Please welcome today’s guest writer, Matt Coldagelli. Matt (’14) majored in English writing and psychology at Calvin. He’s currently pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology with an emphasis on children and adolescents. He watches an absurd amount of TV and is a certified craft beer snob. Matt lives with his lovely wife in Oak Park, IL.
Something I still struggle to comprehend is that people have entrusted me with the task of helping people fix their lives and work through their problems. I’m currently working toward a doctorate in clinical psychology, and a key feature of the process is real-life, hands-on therapy with actual living humans. That can be scary, sometimes. Actually a lot of the time.
At my current training site, I work with adults who have severe mental illness, with diagnoses including bipolar, schizophrenia, and personality disorders, among others. One day, I was leading group therapy on the subject of seeking positivity and using forgiveness in conflicts with others. In the final five minutes of the group, one of the clients became overwhelmed with emotion, bursting into tears and hiding her hands in her face. She had asked for a concrete answer to an abstract question, and I fumbled with my response, unable to give the answer she desired. As her tears intensified, a client sitting next to her—who had been sleeping the whole time—woke up. He saw the other client crying, immediately glared at me with pure rage brimming in his rosy face, and said, “Way to go. You broke her, you fucking moron.”
I stared back, dumbfounded. “Well, that’s it for group today. Thanks, everyone.”
Throughout the rest of the day, I had to keep assuring myself I had not broken anyone. This particular client’s emotional reaction was part of the plan she was working on, and her tears actually fit her expected repertoire. But something swirling in me kept saying, “You broke her.”
There’s this curious dance in therapy. On the one hand, therapists are taught to exude empathy throughout the interaction with clients. On the other, therapists learn to elicit relevant behavior in order to address it and help the client work toward changing it. The result can be this swirling motion between validating experiences of clients and saying things you know will result in anger, frustration, or sorrow.
This balancing act bestows a lot of power on therapists. It also becomes a breeding ground for callousness. When a client responds to something I say with intense emotion, there’s this pull to blame the client and excuse my technique. It can also tempt therapists to be nothing but surface-level validators, tiptoeing around statements or questions they feel will result in a reaction they’d rather not deal with. Or, more accurately, because they’re scared. Scared their client will react with rage. Scared the progress they’ve made will be undone. Scared they’ll break their client.
What I’ve come to realize through advice from my supervisors is that being a psychotherapist requires courage. Courage to ask the tough questions when you feel it will bring up a meaningful moment in the course of treatment. Courage to respond with empathy even when you’ve had a long day and feel annoyed with your client. Courage to admit to your client that you haven’t been paying full attention to him for the last few minutes.
Of course, courage applies to more than just therapy. With the world full of confusing, derogatory, stifling rhetoric, it can be easy to feel crippled and demoralized. Courage is a value that seems to be waning in favor of sheepishness disguised as tolerance, or unfocused rage disguised as activism. I think it would serve us well to revitalize the idea of courage, which propels us to act according to our values despite our fears. Courage is not an elimination of fear; it is staring fear in the face and saying, “You can’t stop me, suckah.”
So be brave. Be brave and listen, really listen, to someone who thinks differently than you. Be brave to have that difficult conversation with your boss. Be brave to stand up for the marginalized and those too often neglected by society.
I’m working on being a little more courageous. Fear is like a gnat, always zipping around and never quite going away. So with a dash of bravery, I’ll keep dancing along, trying not to break anyone too badly.