Is Your Therapist Responsible for Making You a ‘Better’ Person?
Someone I knew used to complain about how people in their life treated them constantly. Initially, I felt terrible for them. But when I realized how overbearing their behavior was becoming towards me, I, too, was forced to distance myself from them. I tried establishing boundaries but couldn’t get through to them. My mind automatically jumped to, “My God, they need therapy.”
“Go get therapy” is a phrase people love to use as an insult. The usage has, of course, been criticized widely for stigmatizing therapy more than it already is by making it sound like a punishment. Some experts believe that, as an insult, the statement can be counterproductive — discouraging people from pursuing therapy by creating a negative connection. Well, fortunately, I hadn’t announced my thought out loud.
Moreover, I soon remembered that my ex-acquaintance had been in therapy for years — maybe, even decades. And, to be honest, they aren’t the only person I know whose behavioral patterns didn’t improve with therapy. I’ve been in therapy since the age of 15. Yet, when I was around 25, I began recognizing several recurring, troubling patterns in my behavior that hadn’t been addressed in so many years of therapy.
When a person tells someone to “go see a therapist,” perhaps they hope therapy would make someone more personable. But is that what therapy intends to do at all?
Itisha Nagar, an assistant professor of psychology at the Delhi University, explains that, for starters, a therapist’s job is not to transform their clients into a socially constructed standard of what an ideal human being should be. Instead, their job is to “nudge” and “guide” the clients towards who they envision themselves to be. “Therapy isn’t about “fixing” someone as if they had a viral infection.”
“A therapist’s job is not to change the personality of a person and make them a ‘better person.’ [Their] job is to help them navigate life smoothly,” says Mala Chadha, a therapist from Mumbai.
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Moreover, “what is even a ‘better’ person?” Nagar notes. There’s no one-size-fits-all ideal for human behavior. She points out that we often consider people performing socially sanctioned behavior, such as working nine-to-five jobs, getting married, and raising kids, aspirational. In India, people often expect counselors, especially in schools, to deliver a “moral science lecture” to make an individual perform socially sanctioned behaviors. But a therapist’s role is not to hold them to arbitrary standards and try to change them.
Shaneel Mukerji, a special educator and therapist from Kolkata, says. “A lot of people come into therapy thinking that ‘I’m going to tell somebody what my concerns are, and they’ll let me know what I should do. That’s an unrealistic, inaccurate expectation.
A therapist’s “role” might also depend on the therapeutic model they choose to apply, with some being more didactic than others, says Mukerji, who is a practiotioner of narrative therapy, one of the many different forms of psychotherapy. She says that the approach is about acknowledging and trusting the clients’ know-hows and lived experiences and giving them the agency to define what a “better world” means while going on a journey with them as they make their way there.
In addition, a client may not necessarily come into therapy to have their worldviews challenged. To them, that’s their reality, Samriti Makkar Midha, a Mumbai-based psychotherapist, explains. Often, it’s about conflicts in interpersonal relationships. For instance, a need to be more assertive in a romantic relationship, trouble dealing with co-workers or superiors at workplaces, or even difficulty navigating with the pace of one’s career. Whatever the reason, a therapist’s job is to actively listen and make visible one’s innate value systems that, according to the therapist, can support them in achieving their objectives. Midha believes it is vital to address harmful aspects of her client’s ideas, but only when it’s apparent as an obstacle to their stated goal or well-being of theirs or others.
Chadha, too, believes in addressing harmful ideas to prevent the client from falling into a trap, where the same concepts hold them back time and again. “If the delusions are intact, then there will always be something that is stopping them from navigating their lives smoothly. It is like pushing things under a carpet. It is still lurking around and will come up in some other form at another time in conjunction with some other issue,” she says.
However, it’s not as simple as just pointing out to people that they’re wrong about something. Even if a therapist can identify unhelpful ideas, belief systems, or behaviors of a client, they often discretion when and how to present it to the client — depending on the client’s readiness to deal with it. The therapist will point out to the client why holding on to them is “unhelpful, irrational, and coming in the way of their goal,” Midha explains. If they’re willing to work on it, their therapist can guide them through the process of overcoming the behavior. If not, their therapist’s hands are tied.
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Mukerji and Midha, too, stress on having individuals retain their agency in therapy. A therapist can also leverage a client’s goal “this is what you want, and this is one of the reasons you’re struggling to attain that goal,” Midha points out.
For instance, if an individual approaches a therapist saying they’re struggling with excess workload, the therapist tries to find out why. Suppose they discover the reason their client is overburdening themselves is that they’re never able to say ‘no’ to work due to people-pleasing tendencies. The therapist can point out that unless they’re willing to be okay with not making everyone around them happy all the time, they will continue to be stretched thin at work and deal with the stress that accompanies it. That’s where the client’s self-awareness comes into the picture.
Midha points to helping her clients evolve a greater awareness of their situation through a line of questioning. Mental health professionals often employ “Socratic questioning,” derived from Socrates, the Greek philosopher, teaching his students. Essentially, it helps therapists unravel deeply held values and beliefs in their clients by getting them to gradually open up about it, rather than simply dumping their interpretations upon them. However, if a client refuses to acknowledge it, sometimes the therapist needs to inform them that it’s time to take a break and, perhaps, reflect on what they learned.
However, if a client isn’t ready to acknowledge it, sometimes the therapist needs to negotiate and understand what could be coming in the way. If a therapist thinks the client can’t work through it at the moment, they may suggest taking a break to the client — allowing them to reflect on what they discussed during the sessions so that they can resume therapy when they feel ready to work on those concerns.
She also notes here that how many of a client’s deeply-held beliefs that clash with their goals for emotional health can be addressed in therapy depends on two things: first, how long they choose to be in therapy for; second, which are the goals, they’re choosing to meet through therapy. And the duration of therapy often depends on what the clients expect out of it. “Some people come to therapy with a specific issue or concern, and brief solution-focused therapy may be the right fit… Some people come to therapy to explore issues that seem to run a little deeper. They might engage in therapy for several months or even years,” Erica Myers, a counselor in the U.S., explained.
Moreover, the recommended number of sessions can vary based on the condition one is dealing with and the psychotherapeutic approach their mental health professional is pursuing.
After learning the perspectives of different experts in the field, Chadha’s words resonate loud and clear: “[A therapist’s] job is to empower [their clients] to cope with what life throws at them now and then.” The key to that? Agency and lots of healthy negotiation.