Can Therapists be Fooled? What Therapists Miss

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At a recent gathering my wife had an unexpected encounter with a woman who had done us wrong. When my beloved met her eyes and said hello without emotion, the shadowy figure broke eye contact. She looked surprised — taken aback. Ashamed? Shame doesn’t connote self-awareness or guilt, so much as being caught with your hand in the cookie jar.

Who is she? As a teen she’d been a rebellious, angry hell-raiser, the product of a broken home: not divorced parents, but shattered and shattering, sham adults. Time passed and this dark lady appeared to become sociable, energetic, and funny  — an academic failure, but a business success. Failed marriages and friendships revealed that intimacy was a challenge. For all her charm, depression was a life-long battle never surmounted, loneliness her closest companion. A sad story and, I admit, I fell for it. No, that’s unfair. The tale was real enough, but failed to include a description of the shabby baggage she carried.

Madam X is a person for whom truth is only a convenience, like a garment to be discarded when out-of-fashion, not the internal necessity of a more principled life. Honesty is tossed aside like a burned out cigarette. To get what she wants she is unrestrained and unrestrainable.

I am reminded of Oscar Wilde’s character Dorian Gray as I think about Madam X. Wilde’s novella describes the protagonist as a beautiful, upper class Englishman whose bloom of youth and stunning features are captured in a commissioned portrait, upon which he makes a wish: to remain forever young while his canvas likeness ages. But the painting becomes a scold, reflecting and reproving his increasing corruption. The art deforms itself to the point that he must place the thing in an attic. Meanwhile, Dorian Gray’s face and stature honor the wish he made by retaining their handsome allure — the internal rot disguised.

Might life be better if we were required to wear a meter displaying a measure of our integrity? Color coded, perhaps. White would signal a godlike character, black its opposite, with all of us somewhere in between, depending. Then we wouldn’t need to study others, play the back and forth game of risking disclosures, judging facial expressions and body language, and taking the small but tentative steps of early intimacy.

Relationships are about what we will risk and with whom. Part of the dance depends on our own security, part on our ability to judge the trustworthiness of others. None of us is either perfectly secure or gifted with x-ray perception and an internal lie detector to evaluate the soul of another. Some just stop trusting altogether.

Acceptance of human frailty is the therapist’s Achilles heel. We must think the best of our patients, be optimistic, free ourselves from judgment. We have seen people change and so believe in “possibility.”

Having never seen or felt the bite of the potential masked viper sitting before us, we sit disarmed. He offers us no rap sheet of past iniquity. In a certain sense we are wise innocents who intentionally obscure our own vision: an occupational risk we take on knowingly.

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Therapists also have experience (though not so much as criminal law attorneys and police) with those who don’t play fair, to the point of becoming inured to the usual warning signs. We are prone to be a little stupid or very generous and forgiving (take your pick),  unguarded both inside and outside the office. Not fully, but just at the margin. With time, if the evidence pours in on who the individual really is, we adjust our opinion as necessary, just as you do.

A small number of our clients believe in their own innocence regardless of their history of turpitude. They don’t know the truth of things and are so defended and well-rationalized that even their mirror offers a false reflection. No inward inspection is permitted. The woman in question had been in plenty of therapy, but reported no benefit.

The scary thing is, you’d find her charming, funny, and bright. She might even be generous to you until and unless you found yourself in a situation where her self-interest kicked in and revealed a self unchanged for decades. You might say she lost herself. I’d say, however, Madam X never had a self to lose, only one to disguise. A street fighting sixteen-year-old’s identity was hidden, just waiting for an excuse to emerge and mess with people.

Perhaps you are asking, do I carry continuing resentment? No, though I would not again associate with her. She is too dangerous.

As to retribution, Madam X has been punished enough. Her sentence? To live the life she is living:  a person on the outside of true companionship, capable only of sham friendship. Unlike Dorian Gray, she takes the round shape of a human wrecking ball. Wrecking balls possess no lasting friends. They languish in a junk yard of their own creation, surrounded by the things they have broken and the broken thing they made of themselves.

My knowledge of her sadness lingers. I know the heartbreak at her core and do not wish her worse. Indeed, how nice it might be to chance upon information of something better, more hopeful about Madam X than the closeted life she lives, on the outside of love, honoring only a perpetual undercover assignment of her own making. She was a beautiful child and has her moments still. A dear person is somewhere in there, if only she could find her.

The Jester (or Fool) image comes from a turn of the last century book: Bill Nye’s History of England. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

9 thoughts on “Can Therapists be Fooled? What Therapists Miss

  1. I have never commented on your blog although I’ve been reading for a while. I think you are being kind and generous in your description of her and her damage. She sounds narcissistic. You also seem to imply that there is no hope for her and she’ll continue to live her years out in this state. Is there sometimes really no way to help a person if they have built their false self so strong!? Seems tragic. Is there no way to get through?! As always, look forward to Saturday nights and your insights. Thank you for the thinkings.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Many thanks, Al. With respect to hope that this individual might change, I wouldn’t say there is none, but any person past middle-age who faces the destruction they have wrought on others must have an extraordinary amount of bravery. Most of us don’t. Part of the reason it is difficult to achieve self-awareness at that point is the fact that there is more time behind you than in front of you and you have little opportunity to redeem the past. My wife has sometimes said that the worst punishment one might visit on person would be one-minute of complete self-awareness! You may enjoy reading the following (a story in two parts) for a very different take on self-knowledge: https://drgeraldstein.wordpress.com/2012/08/31/dr-frankenstein-and-the-curse-of-self-awareness/

      Liked by 3 people

      • Wow! We long to be free, we twist, we try and sometimes things just have to be good enough. So many thoughts, so many feelings not within the scope of a response. Tragic as self awareness may be, it’s also the ticket to freedom. Kudos on a concept well done.

        Liked by 3 people

      • drgeraldstein

        Much appreciated, Al.

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  2. “Having never seen or felt the bite of the potential masked viper sitting before us, we sit disarmed. He offers us no rap sheet of past iniquity. In a certain sense we are wise innocents who intentionally obscure our own vision: an occupational risk we take on knowingly.”

    I think this can be said for the client as well, and perhaps even more ardently! He, presumably, has come for help and is truly disarmed in whatever his anguish may be that brought him to the therapist’s door.

    Degrees and diplomas are no guarantee that he has put himself in the hands of an expert. They don’t tell if the therapist graduated at the very top or very bottom of his class. They most certainly don’t tell if that counselor is capable and competent to apply his classroom knowledge to a real life situation, and they absolutely don’t tell if he will be taking this leap of faith and putting his trust in somebody who is caring, wants to help, and knows how to help, versus somebody who is just there for the lucrative stream of income.

    I believe the therapist is in a much stronger position to protect himself from the “potential masked viper sitting before him” then is the person seeking help who may also potentially be sitting across a masked viper with the capability to do a whole lot more harm to him in his wounded state than he could possible do to the therapist who is at least somewhat skilled (let’s hope) and probably more prepared than is the client for whatever mind games may be played out between them.

    A therapist may “intentionally obscure” his vision while the patient’s vision is obscured due to the ailment that brought him there in the first place. Surely that puts the patient at greater risk of injury than the doctor. Both may be “disarmed”, however, the therapist, in most instances, has the upper hand.

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    • I don’t disagree with most of what you have written. The topic of vulnerability to an incompetent or unscrupulous/predatory therapist has been much discussed in the community of patients as well as counselors. You have covered the ground well, but the point of my essay was to take a look at the question from a different angle, one much less commented upon. One other note: depending on their credentials, talent, insurance-created limits on fees, and the ability to market their abilities, some therapists actually don’t make very much money. In some urban areas there are more therapists in private-practice than are probably necessary for the number of people who can afford treatment or have good insurance coverage (and probably fewer than are needed and willing to treat those who have little means to pay for such things).

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  3. Thanks for that enlightening article, Dr. Stein. The antagonist of my novel in progress – inspired by a woman who changed the course of my life – is much like the Madam X you describe.

    You are spot on when you say: “The scary thing is, you’d find her charming, funny, and bright. She might even be generous to you until and unless you found yourself in a situation where her self-interest kicked in and revealed a self unchanged for decades.”

    It’s scary because you never see the brutal retaliation coming at you with full blast. To this day, I still struggle to understand what I had done wrong to deserve her wrath. Your article has opened a window to coming to terms with this dark period in my young adult life.

    Since my Madam X left my native land, Guyana, I’ve never had the chance of meeting her again. While I’ve never forgotten her, she may have already blotted out my existence, should she still be alive.

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  4. drgeraldstein

    As you suggest, Rosaliene, “she may have already blotted out (the memory of) my existence,” but she didn’t blot out your life, at least as I understand what you’ve written and done since that time. If a person is self-involved enough and owns a bullet-proof defense system, they hardly notice when others are done wrong at their hands. But you are here and that is a good thing in every way, including for me.

    Liked by 1 person

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