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All Talk, No Action

I was trained as a therapist to understand that there is only one rule of therapy—all talk, no action. In other words, the therapy hour can accommodate anything being said, but cannot accommodate any action beside the action of speaking. I tell my clients, “You are more than welcome to tell me how much you’d like to throw the lamp at me, but you cannot touch the lamp.”

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that our freedom as US citizens is constructed in much the same way. We are allowed to speak freely but not act freely. This has been especially on my mind since the Charlottesville rallies, where the crucial boundary between talking and doing was crossed. The rallies also demonstrated that no matter how ugly a person’s opinion, an action based on that opinion has the potential to be far uglier.

My training has also taught me that when people are attacked, they naturally defend. “Join the resistance” is what I am constantly reminding myself in the therapy hour. For example, if someone is constantly late, I must find a way to join, or validate, their resistance to showing up on time, instead of the more common reaction of resisting it—“You cannot come late to therapy anymore.” These types of ultimatums lead to one of two things: an even greater resistance (“OK, I won’t show up at all, then”) or a sour compliance (“Fine, I’ll start to show up on time, but you can’t make me talk”).

What does this psychology rely upon? The understanding that both speaking and doing help accommodate our emotional demands. In my experience, I have found that the act of giving someone room to freely express their opinions decreases their need to ever act on those opinions. But when the environment does not allow certain things to be expressed, these things go underground until they can rise again in the form of action.

As a final point, I do not want to under-emphasize the role of action in our lives, or suggest that after we talk about something, we never do it. What I am saying is that our actions are clear-sighted to the extent that they are not reactions to being stifled. When people act because they cannot say, that action is a reaction to the experience of being dismissed, subdued, or in some way invalidated. If the mantra for the therapy hour is “all talk, no action,” then perhaps what therapy offers is the chance to live a life of “action, not reaction.”

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