Power grabs by therapists

We counselors and therapists have ways of asserting our power over our clients. Usually, we do it via subtle messages and phrases. I was reminded of this fact last week during a seminar by Paul Wachtel of CUNY. He told of a case he had of a semi paranoid and hostile client who made many complaints. After one such complaint against him, Wachtel responded with,

Isn’t it interesting that you see me as being just the way your father was

These type of insights offer pseudo-neutral “observations” that are really accusatory and given to show our intellect (but draws them away from their affective state). Further, when we are irritated and make a statement like this we are really saying that my frustration isn’t about me but is about you. I’m objective here, you are not.

When we give insights to clients we need to ask whether or not the client already understands them, will feel that we are working WITH them (not talking at them), and be motivated to do more exploration. As Wachtel stated, insights are often “implicitly adversarial” (never about us either!).

These kinds of linguistic power grabs aren’t just done by analytic oriented therapists (who might be inclined to make distant insights into clients’ unconscious). Cognitive therapists do the same by implicitly and explicitly telling clients that they are irrational and if only they could think like we therapists, they would be so much better.

Let’s not forget that the words we use with clients tell something about ourselves–maybe more than we wish they would.


Filed under christian counseling, christian psychology, Communication, counseling, counseling skills, Psychology

13 responses to “Power grabs by therapists

  1. Thank you so much, as a counselor, for seeing and pointing this out. As a counselee, it is a catch-22, because once a pronouncement like that has been made, it is almost impossible to get out of it. Any protest or disagreement is absorbed as denial and therefore proof of what has already been “insightfully” decided.

  2. There are certain words that get my attention.
    “Power” is one of them. Colossians 3:17 provides Christians (including counselors) with both a mandate and metatheory for life and ministry: “Do everything in Jesus’ name.” An exegetical study of this phrase indicates that Christians (including therapists) should do everything (including relate to others in a counseling setting) with Jesus’ character and truth in His power and authority for His reputation and purposes. Power-grabs in people-helping represent neglect of the balancing aspects of Jesus’ character, reputation, and purposes, and are often accompanied by the misuse of authority and truth as well. I have been guilty of such myself.

    I find this slight phrase from Colossians 3:17 to offer a potent vision and comprehensive ethic for both life and ministry. Every deficiency in Christianity (including counseling theory and practice) can be traced back to ignorance of or disobedience to this simple but profound Pauline instruction.

  3. Amy

    Being a trained counselor and being a counselee is an interesting situation for me. Sometimes I am tempted to mess with my counselor because I know what she’s trying to do, but now that I’ve been with her for over two years, that urge has subsided and I’m doing well…better anyway. The fact I feel comfortable doesn’t really make a power play necessary because I just come in as I am–honest, raw, and open. I’m sure that helps the situation. However, in dealing with others (smarmy college kids), sometimes I have to point something out, not to be clever, but to get then to see the truth of a situation. I try to never to this in a way to maim the other person or cause harm, but sometimes what needs to be said does hurt. And usually I find I have to use this approach with males and that it works very well with them. I don’t sit there and think, “Now I’m going to make a power grab…” It just is part of the natural flow of things. Truly, I try to be aware of every word I use when wearing my counselor hat.

  4. Scott Knapp, MS

    I suppose it would be a highly risky move to use the words of Jesus in a counseling session: “You unbelieving and perverted (counselee)…how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you?”

  5. 🙂 , Scott. To be honest, I would have preferred that kind of honesty in counseling as opposed to the “pseudo-neutral “observations” that are really accusatory” as Phil talks about above.

  6. “Cognitive therapists do the same by implicitly and explicitly telling clients that they are irrational and if only they could think like we therapists, they would be so much better.”

    Ouch. Actually I give them a handout and (implicitly) tell them that if they have a problem with it blame Dr. Burns or Beck, they’re the experts who I got the list of distortions from 🙂

    I was just thinking about directive vs. non-directive on the drive in. I’m non-directive in style
    but absolutely directive underneath. I thought of teaching fundamentals and principles to someone wanting to learn basketball. Being too directive would be forcing the goal of making the Olympics on a kid. On the other hand, if they want to enjoy the sport and play the game there are core skills that a good coach will focus on.

    Starting with “Isn’t it interesting…” is never a good idea. “No, it isn’t! you bastid!” I try not to create “Gotcha!” moments in counseling, the whole convinced against they’re will vibe doesn’t fit me. That response, besides being ill-timed was un-empathetic and a closed yes/no reflection. I much prefer to get to the underlying emotions and thoughts behind complaints; reacting non-defensively is something I’m trying to coach my clients to do.

    What are other ways we might grab for power verbally? I wonder what mine are? I try to make space for my clients to make those a-ha! observations and interpretations on their own.

  7. Scott Knapp, MS

    I could use an “Isn’t it interesting that….” only with a counselee that I have incredibly good rapport with. I work with adolescents in residential treatment, and form some incredible bonds with the boys especially. After awhile, you get a sense when you can use sarcasm or press a little harder than usual, in order to disrupt something that hasn’t “cracked” by using tact and soft delivery of non-directive probing. I take those kinds of risks only with kids I’ve paid my dues with, and truthfully, the boys I counsel generally respond well to this approach because they enjoy a level of intimacy and trust with me that can tolerate this approach from time to time.

  8. Scott, that is very cool. You have their best interests in mind and they get that.
    I shouldn’t have said it’s “never a good idea”.
    One thing I like about working with teens is I can say “Dude!” a lot more.

  9. Scott Knapp, MS

    “Dude!” Yeah, that’s a classic…and what cracks me up is that kids think that THEY came up with those words all on their own, like it’s their original vernacular! They don’t grasp that they’ve been given a lingual legacy from the generation that still says “groovy!” “righteous!” “no way? way!” and other little gems! (sigh)

  10. Pk

    Wonderful timing in reading this. Confirmation I need to fire my psychiatrist. Although still not sure of how I’m going to. I should have fired her after the second session when I mentioned my writing and she said “Now, we want to be careful to not get grandiose ideas about our writing”
    (um, it’s MY writing, and when you get published in Focus on the Family several times, and have a publisher buy one of your books let me know and we can talk about ‘our’ writings’) So, the next session I showed her my book. She said “oh, how cute, you have a little book you can give your friends.”
    I was STUNNED. I never did tell her it’s not self published, but a regular, old fashioned royalty publisher and you have to buy it at Barnes and Noble and I don’t give it to anyone but my mom.

    My appointment with her last week, she said that I wasn’t intelligent enough to go back to school. (yes, she said that) and that my lack of intelligence was the reason I had PTSD. (oh, gee, I thought it was finding my step father after his suicide at age 14 and then not talking about it for 30 years). Then she went onto explain to me that people with PTSD have a less than normal intelligence and that’s why they can’t deal with every day normal stresses that they see as traumas.

    Um, ok … I’m thinking I’m not the one with ideas of grandiosity here.

    Thankfully, I AM intelligent enough, and have enough self esteem to realize that she’s got her ego out of place … and that I AM going back to school and I either no longer need a psychiatrist or … I certainly don’t need her.

    Just not sure if I’m going to tell her in person or in a letter. Part of me so wants to go back to her with all my published articles (which are too many to carry) and my book contract … and talk to her in the tone of voice she uses with me … but I’m not sure I’m that childish.

    By the time I’ve slept on it, I’ll probably just write a letter saying … you’re not for me. Goodbye.

  11. PK, always good to sleep on a letter but it sounds like it is waaay past due. What would be the danger/losses of telling her to her face? What would be the danger/losses of doing it in a letter? Both have their benefits/drawbacks.

    But whichever you choose, recognize that a condescending person isn’t likely to “see the light” just because the person they see beneath them tells them so.

    You go!

  12. This is such an interesting conversation.

    In the past, I had what I now consider to be a terrible counselor. Terrible. She talked about herself constantly, except for when she was telling me how I should feel about my life and what I should do about those feelings.


    I’m currently in therapy with a christian psychologist, and it’s a completely different experience.

    Like, night and day different.

    And while he occasionally makes observations based on what I’ve said, the real power lies in hearing myself tell my own story. Having someone truly present in these moments, with no hidden agenda, is incredible.

  13. Scott Knapp, MS

    PK….and I was silly enough to believe that those kind of psychiatrists were only the parodies of professionals you saw in B movies! I’ve worked with several very compassionate and “with it” psychiatrists who happened to not be Christians, but I’m confident they’d be totally appalled to read your account! Yowsa!

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