The Question That Divides
It is important for therapists to conceptualize themselves as part of the self-help industry, if only because clients will come to them with that assumption. My clients come to me in the same way they go to the gym, read self-help books, or attend religious ceremonies. They are looking for support, answers, and happiness—or at the very least, relief from loneliness, doubt, and unhappiness.
To my mind, however, therapists must also understand that they offer a fundamentally different approach than these other sources of help: therapists do not provide their own version of reality to clients. Or at least they shouldn’t. The only version of reality that the therapist should insist on is how therapy is conducted; otherwise, therapists should be more interested in the client’s reality than their own, because that is the reality the client will always carry around.
Other forms of help have the basic attitude of this is what life is and this is how my perspective/program/technique is going to help you. In my opinion, the legitimacy of something like a self-help program is compromised by its insistence that the same thing—whatever it is—will work for everyone. Therapy does not insist on one worldview because it understands that a new approach is needed for each client. While basic structures exist as a matter of logistical necessity (i.e., the therapist must insist on a session duration, otherwise things would get chaotic), much is flexible. The therapy is always being updated based on what the client needs.
So, the basic question is whether you are going to bring your reality to the client or the client is going to bring their reality to you. Whoever is bringing the reality is doing most of the explaining, conducting, exploring. To me, it seems disingenuous to tell people what life is or how to live it. I’m okay with my dentist being the expert on my teeth, my accountant being an expert on my taxes, and my mechanic being an expert on my car, but I’m not okay with anyone being an expert on my past and future, my potential, my opinions, the nature of my relationships, or anything else that comprises my subjective experience. The therapist is only an expert on the way those things are explored and eventually resolved.
Of course, it is impossible for me not to bring a certain degree of my own reality to the room—hidden even in the questions I ask—but the most important thing is the overall attitude. Am I going to allow the client to be an expert in his or her own reality, or am I—“the professional”—going to take that over?