Today, I met a business man who discussed his past therapy experience with me. In the middle of our conversation, he pointedly uttered the words in the title: “I believe in therapy, but I hate therapists.” When asked to explain his perspective, he shared a poignant and sophisticated understanding of the tricky balance required for effective treatment. It is a relationship, he surmised, in which the therapist must be engaged and human, able to feel and show emotion without being too emotional. That edge is indeed a slippery one. He fortunately found a therapist who fit his definition of a good clinician. But, he concluded that there were few mental health professionals who fit the bill—able to be human but boundaried, connected to the person in front of them and allowing that connection to guide the relationship without distorting it. Worse, he surmised that there were “a lot of con artists out there just wanting to make a buck.”
What exactly happens when people sit in a therapist’s office, and how do we define “good” therapists? How engaged must a clinician be, and when does that critical balance go off course? Lewis, Amini, and Lannon, in their book A General Theory of Love, asserted that therapy is the “ultimate inside job” in which the therapist takes up “temporary residence” in a patient’s world. Effective treatment, in their view, rests on the therapist being able to feel the patient’s emotions without becoming taken over by them—a bit like chartering a boat through a storm while still keeping an eye on the compass and the destination. In their poetic description: “A therapist’s odd gift lies in tuning into strange melodies enough to hear them, while he resists falling into complete harmony.”
Yet, people seeking treatment have different needs for distance and closeness. Some want to have a safe space to speak while others are looking to build very specific skills. The person I spoke to thought that ultimately, regardless of the differences, people enter a therapist’s office looking for hope and perspective. I think he might be right. What do you think? What makes a good therapist? And how might mental health professionals connect better with people who believe in therapy but hate therapists?
Lewis, T., Amini, F., & Lannon, R. (2000). A general theory of love. New York, NY: Random House.
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