Shoot, you got me

I travel in pretty geeky circles–renfaire, science fiction conventions, that kind of thing.  Over my life I’ve seen geekdom really blossoming from a weird niche interest into something more socially recognized and accepted, so it carries less of a stigma than I think it used to.  However, it’s still very much full of people who grew up feeling different and weird and rejected by the communities they grew up in.  (*raises hand*)

Some of the people I find it hardest to get along with are people who reacted to those early experiences by becoming defensive, angry, and a little bit paranoid that the world is fundamentally stacked against them. Which, okay, I understand!  It usually comes from a super valid place.  But what I have trouble with is when this is the universal attitude someone goes through the world with.  Everything is an attack, and it’s specifically targeted at them.  Unfair bosses, unkind lovers, uncooperative trains, hot coffee, cold butter pats–you name it.  And nobody, nobody has it worse than them, ever.

No, that’s not what I have a problem with.  It’s what living that way does to a person’s relationships.  If you view the entire world as a hostile and threatening place, it becomes impossible to trust that some people might have genuinely good intentions and the capability to carry them out.  If being the noblest victim who ever was victimized is core to who you are, you lose the ability to be empathetic or compassionate to other people who are struggling (unless they are exactly like you somehow).  There’s no space for gentleness or authentic sharing of self.  Everything becomes so harsh and instantly judged.

(Then there is also the fact that when you perceive yourself as helpless, you lose touch with your ability to wield power over other people.  Not that you lose the power–though depending on the circumstance you may or may not get any; you just lose your awareness of when you have it or how you’re using it, and you’ve abdicated responsibility for decisions regarding it.  This can make people who think of themselves as powerless infinitely more dangerous than those who accept what power they do or don’t have at the moment.)

Anyway, this came to mind when I was reminded of one of the reactions I’m least fond of, when I tell people what I do.  (If you meet a therapist socially, and you think that you are being witty and unique by joking “I should be your client!” or “You should write an article about me!”–you really, really aren’t.)  And that is the wary, defensive people who say, “I went to a therapist once, but I figured out everything she wanted, so I outwitted her and never went back.”

Trying to outwit your therapist is like putting on a raincoat before you get in the shower, and then bragging that you didn’t get wet.  It’s essentially missing the point.  The point of therapy is to have a person who is, for the time you are together, entirely dedicated to hearing what you have to say and helping you with your problems.  The therapist’s conclusions or observations are ultimately irrelevant compared to what that process is like for you. It’s those actual butt-in-chair hours talking and trying to let someone else understand you that heal.  There are often clients whose problems I can call ahead of time from one session in, but it would be absolutely no help at all if I just dumped the cerebral knowledge, “You’re never going to be as good at your work as you want to be, because it’s really a substitute for feeling like a worthy person; eventually you have to embrace that and start getting angry at your parents for neglecting you all your life” on them.  It would be the opposite of helpful.  They need to process it a little bit at a time, doing most of the work themselves.

So if you’re going to walk in and be entirely closed to that process of forming a bond of trust based on empathy and understanding, uh, congratulations; you have sabotaged your own therapy.  What, you realized we therapists want to talk to you about difficult emotions and vulnerable areas and this process might be hard for you?  OH NOES OUR SECRETS HAVE BEEN REVEALED.  (Except therapy works even if you know how it works, because life’s a bitch that way.)

I do my best, with these little chitchat exchanges, not to let a smart remark fly out of my mouth.  Oh, you outwitted your therapist?  “I’m sorry you didn’t have a good experience,” I say politely, and go check out the vendor booths.  Not to mention, when I get drawn into debates about psychology and sociology with this kind of nerd, I tend to pull a Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan and not quite realize that I’ve just emotionally gutted my conversational partner until we both become aware of a pool of blood spreading on the floor.  (I self-sequester from Nice Guys™ these days.)

I still haven’t found a right imaginary occupation–you know, when you lie and say that you’re an accountant just to stop having the super awkward conversations about your job.  (Do accountants have these? Must ask.)

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10 thoughts on “Shoot, you got me

  1. Mmm. I have more sympathy for this type of person than you do, because I was one, and because my experience of actual professional therapists includes people who actually did treat the process as “AHAH! I have tricked you into revealing a deep darkness you weren’t aware of and will now confront you with it!” It’s common enough that it’s part of the mainstream image of therapists, and it isn’t uncommon for shades of the things that make up that attitude, if not the full attitude itself, to show up in practice.

    When the entire thing is framed as an attack, and especially when the *skills* of the therapist are framed as weapons, it’s really not surprising that some people immediately react to the entire thing as a fight to be won or lost.

    1. I have to say, the thing I find most interesting about “I figured out everything she wanted” is that it implies “The therapist had, it was evident to me, an agenda, which was not my agenda, so I defeated that agenda.”

      This raises all sorts of questions for me, like, Why wasn’t this client and this therapist on the same page about the treatment agenda? Had the therapist done their job about figuring out the agenda with the client? I mean, it’s the therapist’s job to establish the rapport and find out what the client wants of therapy, or even just out of life, and come up with a way to work on that. Did this therapist fail to do that? Did the therapist and client come up with a treatment plan or goal, but then one or the other turned out to be negotiating in bad faith, and had a secret agenda?

      If one of my clients were to indicate to me that they felt I had some covert agenda for them that they were not down with, I would consider that a truly epic fuck up on my part. Which is not to say that my clients and I always agree on what the agenda should be — I’m particularly thinking of a client who I feel should really, really, really stop smoking marijuana, and who is really, really, really adamant about continuing to smoke marijuana — but we actually just, you know, have arguments about it. Respectful arguments, where we explain why we think and feel the way we do to each other. And then I respect her point of view, because autonomy, damn it.

      Basically, someone who says “I figured out everything she wanted” is saying “the therapist and I were fighting over the agenda for my treatment”. It makes me want to know who fired the first shot, and how it came to that. Maybe the client is projecting a covert agenda onto the therapist that wasn’t there. Maybe the therapist had a covert agenda. Maybe the client didn’t feel they could fully/really participate in the agenda-setting discussion, for some reason — people who cannot say no, their yeses don’t mean very much.

      So I guess what I’m saying is that I have a lot of sympathy for the person who says such a thing, because from my perspective as a pro, something went deeply wrong with the therapy they got previously, and the therapist they were working with didn’t manage to handle it or possibly even realize that there was a problem.

      1. I have encountered (sometimes casually, once or twice in more formal situations) > 5 therapists/psychological professionals who go into more or less every client relationship already quite sure that they know what’s best. That there is an “optimal person” that everyone should be striving to become, and that part of their job is to help the client out of their blinkered, emotionally reactive state to see that this Optimal State is in fact optimal.

        Generally that Optimal State is extroverted, people oriented, neurotypical (or at least neurotypical acting) etc, etc, etc.

        So in some cases, the client isn’t part of the agenda-setting because, in fact, the psych Knows Better and is there to show them the light. And my experiences are actually filtered towards the good psychological professionals, for one reason or another; I have absolutely no doubt that many other people develop an even worse sense of things (and, indeed, if they never meet a real-life psychological professional, the image projected in popular culture matches this one much more than any idea that the client gets to actually have their own agenda for their treatment), and if they’re anything like me, that means that it is absolutely natural to view the entire thing as antagonistic.

  2. I wonder if people with that experience of therapists as opponents to be thwarted are seeking therapy for themselves, because they have got to the point where anything is better than been in their own head all the time. Or if they perceive themselves as forced or pushed to attend therapy, whether due to some requirement for work or from entirely well meaning suggestions by doctors, family, and friends.

    1. Another possibility is that they were struggling with the anxiety around “is there something wrong with me because of how non-conformist I am?” (a wicked common anxiety in the geek nation) and they decided to put the matter to the test, by finding, well. One of therapists’ roles in our society is “arbiter of normal/healthy/acceptable”, which is what most people mean by “crazy” and “sane”. If you want to confront society’s perceived disapproval of and hostility towards Your Kind Of Person, what better way to do that than to confront a therapist, and either extract (by trickery, of course) a passing grade or discredit the entire notion of Normal being superior or discredit the therapist as a discerner of Normal, or best of all all three at once.

      I mean, we know for a fact that they’ve confronted one therapist — the one telling us this story! So it would seem the confronting-therapists behavior is already a thing for them, and it is a highly plausible hypothesis that confronting a therapist is why they went into therapy in the first place.

  3. Sometimes, it’s the therapists who slam the door.

    I tried to get therapy as a teen, only to be met by therapist after therapist who either made it painfully clear that the only kind of help they understood was getting me to change who I am (as in, give up all of your interests, put on makeup and a dress and start dating, that’ll fix everything) or asked me if I’d been molested about three sentences after “Hello.” In the end, I was an adult before I found a therapist I could actually talk to.

    But I can well imagine a person less determined to find help or less convinced that therapy could be helpful having their first and only experience with a therapist be like that. And then framing surviving that one session as “outwitting the therapist.” Especially if they didn’t realize they could end the session right then and there and just walk out. Which is probably the proper response to “Hi. How are you? Have you ever been molested?”

    (Either that or the people are just plain lying about having ever gone to a therapist. I’m not sure why one would go with the intent of not having successful therapy.)

  4. I go with “I work at a hospital”, at the moment. I tried “I’m a student” but then people say “What kind?” and I say “Medical student” because I didn’t think that far ahead and am a terrible liar, so they ask me fifty questions about the bump on their hand (or say “Oh, what kind of nurse do you want to be?” which is really its own rant, so I won’t go there).

    I don’t mind my friends asking me fifty questions about the bump on their hand (or anything else they want to ask me about–the weird rash, the achey foot, the strange thing going on Down There, whatever) in the least, because my friends are awesome and I know them and they are also the folks who patiently remind me how to Human every time we interact and they have to get SOMETHING out of the friendship, since a consistently human friend isn’t one of the things they’re getting. However, “What’s up with this bump?” is not a conversation I want to have with a near-stranger who I know nothing about.

    So I say “I work at a hospital” and people go “Oh, huh!” and don’t bother to ask in what capacity. At this point I might even be able to convincingly say, “Oh, it’s complicated–what do you do?”, because yeah, being a med student IS complicated, and I don’t want to talk about the bump on their hand!

    Perhaps you could try “I work with Population of Interest”? Like, “I work with troubled teens” or “I work with indigent adults” or “I work with autistic kids”?

    Or perhaps your place of employment–“I work at a social services office”, “I work at a group home”, “I work at a drug rehab clinic”. New acquaintance doesn’t need to know you work there as a therapist! You could be the office manager, or lunch lady, or janitor!

    Or you could keep eviscerating Nice Guys. This is a legit thing to do in a conversation. Perhaps not a nice thing, but a totally legit thing.

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