What Does the Therapist Know? And Why Does It Matter?

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What Does the Therapist Know? And Why Does It Matter?

I co-wrote this blog with my colleague, Dr. Hugh Polk. We are 2 social therapists "Talkin' Therapy" as contributors to Mad In America. 

Please enjoy our latest post where we discuss the importance of creating non-authoritarian, collaborative relationships with our clients by "not knowing" the answers, a conversation style that highlights therapeutic curiosity. If you find the conversation of value, please post a comment on the MIA site and add your voice to the conversation.


Ann: One of the things that’s still most challenging for me in doing therapy is resisting the impulse to come up with solutions to my clients’ problems. I find the role of “answer woman” very seductive. It’s not only because the people who come to me for help usually assume, at least at first, that help means solutions. Maybe they’d even say that’s what they’re paying me for, and I want them to feel they’re getting their money’s worth. I get that my trying to seem smart is about me, not the client. But I don’t always win the battle. What about you, Hugh? In doing therapy, do you experience the temptation to be a know-it-all?

Hugh: Oh, I outgrew that years ago. Just kidding! That temptation is always lurking, inside and outside the therapy office. But it’s not just about us wanting to be a smarty-pants. I think all of us—we, the therapists, and our clients—experience a kind of craving for a moral of the story, a solution, a product, that everyone can take home with them. As I understand it, social therapy, as a practice of not knowing, is a form of resistance to that fatal attraction we all share. It can empower the members of the group, including the therapist, to go beyond giving and getting answers to doing something more creative and developmental together.

Ann: What does that look like in your practice these days?

Hugh: Here’s one example. Last week a young woman in one of my groups, who’s just recently started college, asked for help because she was having trouble relating to the other students. In conversations with them, she said, she felt intensely self-conscious, imagining that they were making judgments about her appearance and thinking that she was “just a small-town girl with nothing interesting to say.”

A couple of people began by saying what they thought was “really” going on, having to do with race, class, or gender. Others offered advice, and some tried to comfort Melanie with stories of how they too had had a hard time fitting in when they first went to college or got a job or moved into a new neighborhood. I also felt an urge to say something insightful that would help the group to help Melanie see things in a new way. But one person, Derek, took us in a different and more interesting direction. He had a question for her. “How do you know what these other students are thinking, Melanie?”


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