Updated: Jun 13, 2022
The other day I was talking with a therapist about the job we do. She was asking for my advice on how to run a group for senior citizens. I gave her a few thoughts then asked, “What do you usually do with these sorts of groups?”
“Well you know, I usually do a lot of self-esteem building. I might say, ‘I know things seem bad and you don’t feel like you’re getting anything accomplished, but for you getting out of bed is an accomplishment. That is progress.'”
I almost barfed.
The other day I was talking with a friend who’s a therapist about the job we do. He was about to go into a session with a client, Sam, with whom he felt stuck. Sam has pretty serious anxiety to the point that at times he can’t leave his house. Because I was curious I asked my friend, “What’s your approach? Where are you trying to get with Sam?” “I want him to realize that what he’s thinking is irrational. Other people aren’t really always looking at him. It’s all in his head.” I squirmed a little.
The other day I was talking with a friend. She was telling me how she went to a therapist for a while, but it wasn’t helpful.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Well, after a while, like the fourth session, I kinda felt like she thought I was done. She kinda hinted that we’d already prayed about it. Now I just had to deal with it.”
It is hard to teach how to do therapy in a letter. You miss out on context and feedback and techniques get misunderstood. While it is difficult to teach what does work via letters, letters are excellent at conveying what doesn’t work.
The above are all examples of therapists negating their clients’ experience. You will be tempted to negate your clients’ experience for several reasons.
First, those surrounding your clients will negate with such elegance, sophistication, and matter-of-fact-ness that going against them will feel like going against common sense. Parents will attempt to seduce you into negating their sons (“He’s just defiant”), husbands will attempt to seduce you into negativing their wives (“She’s just too needy”), probation officers will attempt to seduce you into negating their parolees (“He just needs a good kick in the — -”), coworkers will attempt to seduce you into negating the clients (“We got another frequent flyer”) and so on and so forth. The problem is, at best, negating another’s experience will leave it unchanged, but more likely it will make the painful experience worse.
When we invalidate people or deny their perceptions and personal experiences, we make mental invalids of them. When one’s feelings are denied a person can be made to feel crazy even when they are perfectly mentally healthy.
— R.D. Laing
Our colleagues find it easy to negate when they have lost hope and are frustrated that change is not happening quicker. They find it easy to negate when they feel hopeless (some of which is caused by ineffective technique). They feel frustrated and don’t know how to help relieve the suffering they’re facing. So they try to pull us into their pain because relationship relieves suffering. We all spend some time in that exhaustion. Part of writing these letters to you is to help light the way so that when you are in that place you can sit, rest a while, then, when your ready, continue the struggle.
Furthermore negation is so seductive because good negation points to a truth. The guy who comes to you and complains about his marriage just has to stop having affairs. The mom who’s frustrated with her daughter just has to stop smacking her. The frequent flyer is a frequent flyer and has to just keep his followup appointment. The addict needs to finish rehab and not leave early, no matter what. These are all true things and the seduction of truth is strong
A truth that’s told with bad intent, beats all the lies you can invent.
-- W. Blake
What do you do instead? The antidote to negating an experience is to validate. At times validating the other’s experience is scary because we don’t want to condone the uncondonable. If someone is suicidal you don’t want to give them permission to kill themselves by validating suicide. The technique is to validate emotions not behaviors. You can always validate emotion because emotions always make sense. Emotions are our bodies’ way of making relational sense of the world.
There was once a guy named Elliot who had brain surgery and lost his ability to have emotions. At first he was fine, but then, over time, he began to do strange things. He’d go out to eat for lunch and would be gone all day because he’d start thinking, “Well if I go to McDonald’s it’s faster and cheaper, but if I go to Subway it’s a bit healthier, then again Subway did just put cement in their bread, so maybe McDonald’s it is, but McDonald’s doesn’t degrade and the long term effects of that on my body would be drastic, but right now it would taste really good. Maybe I should go out for Chinese instead? Well which Chinese spot should I go to? The one on 4th street is closer, but the one on 7th has fortune cookies, “and on and on. Emotions are actually the foundation of logical thought partly because they tell us what to value. Without knowing what he valued Elliot couldn’t make a logical decision.
There are at least seven universal emotions. Each emotion, in addition to having its own logic, is a message about relationship.
Joy pulls me to move toward the other to extend the feeling.
Sadness pulls others close to me. Shame and guilt are some of its siblings.
Fear pushes me get away from the other for safety.
Anger pushes me towards the other in order to remove an obstacle which is why anger is “sticky”.
Disgust pushes the other out of relationship. It’s a way of saying we have no relationship.
Surprise tells me to pause until we know what kind of relationship we have. It asks the question “Do I need to move forward or away from this?”
Certain emotions can feel overwhelming, like a wave that will envelop us and drag us a million miles away in just a few moments. To protect ourselves from these emotions we often negate emotions. Trouble is, if we negate an emotion and it can’t move, then it often builds, which is why it gets worse. Sometimes we even negate an emotion with another emotion. In some circles it’s not okay for men to feel sad so men negate sadness by using anger. For lots of Christians it’s not okay to feel the joy associated with sex, so joy gets negated through disgust or shame. This is how people get tied into all sorts of knots. But if you want it to change you have to move toward the emotion. And it will change. Emotion means to move after all.
How do you move towards an emotion? Well the foundation is validation. Validation unties the knots by which we find ourselves bound. When a suicidal client comes in and says, “I’m a burden and I think everyone would be better off if I ended it all,” you can say, “Yeah, you feel like a burden to everyone, and when you feel like you’re this massive burden dragging everyone down you want relief. Who wouldn’t want that?” You’re not saying, “Go kill yourself,” you’re showing, “Your emotions makes sense”. This act begins the process of untying the knots which bind people.