The One Thing a Therapist Should Never Say to a Client By Howard Rosenthal, EdD on 9/20/18 - 5:19 PM

As a graduate student I was given the old stand-by assignment: seek out an accomplished therapist and interview him or her. Since my overwhelming desire in life was to become a private practice therapist myself, I didn't envision this as just an assignment, but rather an exciting adventure. I was going to put my whole heart and soul into it.

Since I wanted to pick a person of note, I spoke to a cadre of folks in the field, including my esteemed professors, and decided on a therapist I’ll call Mindy. She seemed to be a real therapist's therapist. A large private practice? You bet. A superb reputation? Affirmative. A mental health conference presenter? Check. She even ran workshops around the globe in remote countries I had never heard of. This was going to be great.

Mindy’s administrative assistant was kind enough to set me up with the necessary appointment and it was off to the races. Her office was in the high-rent district in a city about 130 miles away from my hometown in St. Louis, but I knew the long drive was well worth it. As the elevator to her office sped from floor to floor, I glanced in the mirror to check my hair a couple times. Okay, maybe it was more like a dozen or more times, but keep in mind I wanted to come off as a serious future professional. Maybe we would be working together in the same practice one day. Yes indeed, I had high hopes.

Mindy was dressed in a muumuu that made her look like she might be playing a part opposite Elvis the classic Blue Hawaii.

I had imagined I might see a couch or a rosewood desk with spit-shined brass handles, but that was hardly the case. She motioned for me to have a seat while she sat down in an antique rocking chair.
We were separated by an unusually large sheet of paper like one might use in a lecture for a flip chart. But the paper was on the floor. Hmm, what was that about?

Before I could get my first question in which was something like "Did you know you wanted to become a therapist as a child?", she began firing questions at me.

I was way too timid at the time to ask this exalted expert what in the world was going on here, so I answered perhaps five or six questions. As I spoke, she would lean forward in her rocker and scribble something on the massive sheet of paper on the floor using a King Kong- sized marker.

Wait a moment. We weren't here to therapize me, or were we?

After just minutes, I tried to talk and she said, "Howard stop. I know exactly what your problem is."
Wait, I didn't know we were talking about my problems.

"I know you came here to interview me for your graduate class, but we need to deal with some much more important issues. You are just like me. You have severe anger problems and you are a quitter. Yes, a quitter. I am sorry to say you will never finish your master's degree. I'm going to set you up for a few sessions of individual as well as group psychotherapy. You still won't ever get your master's degree, but I can help you in other ways."

Had this merely been a bad dream we could have analyzed it, but it wasn't. I hadn't recalled saying anything even remotely related to anger and certainly nothing about giving up on graduate school. For gosh sakes, it was the number one thing in my life at the time.

Now fast forward to the present. I did an internet search and low and behold I discovered that Mindy never finished her degree. But wait. It gets even more interesting. Since she was attending a doctorate in psychology program where the master's was not conferred until you completed the doctorate, to this day she still possesses just a bachelor's degree in psychology. She was only allowed to practice back in the day when I saw here because licensing had not yet been enacted in our state.

So, what's the take home message? Well, I believe the behaviorist, hypnosis expert, and assertiveness training pioneer Andrew Salter (a famous therapist himself with just a bachelor's degree) nailed it when he gave the best definition I have ever heard of reaction formation: "You think you are looking out a window, but you are really looking in a mirror."

The worst thing a therapist can do? Well it is as simple as looking in a mirror while convincing yourself you are gazing out the window and making a pernicious statement about why the person sitting in front of the desk, or rocker will never be able to do something.

Oh, and by the way, Mindy, if you happen to be reading this blog and decide to email me to express your anger or discontent, just for the record, it's Dr. Rosenthal now.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, A Day in the Life of a Therapist, Musings and Reflections