“I’ve met the greatest girl,” John said. He was beaming. “She’s really hot. She’s 27, super smart. This weekend I’m chartering a yacht for us! Isn’t that awesome?”
I just looked at him. This was his third “greatest girl” in six months. Each was 20-plus years younger than him—and all three were following quickly on the heels of John suffering some major losses in his personal life.
He knew my look. He sat on this couch every week.
“What, this is bad, too? Can’t you just let me enjoy anything? What if she is the one?”
“Yup, she might be,” I conceded.
“Exactly!” he said.
“Or this might be the same pattern you keep saying you want to break so that you can meet someone with real substance.”
“You know, you really piss me off,” said John. He sat back, looking ticked, but his eyes were smiling. Deep down, he was a smart guy who knew he was on a destructive path but wasn’t ready to get back on the main road just yet.
John was a wealthy, powerful litigator. Everyone in his world said ‘yes’ to him, all the time, and had for a dozen years. At one point in therapy, he said, “You know, besides my buddy I grew up with, you’re the only person who ever stands up to me. It’s like you’re the only person as tough as I am.”
I’m a therapist and a Mommy. I wipe noses and butts. In my everyday life, I don’t walk around feeling like a particularly tough chick.
But I get what my job is with clients who need to break their behavioral patterns. They need a shake-up. They need accountability. They need a little toughness.
If you are trying to make changes, but failing, how does your therapist handle it? Do they tell you it’s ok and you’ll do better next time … every single time?
If so, fire them.
They’re not helping you.
They’re afraid you won’t like them if they challenge you.
It’s easy to tell you nice things about how great you are and keep taking your money for years on end.
But that is not our job.
Our job is the hard stuff.
Our job is to challenge you.
Our job means that sometimes you will dread coming to session because you don’t want to tell us what happened that week.
Think of this analogy: if you are on a diet, and you break your diet, you know you have two different friends you can call.
The first friend says, Oh, who cares, come on over and eat ice cream all night with me and we’ll start again tomorrow!
The second friend says, You know you want to lose this weight. You can’t keep breaking your plans. How are you going to get back on track starting now? You can do this, but you gotta get serious. I’ll help you.
Your therapist must be like that second friend.
And yes—the second friend is the harder phone call to make, but also the call that leads to genuine change.
Know, too, that providing boundaries and gentle challenge is as hard for the therapist as it is for you. I have yet to meet a therapist who loves conflict.
But when a therapist helps you learn to manage conflict in the safe setting of the therapy room, they are doing you a great service in your larger life. When a therapist helps you tolerate and talk through your anger towards them while they are sitting right there, you suddenly realize it’s a possibility at home, too. When you reach to call your unhealthy ex and your therapist’s voice reminds you of some better options, you manage to put the phone down.
There are many times when a therapist must and should choose support versus challenge. Early therapy, relationship building, grief counseling, emergency management, therapy following abuse or trauma: these are just a few of hundreds of examples. Further, you should always feel a strong base of trust and support in the therapy room through any challenges your therapist offers, and all challenge should be in support of your own stated goals.
When John’s therapy ended, he said something that stuck with me: “How is it that I came in here and fought with you every week, but it was the best therapy I ever had?”
Now, John’s personality was unique and his tolerance for conflict was high. His case was unusual—and, to be honest, exhausting! For most people, just a little weekly nudge is enough to help make big changes over time.
But ask yourself these questions:
- Do I just adore my therapist?
- Does my therapist make me feel great all the time?
- Is my therapist the sweetest person ever?
If you answered ‘yes’ to all three, make sure you are truly taking stock of how therapy is helping you or changing your life, versus just giving you a “feel-good” hour once a week. If you want real change, you need an ass-kicking therapist: not an ass-kissing one.