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Why you should never see a therapist who is ‘too nice’.

Most people who become counsellors and therapists want to help people. That may seem obvious. But sometimes, if we try to be too helpful, it can actually get in the way of effective therapy.

At some point we will probably do or say something that annoys or hurts the feelings of the client. This ‘mistake’, this not being the ‘helpful’ or ‘caring’ therapist may be uncomfortable for us. But there will probably be learning in there about the client’s earlier relationships.

To clarify, I am not talking here about genuine misconduct by a therapist, such as intentionally harming a client or not respecting boundaries. I am thinking more about the ‘honest’ mistakes many of us make. This could be not seeming to understand what the client is saying, forgetting something that the client regards as important or finding oneself suddenly very sleepy and trying to suppress a yawn during a session. It could even be arriving late for a session or double booking a client.

At one time or another I have made all these mistakes. Because most of us therapists feel we should be helpful and caring, it can be tempting to be too ‘nice’ and apologise immediately for our not nice behaviour. But the nice response is not always the best therapeutic response. While we need to question ourselves about such mistakes and examine whether we may be acting out something from our own past, it can often be  helpful to look at the mistake as potential information about the client and the client-therapist relationship.

For example, if I am slightly late for our session and apologise immediately that makes it harder for the client to feel angry with me. And, because many of us struggle with owning our anger, it is important that the therapist is not over nice, otherwise the client senses that the therapist is uncomfortable with the client’s anger.

If I make a mistake and behave in a way that is unusual for me, I ask myself, why have I done this with this client and not another and why now? Often the answer relates to an earlier relationship of the client’s and to the developing relationship between therapist and client.

So, if the client feels let down and that he is not important to me when I am slightly late for our session, what does this experience remind him of in his earlier life? It may be that he didn’t feel he was important enough for his mother or father, that they seemed more interested in other things than him. That little boy was not able to express his feelings to mum or dad, but the adult client can be given the space to express his hurt or anger and for those feelings to be validated and accepted.

Often the mistake will occur at a stage in the therapy when the relationship between client and therapist is strong enough for the client to bring to the relationship some of these more difficult feelings, such as anger or hurt.

Psychoanalyst Patrick Casement talks about this in his book Learning from our Mistakes, when he argues that often the mistakes therapists make with their clients “have an uncanny parallel to key environmental failures in the patient’s past history”.

The key thing to remember is that unconscious processes are often at work in these ‘mistakes’. In some sense, the client needs the therapist to repeat the earlier wounding so that there is the potential for a different resolution.

Casement says: “Patients may revisit key experiences of early failure by their parents, or other caregivers, through their use of similar failures by the analyst…how much this…is fortuitous and how much it may be unconsciously determined, we may never quite know.”