A number of readers asked me to comment on the recent Wall Street Journal article, “What Your Therapist Is Really Thinking: Yes, therapists sometimes get bored; excerpts from an interview with psychotherapist Paul Hokemeyer.”
When asked what the most common mistake clients make is, Hokemeyer replies, “Beat themselves up. We all make mistakes in life. The key is to learn from them and move on. I tell my patients it is OK to look back at the past but don’t stare.”
I completely agree.
Why do people needlessly beat up on themselves?
The main cause is a lack of confidence in their capacity for problem solving and reasoning. Education, as we know it, has failed nearly everybody. Their dominant emotion is, “I messed up. That’s terrible.”
If you have a grasp of the power of reason, which is every human being’s distinctive tool for coping and survival, then mistakes are not catastrophes. They’re regrettable, but you immediately move on to the next questions: (1) Damage control, and (2) what you learned from your error.
Confident people, I notice, have conviction in their power of reason. While they’re hard on themselves about learning from their mistakes, they do not beat up on themselves for merely making mistakes.
Asked if his mind wanders during sessions with clients, Hokemeyer replies, “Frequently. Most of the time it wanders back to the session I had with the last patient and what I should have done differently.”
Therapist, heal thyself.
He goes on, “It can also wander if the patient is avoiding connecting and filling the time with superfluous details. I’ll start to think about the dry cleaning or what I can have for dinner. This is important clinical data as it lets me know that just as I’m not feeling connected to the patient, the patient isn’t connected to me because they don’t feel safe enough to share the intimate details of their life.”
Everyone’s mind wanders at times. The question is how quick and effective you are at bringing your mind back to the present.
My attitude is that I owe my clients full, undivided attention. I owe them this, but I also owe it to myself. All of us do. We deserve to be in focus and fully engaged with life at all times.
Being engaged does not mean always being at work, but it does mean being fully alive at all times. Striving to be in focus is not a disciplined duty; it’s a self-gratifying way of living life to the fullest, in every precious moment we have.
Hokemeyer blames the client for his losing focus. His reasoning is, “My mind wanders, and it must be the client’s fault. It must be the client’s inability to connect with others.”
While this sometimes might be true, I find no reason to automatically and always blame the client. Sometimes it’s helpful simply to ask, “So why are we really here today?” If the therapist starts to lose focus, it’s an opportunity to bring the client back to the here-and-now.
My favorite answer of Hokemeyer’s was to the question, “Do you judge patients?”
Yes, he says. “I’m constantly judging. It is my job. This notion of unconditional positive regard is a fantasy. Yes, I need to accept the patient for who they are, but to pretend that I won’t bring my humanness to the equation is unrealistic. I need to know how and when to deliver my truth.”
I was with him until the last sentence.
“My truth” is vague. It sounds like he’s saying there’s no objective reality. While we all may have different perspectives, there’s still only one reality. Our human method of reason, like I said, is the means by which we figure out what’s true, what’s not, what’s right and what’s wrong.
One of the major effects of good therapy is improving the client’s capacity to see his or her own ability to use reason; to think and judge for him- or herself. My own book tackles that subject in great detail.
Therapists don’t tell clients what to do. Judgment, properly understood, means thinking. Therapists share with clients their own reasoning process. They encourage clients to jump in and say, “What do you think of this conclusion, and my reasoning that got me there? Any contradictions, flaws, anything I left out?”
One characteristic of good therapy—created by rational thinking—is a shared discovery of what the truth actually is. Sooner or later, we all want “my” truth to be the truth. All sane, happy and enlightened people wish to be in contact and harmony with objective reality.
Congruence between mind, reality and emotions? That’s the essence of mental health, and the major purpose of therapy.
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