What Is a Therapist’s Role?

I’ve made a few therapeutic journeys in the last few decades. All of my therapists have been skilled. But I would say that my last therapist, Andrew Feldmar, is a master therapist. What constitutes mastery in a therapist? In part, it’s time. He’s been at it for over forty years and has seen pretty much everything. But time alone doesn’t make master therapists. It’s time plus practice in being a true human being. You want your therapist to be one of those! But what does that look like?

An effective therapist, like a good parent, isn’t perfect. To use, psychoanalyst, W.D. Winnicott’s phrase, she’s “good enough”. What does that mean? First, she’ll resist your every attempt to make her into a goddess. Her ego has been sufficiently dismantled (humbled) by life that she knows any attempts to divinize her is a set up. We come hoping that her special powers will enable us to do an end run around our suffering. We’ve tried everything else: success, booze, caffeine, all manner of distraction, including entertainment, traveling, etc. (Nothing wrong with any of these if they are not used as a flight from suffering).

We’ll probably set our therapist up as our last, best hope. Most of us will want her to wave her magic wand and provide the cure—if not instantly, soon thereafter. We just want the suffering to go away. It’s natural. But she knows that true suffering (distinct from the suffering caused by refusing to suffer) is the path to health. Avoidance is the tried and true preference for our inner survivor, but it has finally, blessedly failed. A fall is immanent. She won’t try to stop it but she is willing to be with you as the bottom drops out, and meet you at the bottom. She knows that it’s a fall into reality. From there, the ascent to the heart, where heaven and earth meet, can start again.

What differentiates her from you is not that she is superwoman and you are a mere mortal. The relationship isn’t equal, but that is not because she’s a better human being than you. You are paying her so that you will never have to take care of her needs, or contain her feelings. This is your time and it’s what makes your therapist different from a friend’s shoulder. It’s this very lack of reciprocity that enables you to stop compulsively taking care of the other, (which many of us mastered at a very early age). But here, with her, you can relax and drop into the foreign territory of your deepest (and likely) unmet longings. You’ll discover that she can’t completely meet them. And you may hate her for that, or try to manipulate her, or charm her or attack her. And all that will be okay too. You’ll learn that she can survive all of your feelings and stay connected. Which is the only way you learn that you—all of you, the good, the bad, and the ugly—is acceptable. The best she can do is be present enough to awaken grief for a time when those longings should have been rightly met and were not. And when those feelings were not contained, which caused you to split off from them.

Note, she enters into this relationship with you because she enjoys it. No self-righteousness or martyrdom allowed. It’s possible that you’ve had enough of that from those who brought you into the world. She mixes it up with you because she has learned that there is no other game in town that she’d rather play. She actually wants to be with you! That may be a new experience which takes you a long time to believe. It also lets you off the hook, because she’s not looking for you to meet her unmet needs, and if she is, exit pronto.

A good enough therapist has done her own trauma work. This is why she knows that suffering what is ours to suffer is the only way back to reality and therefore health. She can’t take you anywhere she hasn’t been. I’m not saying that she must have experienced your exact circumstances. But she has come up against it in her own way, summoned courage, been broken open, and has risen from the dead with some knowing that might be an aid on your journey. Not that she incessantly peppers you with wisdom, thus establishing her superior knowledge. No, she offers you a gem, not the whole field of precious stones, at just the right moment, when you are ready to hear. This is a matter of intuition.

But how would you know if she’s done her trauma work? You sense that there are no red lights.  She’s not skitterish. As in, she’s not trying to subtly direct you away from feelings and experiences that she is uncomfortable with—because she’s seen it all before, in herself, and accepted the whole mess. You will feel safe, contained, free. It’s as much an energetic field as anything else. She possesses compassion because it was awakened toward herself in the depth of her own suffering. She has a non-anxious presence: she is comfortable being an individual; she is self-defined; she has a sense of humour; and she won’t poke and prod you with the latest, greatest, no-fail technique. She let’s you be, in other words, while staying connected.

She has been around long enough to know that it’s not about technique. Technique is related etymologically with technology, and technology is effective with machines and systems, not humans. Your therapist is not a Mr. Fix-It, even though he has been tempted by myriads of professional workshops claiming that this or that approach is both fast and “evidence-based”. All you have to do is remove the human being from the equation, enact a method on the object of your well-intentioned intervention, and presto, off you go into a better life. I’m suspicious as you can tell. Your heart was broken in relationship and in relationship it will be healed. (And yes, there are techniques that can remove symptoms and provide temporary relief, and yes, they have their place. But I’m assuming a goal of getting one’s true life back).

A good enough therapist cares about you, and you can feel it. That doesn’t mean that he’s going to rescue you or pity you. He knows that the problem(s) you brought with you into therapy are the very ones that your ego has not been able to solve. The intransigent problem, the depression, the anxiety, the addiction are palpable reminders that your ego has run out of tricks. Your inner survivor is being dismantled. You are being broken by Life, and only Life can deliver to us the “I” that is not limited to “me” (E. Graham Howe). You are more than your survivalist ego, and Reality is much, much bigger than the world that your ego is allowing. This dimension of you (the survivor self/ego) cannot carry the freight of the big picture. Goodness knows it has tried. That effort often eventuates in a host of physical ailments, deep fatigue and a sense of hopelessness). She will welcome the fatigue above all, and encourage you to let down, because it is the surest sign that your overactive, over industrious, over vigilant self is ready to surrender. These so-called “problems” are portals into a new life.

She understands that you are absolutely other to him. Philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas was right when he wrote: “If one could possess, grasp, and know the other, it would not be other.” What likely brought you to therapy, in one way or another, was the external demands to capitulate to a false unity of the group/family/collective. It is your uniqueness more than anything that you are in need of recovering. If you have a religious background, chances are that this denial of individuality was reinforced and turned into a virtue. Call it “selflessness”, or “meekness” or even “humility”, if you want, but where there is false unity, there is no self to express true virtue. A therapeutic relationship is one in which a therapist is making space and time for you to exit the false unity and show up for relationship, which is comprised of two individuals bridging differences with caring. Your individuality is the very thing that you were required to give up in order to survive the “other” who demanded sameness. The non-dual unity of All That Is will be discovered on the other side of the discovery of one’s individuality. Too often, it is introduced before the individuality has been achieved (and it usually is a courageous achievement). You end up with false unity, false individuality or both.

He won’t diagnose you (unless your health coverage requires it, but even then both you and he know that you can’t be reduced to a label). R.D. Laing once called this “denigration by diagnosis”. When you walk into the office, he sees you as though you are walking in for the first time, even if you’ve been coming for years. The past is past. Heraclitus wrote that nobody steps into the same river twice, because it is not the same river and you are not the same person. He’s been around enough to recognize our tendency, born of the survival instinct, to reduce ourselves to certain habits, beliefs and behaviours. But he’s patiently holding out for the ever-new, un-categorizable you to show up.

Similarly, he respects you too much to have a treatment plan, other than to show up and be present to the ever-changing you and ever-changing conditions of your life. He doesn’t usually interpret what you bring him because he’s not there so much to examine you from a distance, but experience you and how you are making sense of your world. He respects you too much to tell you who you “really” are. You are the final authority of your life, not him and not anybody else. Developing a dependence on somebody outside of you telling you who you are and why you’re doing what you’re doing undermines self-responsibility.

Perhaps it obvious by now, but it bears stating explicitly, that the good enough therapist is not trying to change you. This is because, wait for it…there’s nothing wrong with you. We’ve been changed enough for a lifetime, before we even had a say in the matter. Most of us carry around with us a deep, yet unconscious belief, that a) something is very wrong and b) that something is us. That belief is just waiting to be confirmed by reality, and we can find plenty of evidence for both. If we can’t find it out there, we create it ourselves, in order to align with the core unconscious belief that we’re essentially wrong.

But the belief itself was forced upon us very early when we had to make a decision whether “they” were wrong in their treatment of us or “we” were wrong (read, bad). Given that our survival depends upon them not being wrong or bad (if they are we are truly at the mercy of arbitrary, hostile forces that are beyond our control), we will default to the belief that we are both wrong and bad. At least then we can do something about it. We can be “better”, quieter, more charming; we can be smaller; we can find ways to please the other; we can be less needy, etc., etc.That is, we can change ourselves. So, the therapist has no agenda to change us,(and couldn’t even if he wanted to) but rather to help us to see how we came to this false belief about ourselves, and that’s it’s possible to replace it with the truth of our inestimable beauty and worth.

She values the true over the good. The reason that most of us are so twisted up is that we’ve been told by authorities all our life what is good for us, what we’re good for, and that being “good” is preferable to being true (truly our self). For the sake of “getting along” with the group, family, ideology, we become somebody else’s definition of good (which usually requires that we sacrifice our truth). True will shatter good over the course of the therapeutic relationship, after which we will discover for ourselves an authentic goodness that flows from us being our unique self.

The moment we find ourselves relaxing, breathing, trusting and feeling free in the presence of another, our work is done. We have “dropped in” to our nature, to life personified and individualized as “me”. We finally are able to be in relationship without giving up being ourselves. We have discovered that we learned to avoid suffering at a time in our life when we had no choice, because it would have overwhelmed us. Now, we can let life be, let the other be and let ourselves be, which means that we can undergo reality/life as it is, moment by moment, without having to change it or ourselves. We have tapped into a resilience that we didn’t know we had through which we discover that reality is actually not too much for us to bear. Life can flow again: tears, laughter, fear, ecstasy, terror are all part of it. But when they are flowing without our need to interfere, the infinitely creative life process is having its way with us, and we discover that we can enjoy the ride on the dragon’s tail of the great mystery. Your neurotic suffering has ended. Your true suffering—your willingness to undergo reality—will never end. And still, you will know that whatever this life brings is of absolute value.

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4 Comments on “What Is a Therapist’s Role?

  1. Dear Bruce,
    Yes, this is a gift, a gem, and I thank you for it. When I was receiving training in pastoral counselling, it put me off because I always felt as if the requirement for treatment plans and the push for some kind of diagnosis was unwarranted. This approach seemed to contradict the main philosophy of our counselling group; we were focusing on the work of Carl Rogers. Therapy is all about empathy and acceptance and I know that people who really want help, myself included, are looking for that, not a “technical” approach. With the help of a therapist who is truly caring, it is certainly true that “the ascent to the heart, where heaven and earth meet, can start again.”

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