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.


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.