Criticism — in Therapy and Out: More Things You Want to Know About Your Therapist

500px-Kgpg_frown_of_disapproval.svgOne of the worst things you can do to a friend is to tell him an awful truth about himself. One of the best things you can do is identical. And one of the most self-injurious landslides you might trigger in your direction — like launching a large rock down on your mountainside home  — is to inform a friend of an opinion he doesn’t want to hear and for which he makes you pay.

I should know. I’ve been the person who heard the worst, even as boyfriend to an early beauty who stung with accurate and unflattering observations. I’ve also been the older guy who said things — however necessary I thought them to be — at least one buddy couldn’t bear. The blowback, though delayed, was furious. Ironically enough, I grew from each of these experiences and a few others like them.

Therapists are wise not to inform clients of their faults, but to enable the patient’s gradual development of insight in a subtle fashion. Shrinks tell you the counselor should almost never offer criticism, instead waiting for self-directed self-awareness to arise spontaneously in the course of treatment. Moreover, a quick way to cause your client’s flight from you is to contribute to his discomfort or trigger an epiphany for which he isn’t ready.

Here is an example of feedback I received as a grad student: I was informed of being intimidating by a supervisor. This came as a surprise. I am not physically imposing, nor did I walk around with a scowl on my face. I pictured myself as unthreatening. Self-confidence was not then an area of strength, but something in need of a growth-spurt.

My initial reaction was the usual one to uncomfortable truth:

The SOB is wrong, he is a jerk. He’s the one with the problem, dammit!!!

I am, however, the kind of person who will take a step back and reflect. Not the same minute or the same day, but soon. The best opportunities for learning come in moments of discomfort. I realized the senior psychologist who diagnosed my flaw, however undiplomatic in so doing, was right. The comments, delivered in a training group, were no fun to receive, but I was eventually grateful for the information.

What did he mean? While friends would tell you I’m a pretty funny guy, I’m persuaded I give the aura of a serious, intense person who might be smarter than you are. I don’t say this to blow my horn (many men and women enjoy greater intellect), but I apparently give the impression of being a big thinker. My youngest daughter said I intimidated her little friends before I said a word. They sensed an unintended, imposing, judgmental vibe. Knowledge of this made me work extra hard at making clients comfortable.

Whenever you care about someone you make yourself vulnerable to his opinion. The tender underside of my psyche continued to be exposed for much of my 20s. Other events, too, offered essential albeit excruciating information. I was thus enabled to learn more of what I needed to know about myself. The good news was that I tried to take what I could from the messenger’s words to better myself. I’m talking only about a handful of situations, not the larger number where I permanently dismissed comments as “their problem,” not my own.

Disapprove

To those who believe, like Bambi’s mother, one never should say anything critical, here is a defense of the brave or foolish handful who do so on occasion: no human sees himself as he is. Zero. We lack a vantage point from the outside — the perspective of a therapist, friend, or acquaintance. All we can do is make inferences based upon the reactions of others. Our conclusions are imperfect. Intuition, however good, is not mind reading. Most of us don’t want to know the worst and thus live with a protective measure of self-delusion. If we are to learn about ourselves we need someone to break the conspiracy of polite silence.

I am not suggesting anyone harm another. A relationship usually requires a long history of goodwill if pointed comments are ever to be appropriate. Sometimes, though, when you observe a friend injuring himself in a chronic fashion, an opportunity — Aristotle suggests perhaps an obligation — exists to help. You take a terrible risk by describing something vividly enough to do good. Chances are, you won’t. A blistering retaliation might be in the offing. Your buddy may dismiss your meaning, your motive, and you.

I suspect that I’m better than most at hearing through criticism to the value I can extricate from the shards of the message. I’ve learned, however, I am guilty of doing harm in offering unwanted and unsolicited opinions outside of therapy, in part because I exert less care with family and friends than I did with patients. I take no pride in this. In counseling clients I tried hard to say less if I anticipated the injury that might come from saying more. “First do no harm” was the mantra.

For those of you who wish a therapist’s friendship, consider yourselves warned. The kid gloves are worn only for the patients.

Based on all this you may think I’m a danger to those closest to me, like a wrecking ball directed by an intoxicated crane operator. Yet I have many friends, several of whom go back a long time. Unless my vision is occluded, they do not wear protective goggles and a suit of armor when I approach.

I cannot say enough of the danger here. Honesty may well cost you someone you love who hoped and trusted you would not do the injury you did. But, as far as being on the receiving end is concerned, I encourage you not to dismiss every critical message, even when the missive is like a rock thrown through your bedroom window. In school I learned much more from the teachers who were “hard graders” than from those who praised every idea I offered and each line I wrote.

Criticism was needed.

To my friends, relatives, and acquaintances, I can say the following: test me. If you believe I have more to learn about myself (and I do) please tell me. I suspect, in the long run, you will have done me a favor.

The top image is called Sign of Disapproval by hobvias sudoneighm. The photo is a Frown of Disapproval by Zeke Essiestudy. They are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

12 thoughts on “Criticism — in Therapy and Out: More Things You Want to Know About Your Therapist

  1. LOVE this post! For many reasons, one of which is that I wholeheartedly agree with this:

    “My initial reaction was the usual one to uncomfortable truth: The SOB is wrong, he is a jerk. He’s the one with the problem, dammit!!! I am, however, the kind of person who will take a step back and reflect. Not the same minute or the same day, but soon. The best opportunities for learning come in moments of discomfort. I realized the senior psychologist who diagnosed my flaw, however undiplomatic in so doing, was right. The comments, delivered in a training group, were no fun to receive, but I was eventually grateful for the information.”

    My therapist once said to me something along the lines of she was trying to figure out whether everything she said got ‘spat out’ on principle and thought about later, or whether it meant that her interpretations were simply not right! I think she may have been referring to a similar tendency to initially dismiss uncomfortable statements but then come back to them later, to chew them over and see if there was any truth in them (the answer often being, yes, even if they were true in a slightly different way to the one she imagined…)!

    The friends I value most are the ones that are honest with me, even when I don’t like to hear it – and I am fortunate that so far they have been gently or at least sincerely and caringly honest, not callously or unthinkingly so…..

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    • Delicacy in the critical message is a curious thing. Therapists and those schooled in the Socratic Method try to ask the right questions designed to lead to self-awareness without simply and directly pointing to a person’s repeated mistakes. With friends one sometimes reaches a point where (unless you are Socrates himself) you have to tip your hand more if you are to make yourself clear. One tries to be diplomatic. It is painful, for me at least, to watch people who I’ve long known taking a path that has not thus far not availed them what they desired, but hoping the next mile along the same road will be different and better. Part of the problem, at least in middle-age and beyond, is that so much time is behind one the realization of “wasted” time might just be overwhelming. Sounds like you have some terrific friends. Both Aristotle and Epicurus, two very different philosophers, thought there was nothing better.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Terrific post. Well said! And so true.
    I suspect, however, that upon entering
    my seventh decade, I have decided
    to face what I wouldn’t have wanted
    to hear decades ago – and am a
    better counselor – because of it.
    Let’s hope.

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    • Many thanks, Vicki. As a resident of the same decade as you, I can say that we all must keep on learning. Your openness to the instruction only living provides suggest you are quite a therapist. All the best.

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  3. An excellent post on criticism in general, Dr. Stein. Your opening lines express well our conundrum: “One of the worst things you can do to a friend is to tell him an awful truth about himself. One of the best things you can do is identical.” It’s a fine line. To say or not to say.

    I tend to be overly generous with my critical observations. This has destroyed many a friendship before it could even blossom. While negative criticisms are hard to swallow, I’ve grown a lot from them.

    I don’t believe we can have real connections with others without honesty and openness. The trick, I suppose, is in the timing.

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    • Thank you, Rosaliene. I’m very happy to hear you have a number of friends. Your own essays suggests you and a principled and interesting companion, one with real convictions. Life is messier than we were taught, isn’t it?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What a great read. Great to see the therapists’ (downside?) side. I now understand more what my psychologist meant when one day I praised her memory of events/people/personalities I mentioned during sessions. She then added, “My husband says I remember too much.” I laughed, but tonight I also got another perspective. Thanks, Dr. S, for the time to reflect.

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  5. Great post, which I can apply to so many areas of life

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  6. Great post Gerald,
    just the other day I had a work collegue pull me up quite strongly when I over rode the decision of someone with higher authority. It felt awkward but I straight away got the point, thanked the collegue, fixed the situation and apologised to the one in senior authority and let her know I was in the wrong. What I learnt from both their responses is that when you get the point most people are willing to move past the event and just continue on as normal. It was an awkward moment, but in the end taking honest criticism and learning from it strengthens relationships, both of the other workers were so nice to me after and I’m grateful to both of them for that

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    • Lots of people, particularly politicians, can neither accept criticism as appropriate nor apologize for errors. Sounds like you won’t be able to run for office! 😉 Only, of course, for excellent reasons! Thanks, Claire.

      Like

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