Knowing I’m a therapist, a friend emailed me Sunday’s New York Times article, What the Therapist Thinks About You. Immediately, I thought, “Finally.”
Then, I thought, this is like one of those tabloid titles on the cover of a Glamour magazine, one that I’d lean over my grocery cart in the checkout line to urgently flip through before the cashier asks me for my bonus card. It’s like “What your boyfriend really thinks of you ~ and what you can do about it.” It’s got this attention-grabbing quality, because it’s tapping into unmet needs.
Written by Jan Hoffman, the New York Times article tells how 700 patients of a hospital’s group therapy get to read their therapists’ notes about them on their computers or smartphones. This is rarely done, and so Hoffman aptly calls this novel and experimental.
It’s the year 2014. Why is knowing what a therapist thinks still so rare as to be as compelling as…um, well…say, a soon-to-be-ex boyfriend who just won’t open up to you, though Glamour magazine assures you he could?
Hoffman helps us keep in mind the pros and cons of seeing a therapist’s notes. For instance, there’s patient confidentiality laws and maybe difficulties for people with neuro-challenges like schizophrenia. Readers further comment online about professional boundaries, about who’s the expert, about notes being great followup tools, and so on.
But, there’s more going on here, and it’s not about the therapist’s notes. It’s about why patients want to read the notes in the first place.
Psychotherapists are being passed over for personal trainers, yoga instructors, life coaches, Facebook “likes”, Instagram pics, and one’s local barista. This is because people don’t like a one-handed clap. Yet, traditional psychotherapy is stuck in its silent, withholding stance.
A more suitable tabloid headline could read, “The Real Top Three Reasons Your Therapist Isn’t Opening Up With You. An Insider Reveals All.”
One, a withholding stance fakes a non-judgmental position. Yes, I said fakes. No person’s mind is unbiased. People know this. So, for contemporary psychotherapists like myself, we would rather not dumb-down clients’ sessions with too much silent nodding. Instead, thoughtful candor gives clients the chance to feel alive and engaged.
Two, the withholding stance was once seen as surgical and untainted. Thank, Freud. It was to deliberately frustrate the patient in order to bring out the patient’s earliest unmet desires. It’s still used to create psychoanalytic transference, which means the patient transfers their perceptions onto the analyst. We live in a more modern world now. We’ve neuroscience and Oprah’fied frankness. Neuroscience shows that the traditional withholding stance may not be the most profound nor most healing route to a person’s better self-understanding. An informed, genuine relatedness lights up brainwaves more and a cascade of physical-psychological healing.
Finally, confessed by therapists, the withholding say-too-little stance is the therapist’s own personal defense mechanism. The therapist can brush off their own anxiety of being exposed ~ of begin seen as they really are, not as they wish. It even gives some therapists the security of having the power in the room. Others, the elation of being idealized. And, still for others, withholding means they can’t be challenged. But, if the therapist can’t dare to be vulnerable, how can the client?
So, if you want to know what your therapist thinks of you and, key here, you can’t seem to get your therapist to open up, then ask them how come. If you get a dodged reply, you may want to seek out someone who’s not into the silent “You do the talking, and I’ll decide about you” position. This will satisfy you more than any written notes can.
After all, it’s not really about seeing the therapist’s notes so you can find out what your therapist is really thinking. It’s about feeling understood. It’s about experiencing mutuality. Quoting Hoffman’s article: “The hope is that transparency will improve therapeutic trust and communication.”