I fully believe that a psychotherapist can only be as good as their client. I have seen many people experience wonderful growth while they see me and it ultimately came down to them putting in the work. No matter what I do, what really matters is the work they’re willing to put into their own development. The best reminder that it’s not me is evidenced by the people I see, even for a couple months with weekly visits, who remain stagnant. Since I’ve been doing this for quite a few years now, within the first fifteen minutes when I meet a client I can pretty much guess who is likely going to see some great changes and who’s likely staying stuck. I can be wrong, but I’m pretty good at separating the two camps. The real challenge is when looking at someone I assume is in the first camp, the potential growers. These people further breakdown into two categories: who will actually grow versus who will be too distracted and/or stuck on being hard on themselves to change. This is what I can’t distinguish. Separating the two main groups, potential growers and those who are stuck, however, is pretty easy to figure out because it breaks down into what I’ve mentioned in previous posts about the two main reasons for depression: People who are too hard on themselves and have burnt out versus those who like to wallow and play the victim while blaming others for their problems. It makes me shake my head when I meet people who just want to solely blame the spouse for their marital problems because the truth is either they’ve added to the situation – both partners’ fault – or they were crazy for marrying their spouse in the first place – completely their own fault (I’ve met a few cases where this was the conclusion with good reason). In either situation, it’s not completely the other person’s fault. Wallowers, however, want me to change the partner while affirming that they are the victim, but that’s not logically possible. What this ultimately means is sometimes therapy doesn’t have a chance because the client sucks. There are times, however, when the therapist sucks. Last week I had one of the worst sessions I’ve ever had, but that’s not what I mean. All therapists will have a bad session, but I mean some therapists overall suck or they’re decent, but they’re going to waste time as it gives them more money. I’ll explain this a little later.
First, let me state the bottom line (without it being the bottom line): People need to act better to feel better. That’s it. If you want to feel better, if you want to find happiness, if you want your life to have meaning, you need to do something different and that begins with better actions. There’s a reason the cliché is “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” A variation of this I recently read was “Hell is full of good intentions, but heaven is full of good works.” How we act is crucial for how we feel and how others see us and treat us. After all, wanting to exercise doesn’t burn calories – only exercising does. A major problem is a lot of people love to over think, but a lot of life needs to be less thinking and more doing. When has over thinking ever helped someone be happy? From my experience, it only leads to more guilt and regret. We need to cut back on the thinking and start acting in positive ways with proper patience and kindness as in not too much or too little, just right, which is why I call it the Goldilocks goal.
It’s from this definition that I can explain the main reason why therapists are bad: The therapists themselves don’t know how to “act better.” A lot of therapists get into the position because they want to help others as a way to feel good and/or hide from their own brokenness. When I started as a therapist, I was working through my own brokenness, which meant I had potential to go healthy or give up and hide from my own brokenness. The biggest problem I faced was where do you learn to be healthy? School taught me nothing and many leaders I’ve known like teachers and pastors were very unhealthy whether they were very guarded, blind to their own issues, or extreme people pleasers. I’ve also never found a book that teaches the basic steps to be healthy. When clients ask me for things to read, I recommend my blog. I don’t do this because I’m arrogant, but because it’s real, it’s free, it’s to the point, and I frankly, haven’t found a great source for how to be healthy outside of what I’ve gleaned from various sources and learning through my own life experience. I may not be smart like a doctor and my memory is impressively terrible (I’m self aware), but it’s really good at seeing patterns, flushing out bad ideas (the therapy world is full of them) and finding simple solutions. For instance, for those who are interested, at the end of this post I’ve attached a list of qualities that make someone a bad therapist.
My biggest pet peeve with therapists is when they only care about trying to figure out why people do what they do – who cares? Our job is to help clients live better. When you see a personal trainer they don’t ask, “Why do you think you eat like crap and don’t exercise enough?” At some point that might be an interesting conversation, but their job is to say, “Stop eating like crap and exercise. Let me show you how I work at doing both those things.” As a therapist my goal should be: “Stop treating yourself and/or others like crap and start being emotionally healthy. Let me show you how I work at doing both those things.” When you go to the gym you want a personal trainer who is fit and inspires you to want to be more like them. As a therapist, it should be similar. I need to act better to feel better. If I can’t teach by example, I need to fix that. I don’t want to end up living the cliché: “Do as I say and not as I do.”
Here’s my challenge as we start 2021: Make a list of 3 simple things you can do to act better to feel better. For instance, you can read my weekly posts, go for walks in nature once a week, jog twice a week, set a day in the week to have sex with your spouse, message a friend once a day to say “I was thinking of you,” watch a documentary once a month, call a family member once every two weeks to say “Hi,” challenge yourself with learning a new skill, work on a big project that you will finish this year, work on a little projects you finish once a month, eat one cookie instead of two for dessert, push yourself to talk to one new person whenever you’re out, try to make new friends, cut back on social media time, make monthly goals, etc. You may have noticed a lot the ideas include timelines because people do better when there is a due date. If you tell a class of kids hand in the assignment whenever you want, no one’s doing the assignment except the weird kid who likes doing homework.
My three goals for 2021: Learn to ride a unicycle, take a week off in the summer (this year I only took off a week at Christmas, which isn’t healthy), and help my friend write her biography.
You have the power to make this a better year – so do it.
Rev. Chad David, ChadDavid.ca, learning to love dumb people (like me)
Bonus: The Five Therapists to Avoid
- The Judge: These therapists love to tell you what to do like a parent or judge. They want to be the final say of what’s right and be able to dispense “wisdom” like a broken Pez dispenser. To graduate school, I had to do so many therapy hours myself and the one I saw once was brutal for this. After telling her my situation she told me I needed to break up with my girlfriend… that girlfriend is now my wife. Therapists aren’t actually allowed to tell you what to do unless there’s a threat to children. They need to be guides and not act like the Godfather.
- The Model Obsessed: Some therapists are obsessed with modalities like CBT, DBT, EFT, etc. All of these models have good ideas, but they should be guides and not held as the be all and end all answer. Therapists ultimately need to find what suits their style and personality rather than follow the exact formula created by someone else with the main goal of helping people know how to be emotionally healthy.
- The Childhood Obsessed: Some therapists obsess over what happened in your childhood to make you who you are. These kinds of exploratory methods can be interesting, but they should be done after clients know what it means to be healthy. For instance, knowing why you’re a people pleaser doesn’t stop you from being a people pleaser. You need to know what it means to be healthy and work towards following what that means.
- The Fad Obsessed: Some therapists are obsessed with the next “great” modality. It’s good that they like to learn, but they likely have no idea what being healthy is because they’re distracted by shiny new ideas. Keep it simple!
- The Listener: Some therapists are great at letting you talk and maybe they ask some good questions… but that only goes so far. If you can’t teach and role model how to be healthy, you’re relying on clients to learn what they need from hearing themselves talk. This has its benefits, but it’s only going to be so helpful. For instance, I knew a therapist who cheated on his wife, which ended his marriage and several years later he cheated on his mistress turned girlfriend with another woman.