The road to hell is paved with…
As a person, family or country becomes less focused on mere physical survival, the awareness of the importance of emotional health, relationships and spirituality becomes stronger. Ever more people are looking for help and guidance in this context. Eventually, some people wish to change from the role of a client to that of a helper. However, often not even in the framework of formal, university education enough attention is dedicated to the relationship between a helper and a client, apart from some general guidelines. Such knowledge is particularly insufficient in the area of “alternative” helping methods. So it happens sometimes that helpers, even when they act with best intentions, harm their clients more than they help them.
As a guideline for all the people who consider helping others in the future, as well as for those who already work as therapists/coaches or plan to do it, I wish to draw your attention to the complexity and impact of the client-therapist relationship and the importance of approaching it responsibly.
In the world of alternative helping methods, some people call themselves therapists without any training or after short training in a narrow area, which might be based on dogma and theories rather than on the openness of mind, experience and thinking. Knowledge without inspiration and good intentions won’t bring much good, but lack of education and knowledge will cause people to make huge mistakes.
Regardless of therapists’ best intentions, the success of their work will primarily depend on their emotional maturity and responsibility. This means that therapists have to heal themselves and their own lives: resolve disturbing emotions, build fulfilling relationships and create lives which fulfill their emotional needs. If a therapist’s needs are not fulfilled or if they are still immature (“false” needs compensating for the healthy ones, e.g. the need for power can compensate for healthy need for love) there is a big risk that they may attempt to satisfy their needs through their relationships with their clients.
The risk is increased by the fact that often a therapist can fulfill such needs more easily in the relationship therapist-client than in other relationships. The premise of such a relationship is that the therapist is in the position of authority, while the client trusts them sufficiently to accept them as authority. In such a relationship it’s much easier to influence and manipulate the other person than in everyday relationships between people who perceive each other as equal in knowledge and abilities.
A dance of subconscious
Sometimes people choose the career as therapists because it gives them authority, power and status in the eyes of others. Such people might convince themselves that they are more capable than other people and that they have the right to influence others. This attitude doesn’t necessarily have to be obvious to others.
Sometimes a therapist’s wish to make the world a better place will result in attempts to change others without allowing them to grow at their own pace. This is often a result of an unconscious need to get rid of their own childish feelings. Just as in love relationships we often choose partners who are in some ways similar to our parents, to fulfill the unconscious wish to change or save our parents, in a therapist’s position we can project this savior’s attitude to the rest of humanity. Subconsciously, we might hope to make a difference, deserve love or approval, make things easier for ourselves just as we hoped to do in our early families. If clients don’t change at the speed and in the direction we want, this can provoke childish anger and criticism.
An example of similar behavior are animal rights or environmental issues activists, who sometimes try to change other people by violent methods, seeing them as evil, instead of as people conditioned by their education and insufficiently informed. Such people often identify themselves with what they are trying to protect, while projecting anger toward those who they see as “victimizers”. This anger has its origin in their relationship with their parents or other authorities. Even if the motivation for their actions is positive, if they act on their childish feelings they are neither able to see the others’ perspective, or to understand that their violent behavior will naturally trigger defensive reactions rather than agreement.
A smaller but not insignificant number of therapists believe consciously that they have the right to exercise power over other people. Such persons usually create rather rigid, hierarchical organizations around them with elements of personality cults, and they openly take a dominant attitude towards their clients, requesting things from them and prohibiting things to them, which doesn’t help clients to improve their lives, but helps maintain the power structure. Such requests can be explained by different moralistic ideas, but it is important that they are not logically and naturally connected to the solution of a client’s problem. For example, requests to adhere to certain ritual procedures and formalities, not to explore different approaches and not to question the therapist’s dogmas.
Modalities of exercising such influence can be different: from subtle group pressure and non-verbal disapproval to direct punishment or intimidation. The common result is that clients are slowly lead into an unequal position while feelings of impotence, dependence, fear, guilt or inferiority are created within them, instead of them feeling worthy and able to steer their lives and create happiness on their own.
For this to be achieved, the client must have complementary emotional issues: lack of self-confidence and self-trust, a feeling that it’s natural not to be respected and treated as equal, and that their opinions and inner guidance are not taken into consideration. Since some people grew up in exactly such an atmosphere, it is not difficult to induce them to accept it once again. Actually, what many people are looking for in a therapist or a coach is authority and decision-making: a substitute for parents. This is why some clients show less trust to those therapists who treat them as their equals and as able people, than those who want to dominate.
All of us believe to be right and like to be right. A coach or therapist is no exception. However, just like anybody else, therapists are limited by their experience and their beliefs. One of the key problems with many approaches is the assumption that therapists know the answers, while clients know little or nothing about their problem. Answers are more frequently sought in either rational knowledge or emotional (intuitive) impressions of the therapist, than in the client’s inner resources and subconscious mind.
Not only is it impossible to analyze thoroughly all, or even majority, of known ideas and therapeutic approaches, but due to other life obligations, therapists often have little time to immerse themselves deeply even into a relatively narrow scope of interests. Everybody enjoys certain segments of knowledge, while those that are emotionally less attractive usually appear far less important. Consequently, every therapist will look for the answers in their area of expertise, and they might not want, or won’t be able to, think of the entire spectrum of different possibilities.
This is natural and almost unavoidable, but it can become dangerous in case of suggestive approaches, or in case of therapists who are prone to exert their influence and authority over others. Sometimes a therapist who is an expert in a particular issue, or who may be excited about some recent findings or ideas, leads clients into believing that they have that very problem. “If the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems look like nails.”
As for clients, they come for help, very often due to grave problems, and it is pleasant to believe that somebody can give them solutions. The client can long for somebody to take over a part of the burden of decision making, or to offer new, interesting belief structures which give hope for “instant”, effortless solutions. Clients might long for somebody to whom they can surrender their lives and whom they can idealize, just like parents. Difficult life problems naturally provoke childish feelings, so a person who is seen as an authority at that moment can easily become a parent substitute to the client.
Thus clients can go through a similar process as small children who wish to trust their parents in order to feel safe: they can be positively surprised and idealize everything that the therapist guesses correctly or does well. Based on this, they may start to trust that the therapist always knows what he or she does. If the therapist at this point says something wrong, abstract or difficult to prove, the client might start to search for justifications for such ideas, something like: “Well, maybe it could be true? I never thought about it before!” If there is some truth in the therapist’s assumptions, even if it is not the full truth or an important part of it, the client might focus on it and feel that the therapist recognizes their problems better than themselves. For example, if the therapist says that the problem lies in the fact that the client did not forgive somebody – and who of us does not bear any grudge against important people? – the client can be impressed by the insight that some anger is still within them, but overlook the fact that this might not be the core problem.
Sexuality and therapy
The fact is that, if something attracts us physically or emotionally, the mind can think of numerous reasons, regardless how far-fetched, to justify acting on it. This is also no exception in various aspects of the therapist-client relationship, and in some cases it can become dangerous.
One of such cases is sexual intimacy between the therapist and the client. Male therapists in particular can feel sexual attraction towards their female clients, while women as clients, more often than men, can feel emotional attraction to the therapist as a subconscious substitute for the father or some other important figure. This is when various justifications start to be created.
One of the most common justifications is that there is nothing negative in sexuality, that one should not be ashamed of it and sometimes even that a sexual act itself has therapeutic properties. A good example I heard of are several men who are massage therapists, who believe that a sexual intercourse helps to “release energy” and that there is nothing wrong with sexual intercourse during a massage, if a client wishes and asks for it (sometimes with some nudging in that direction).
Apart from completely neglecting the emotional aspects of sexuality, this shows an ignorance of deeper, more sensitive aspects of a relationship between the therapist and the client, especially of the transference mechanism and childish feelings in general.
One of the things that define a good therapist, is understanding and respect for a client’s vulnerable position, more vulnerable than in almost any other relationship in their everyday life. A client is not only emotionally open within the therapeutic situation, but such openness can often provoke some otherwisesuppressed feelings, needs and longings that can be easily projected to the therapist as a perceived source of support and authority (and both are parental features). Abusing such feelings can lead to traumatic experiences for a client.
Client or child?
Within some methods, a therapist is encouraged to play a parent substitute to a client. Such methods presume that this will help the client to become aware of and release unresolved feelings towards parents. What makes such an approach questionable is the fact that, most often, becoming aware and expressing feelings is not enough to permanently resolve them. Many people have read books that have helped them become aware of what they feel and why, many people learn to express their emotions – yet it’s often not enough to achieve true relief and freedom. In my opinion, external action and conscious understanding help somewhat, but are usually not enough to reach the subconscious mind.
In some respect, almost every infatuation is a search for substitute parents. If a relationship or external experiences could resolve childish feelings, many people would be able to resolve them relatively easily on their own. However, these relationships are only a substitute, they are not what the “inner child” is really looking for, and our subconscious minds know that. That’s why many people, even when they have a very supporting and loving partner, won’t find relief within an intimate relationship and will probably continue having immature emotional patterns. Besides, focused and deep work on recovering split personality parts and resolving deep emotional beliefs is often missing in the therapeutic approach based on transference.
A therapist is a person with all human problems. The emotions that client express, as well as their behavior, can trigger the therapist’s conditioned reactions, i.e. unresolved emotions. Just as clients can subconsciously see their parents or another important figures in a therapist, the same association and recollection process is spontaneously and unavoidably taking place in the therapist as well. If they don’t observe themselves and their feelings carefully, maybe they won’t recognize conditioned prejudice or attraction awakening within them.
It is possible that a therapist unconsciously begins to see a client not only as a person from their past, but as a child; or they can see their own unresolved problems in the client’s. It’s a great temptation for therapists not to impose themselves as authorities in clients’ lives, and not to believe that they necessarily know better than clients what the problem is and how to solve it. Some therapists may even feel offended or belittle the client if their advice is not accepted. Some clients welcome advice and instructions – someone who will take over the responsibility for their lives and tell them what to do – but then, instead of listening to their own inner truth, they start listening to a person who actually knows little about them and their lives.
Intuition or ego-trip?
Many therapists, just as many people, like to think that they know much more than they actually do. Especially in the area of “intuitive diagnostics”, as well as predictions for future (an area most prone to abuse), rare helper will consider the possibility of their own mistake, or even make an effort to carefully choose their words. I remember several encounters when I was given, often unsolicited, guesses about my physical health, and each of them was completely different. None of them corresponded to my own feeling and experience. The majority of those “diagnoses” were made very fast, expressed by strong words, without paying real attention. Most of those guesses were based on very uncertain physical indicators such as pulse or aching body parts during a massage. Sometimes they were even based on a single glance. In most of these cases, I felt that those people were trying to feel powerful, to make an impression that they knew things about others which others either didn’t know, or didn’t want to be known.
Even if intuitive suggestions are the least reliable of all, still clients sometimes trust them most. It seems that, the fewer the proof that a person can submit, the more a client feels free to believe that the therapist possesses some special power. We all need a little bit of magic in our lives, but not if the magic harms us.
I’ve met quite a few people who have been told by some negligent astrologists or fortune-tellers things like: “You can’t be helped” or “You’ll never find a partner”, leaving the people in the state of fear and shock and bereaved of hope. Having spoken with some people about this, I found out that one thing was common in almost all of such cases: the client received quite a good intuitive analysis of their past and present, which would invoke trust (and which is not so difficult to do for people skilful in observation and manipulative communication). However, the predictions for future turned out to be of very poor quality or completely wrong.
Apart from the future not being determined, or at least not definitely, each person who makes such forecasts gives to their impressions the stamp of their own personality and experience. Since they very often neglect the importance of working with their own emotions, their predictions will be colored with their own worldview and their unresolved emotions. If you are looking for a person who could tell you something about your future, at least chose somebody who seems happy, balanced and who has a positive attitude towards life.
Resistance and responsibility
Many methods don’t pay enough attention to resolving emotions, choosing rather to avoid, control or manipulate them. Often a client is told to “simply forgive” or in a similar way to “get rid” of their emotions quickly, maybe by symbolically burning them, sending them to the universe or avoiding them through discipline and willpower. As messages and lessons from these emotions are not received, the important relationships are left unresolved and the split personality parts are not found and integrated, this cannot yield long lasting results. Clients often try to believe that they have solved their problems, ending up suppressing and neglecting these parts of themselves even more. If they finally admit that problems are still there, therapists might call it “resistance”.
A “resistant client” – although sometimes it does happen – can be an excuse for therapists to avoid being questioned on the efficiency of their approach. Especially therapists who tend to moralize or belittle certain emotions, can provoke a feeling of not being understood and accepted in a client, or maybe unconscious discomfort and confusion as clients feel that something is missing. In such situations therapists are often too fast in labeling such feelings as resistance.
True resistance is often unconscious and subtle. It is often an attempt to protect oneself from pain and reduce the speed and intensity of change, if the change could threaten a client’s emotional balance or important relationships (if the client feels that their family or friends could react negatively to the change). Resistance is often shown through expressing feelings or behavior which hide other feelings that are difficult to accept (e.g. anger instead of guilt or shame, rationalization, blaming and similar). A therapist can have a subtle impression that a client does not express everything they feel. Often the client’s nonverbal communication is incongruent. In such situations it’s important that the therapist can be clear within their own mind and able to separate their own unpleasant emotions from what they feels is going on within the client.
I often hear about “alternative therapists” who are so unmindful and unwilling to take responsibility that they, not just during therapy but also during any other everyday activity, attribute most of their unpleasant emotions to the “negative energy” they supposedly took over from clients during sessions. Moreover, they might teach such an approach to their students. Such therapists tend to present themselves as spiritually advanced people, and they talk about their “taking over” client’s problems as a proof of their compassion. The stories about “a client’s negative energy sticking” onto the therapist can be a kind of a bogey for new students. Some therapists love to use such stories to display their strength and righteousness, and partly also to play a victim. Then they make a show of energetic cleaning of themselves and their room, of the stories about taking on their clients’ symptoms and emotions, about clients as “energy vampires” and the like.
I think such stories are blown way out of proportion. Therapists – through such stories – deny their own power and free will to avoid taking responsibility for their feelings. According to my experience, the only thing that a therapist can “take over” from a client is emerging of feelings that they already carry within. The less healthy a therapist, the more they suppress and deny their split-off parts, the more likely it is that a client’ unpleasant emotions will trigger their own. The more balanced, integrated and healthy a therapist is, the less it is possible for them to feel threatened by anything coming from a client.