Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Do "Shrinks" Read Minds?

A hesitation some people have about beginning therapy seems to be a fear of having all their deepest, darkest secrets suddenly exposed. They know people talk about that kind of thing in therapy, but they can't imagine doing so with a stranger (with good reason!). However, they may wonder (based on media portrayals, perhaps) whether therapists are somehow trained to be able to "tell" what their secrets are - some kind of mind-reading trick that's a trade secret.

I confess that I have at times feared others in the field would be able to look at me and know things I'd rather keep secret - not because I believed they could read my mind, but because I feared they'd be more attuned to barely-noticeable but tell-tale cues. 

However, as everyone (client and clinician alike) who's learned about cognitive distortions hopefully knows, believing you know what someone else is thinking is risky business - we're almost always wrong! I often tell clients that humans as a species are notoriously bad at mind reading. 

Why are we so bad at "mind reading?" We tend to have trouble setting aside our own perspective completely enough to fully grasp someone else's. As a result, what we assume other people are thinking usually says more about ourselves than the other person. (Psychodynamic theories would say we project our own "stuff" - often what we can't acknowledge about ourselves, in fact - onto other people, acting as if it's theirs instead).

Training as a therapist (usually, hopefully) involves learning enough about our own "stuff" to keep it from distorting our understand of clients. Working as a therapist involves intentionally setting aside our own priorities, motives, feelings, and needs in order to focus solely on the client's. Indeed, a necessary ingredient in any therapy is empathy - the ability to accurately perceive what the client is experiencing. 

And if you're doing that well - accurately tapping into the client's inner experience from within their own worldview, and keeping your own white noise to a minimum - it might seem at times like you are reading their mind. 

How so? Well, accurately reflecting what they're communicating just seems like you're listening and understanding (powerful in itself, of course). However, accurately reflecting to them what they're not yet even fully aware of themselves...that's really powerful. To the point it makes you seem like you might have powers. (I've heard this technique called empathic conjecture, because you're making an educated guess about the client's inner experience based on your empathic understanding). 

Since there are a host of reasons clients may not be fully aware of, or may be unable to communicate important aspects of their experience, this skill is not only powerful, but can also break through impasses in treatment. In fact, I'm writing about it right now because after muddling through for months with an angry client who was only coming to see me because therapy is required if you want medication, just empathizing with a feeling she was barely aware of having finally allowed her to open up to me and the work.

I'm curious what experience others have had with empathy and/or "mind reading" - when it works, when it may have backfired...and any advice folks have for those trying to learn to subtle art.

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