles.” This is what a human and humane enterprise sounds like.
Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist, bestselling author of 40 books, founder of natural psychology, and widely regarded as America’s foremost creativity coach. Learn more about natural psychology and access the groundbreaking Natural Psychology: The New Psychology of Meaning at www.naturalpsychology.net. Learn more about Dr. Maisel at www.ericmaisel.com or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.