I started the Stop Saying This series back in June and, unsurprisingly, I have not run out of unhelpful things people in ostensibly helping roles and professions to comment on. Last month, I discussed the damage demonizing comfort does, how “everything in moderation” categorically pathologizes black-and-white thinking and what real apologies sound likes. As one commenter said, “It’s odd to find validation on the internet and nowhere else.” It is indeed, odd. It also is an indicator of just how sick our culture is.
I would also like to affirm the discussions I’ve seen in the comments about the main issue being the lack of sincerity across the board in the so-called helping professions these days. Yes, the lack of sincerity is often the definitive characteristic in whether someone’s (professional or otherwise) sentiment hits home or offends, at least for me. And yet, sometimes, it’s the presence of sincerity that worsens things for me, as I’ll discuss in this post.
But that brings me to a point of clarification I would like to me: this series of articles is about what people in the helping profession—that is, people with an inordinate amount power bestowed on them by themselves and an uneducated (thus, trusting) general public—say to their clients/patients/ program participants/whatever bullshit PC name they’re using for the human beings that pay their salaries and/or are subjected to the brutalizing processes that this culture still calls “treatment.”
I am not talking about peer-to-peer interactions; those have entirely different power dynamics—namely, one does not have the power to involuntarily commit you, forcibly drug you or officially label you forever. Though most of these phrases are still problematic in my opinion (I still wouldn’t think it’s appropriate for an equal to, say, “I’m sorry you feel that way” because *I’m* not sorry for my feelings. I am, in fact, 100 percent done apologizing for my feelings and emotions and don’t need anyone else to, either.), the discussion of whether and why they are or are not okay for non-professionals to say to each other would look very different than this one.
Now, onto the next up on our list of things to stop saying if you’re a “mental health professional” of any kind and want to actually help.
That’s not about you
I’ve been the target of phrases like “I felt no love for you on our wedding day,” “Go find someone else, you’re too smart for me,” and “if it wasn’t for Jesus, I would have left you.” These were things said by the man who promised to love, honor and cherish me, as well as seek to understand me first, for the rest of our lives. Me. Not someone else. Telling me that those phrases aren’t about me is gaslighting. Those things are very clearly about me; they could not be about someone else. They were said to me and about me: *I* was the one he felt no love on our wedding day for. *I* was the one who was too intelligent for him (way to twist someone’s gifts against them!). *I* was the one he was believing himself a hero for not leaving. No one else.
If you’re my therapist, and you try to tell me that those things aren’t about me, then you’re telling me you’re unwilling to take an abuser to account. Ultimately, yes, choosing to say such destructive things, which are crafted intentionally to do lasting damage, is about the person who chooses to say them, their failure of integrity and compassion and what they value. Ultimately, that my ex chose to say those things reveals more about how seriously he takes his own word, what his real values are and probably his own negative view of himself. But the verbal abuse he perpetrated was still about me; those phrases weren’t generic, applicable to just anyone. They were crafted specifically for me using knowledge my ex had about me—if he had yelled at me that I had rainbow skin, I would have laughed and moved on, perhaps assumed he wasn’t fully awake or something.
It wasn’t like I was standing in line at a grocery store and someone stretched and accidentally hit me in the face. It was like I was standing in a room in my own home assuming I was safe and wanted and chosen for who I am (since those were the literal words of our wedding vows, after all) and an arrow with my name and a picture on it of me as a little girl who dreams of having a life partner landed straight in the center of my heart.
In both scenarios, I’m hurt. In the first one, the pain is an unfortunate side effect of being in the wrong place and the wrong time by accident (though, as we’ll see below, the pain is still present). In the second place, someone knew me, my deeply held dreams and my sensitivities, and used his knowledge to craft something uniquely and deeply painful just for me.
Normally, my stance is that intention does not matter nearly as much as impact. This is why saying “I didn’t mean to” after someone says you hurt them is useless. Apologize (the way we’ve been talking about in last month’s article) and validate their feelings. In the case above, though, I think intention magnifies the impact. If you’re the person in the grocery line who stretches, “I’m sorry” is a response that’s available to you (and you should say it even if you “didn’t mean to.”). If you’re the guy whittling arrows for his wife, “I’m sorry” is a vapid lie that makes a mockery of the covenant of marriage and the sacredness with which you promised to treat her heart. Especially if you keep hurling personalized arrows her way after you apologize.
Regardless of whether you agree with this section—maybe you think “that’s not about you” is accurate all the time—it’s not helpful. It’s dismissive and it’s based solely on perception. I bet my ex’s therapist is telling him that my treatment of him “isn’t about him,” also. So he gets to go through life continuing his damaging behavior thinking a) that he can treat people however he wants and their legitimate anger and hurt has nothing to do with him and b) remain a victim who doesn’t have to be accountable for how his actions affect others. “It’s not about you” applied across the board absolves perpetrators of their responsibility and disempowers others who need to be heard and taken seriously.
Do you want to answer this question in a therapy session: if my ex’s terrible treatment of me wasn’t about me, why do some people (particularly ones that are immensely self-focused and not really working on themselves) have amazing partners and I don’t? If you don’t want to answer that question, then don’t tell me my ex’s terrible treatment wasn’t about me. Help me heal from that terrible treatment perpetrating against me by naming his behavior, validating how wounding it was to experience and help me really get how well I deserve to be treated so that I don’t ever attract such a person again. Telling me it’s not about me alone without significant follow up and spade calling, which our culture seems deathly afraid to do for some reason, doesn’t accomplish any of those things.
The outer world is a reflection of your inner world
Despite the way this phrase directly contradicts the previous one, I’ve heard this one pop up in more and more circles—mostly among coaches, but I’ve heard therapists start to say it, too, even the more traditionally trained ones. And I’ve heard the same professionals say/teach both “it’s not about you” and “your perception creates your reality.”
First of all, you cannot have it both ways. Things can’t both not be about you and a reflection of your inner beliefs, thoughts and perceptions. There isn’t anything more “about you” than your own perception.
Second, is it not obvious that this is really gaslighting? You experienced abuse as a child? Well, it’s because of your perception—which could mean either that the professional is saying you didn’t really get abused (you just perceived you did), or that you were actually abused but something in you caused it.
I didn’t mean to…
Just a brief note on “I didn’t mean to.” Whatever completes that sentence is generally irrelevant, especially if no apology has been offered. I assume you didn’t mean to do the hurtful thing you did, that’s why I’m telling you that you did it. If I thought you intended to hurt me, why would I be wasting my time trying to work things out with you? Why is your intention more important than my actual injury? Why do so many people steadfastly believe that if only the person they just hurt knew that it was unintentional, it would take the pain away?
There are 17,250 unintentional car collisions every DAY in the US, according to the most recent data available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and 90 deaths a day. Do you think those 90 families who lost someone today give a damn whether the two drivers “didn’t mean to” hit each other?
Perhaps that’s too extreme for some (most likely those who want to dismiss an argument simply because they don’t like it). All right, then. “I didn’t mean to” is also quite similar to stubbing your toe: did the coffee table “mean” to hurt you? Of course not. Is your toe still throbbing anyway? It doesn’t stop my toe from hurting to know that the coffee table didn’t mean to be in its way. It doesn’t bring the people who perish in car accidents back to life to declare the crash was an accident, no matter how true it is. And it doesn’t stop the pain of your comment or action that hurt me to know you didn’t mean to hurt me, especially not before some reflective listening has occurred.
This is something they teach in therapist school, no? How to listen so other people feel heard? The other name for it is active listening. “I didn’t mean to” doesn’t come in until after you’ve listened, reflected, made sure you understand and validated whatever you can genuinely validate about my experience. Now, why am I paying you when I can do your job better than you can?
All I wonder after hearing “I didn’t mean to” from a provider or therapist is, “Okay, so you were just being careless or sloppy, then?” Of course people are allowed to make mistakes. No human is perfect. But I think the standards should be a bit higher than they currently are for those who sign up to “help” people. I don’t mean “we should never allow people to make mistakes.” I mean we should demand those who get paid to “help” people stop saying dismissive, unhelpful things like “I didn’t mean to,” We should expect them to apologize (the way we talked about last month) and listen instead.
These things take time/Time heals all wounds
This is one where I’d prefer the professional speaking this words actually not be sincere about it, because the level of sincerity when uttering this phrase is generally inversely proportional to the level of open-mindedness the provider has. Of course the provider believes “these things take time.” It completely serves them to believe that.
Recurring income is a thing we all need to live as long as capitalism is what we’re going to keep engaging in. It’s the same principle Upton Sinclair was getting at when he said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” This “not understanding,” just like the belief that “these things take time,” can be utterly sincere. In fact, sincerity is useful in propping up the self-deception that time heals all wounds.
The problem is that there’s nothing inherently long about the healing process and there’s nothing inherently healing about time. The logic, as best as I understand it, is that the old patterns of painful thinking and emotions and false beliefs took years to lay down so they’ll take years to undo. Why shouldn’t it take an instant to heal it (and then, say, years to practice the new behavior that would arise from that new, healed way of being)?
Also, I’ve never heard even an attempt at an explanation for what it is about time that heals. There’s nothing inherent in time that heals. Time itself doesn’t heal all wounds. Time seals and conceals all wounds unless something different happens. If you keep experiencing the same thing, you will continue to believe the same thing. The whole point of therapy, if it’s to be any good, is for the client to experience something different, something better than what has hurt them in the past. That’s not going to happen as long as they’re victim-blamed, gaslighted, or told in any way that their feelings either aren’t important, are wrong, or are the problem.
Our brains are wired to form in response to our environment; what changes our minds is experience. The only thing healing about time is if it is filled with healing things, which means that people who have been hurt need to receive real care and validation and the people who did the damage need to be held accountable.
Time heals all things? These things take time? Say that to an ER doctor and see how that goes for you.
Again, I’m talking about when such things as these are said by a provider/therapist or other person in power to their client/patient/subject. I personally would object to my friends telling me that “time heals all wounds,” for example, because it feels dismissive, but it wouldn’t feel as damning or as self-serving of my friend to say such a thing. If you’re the provider, saying “time heals all wounds” translates to “I don’t know how to help you or have anything to help you,” in which case, why am I paying you?
I also don’t appreciate when my friends say “I didn’t mean to,” but it’s not an issue of power. My friend doesn’t have an “official” ranking (above or below me) that she can use to either brand my experience in a way that’s convenient for her business model regardless of how it affects me and/or self-validate what is otherwise dismissive, unhelpful, or plainly inaccurate “advice.”
Sometimes, when a friend uses one of these phrases, it can be positive. I recall a few times when a friend has said “that’s not about you” to me after I’ve described a hurtful or confusing interaction with someone else and I felt reassured (which was only possible because I felt heard and understood first).
While there are problematic aspects of these (and all the phrases in this series) no matter who says them, this series is specifically looking at how the power imbalance inherent in the provider-patient model weaponizes these phrases, whereas, said among friends, most of them are just gnat-like annoyances.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.
If you wanted to be catty, you might ask the therapist if (s)he found Bartlett’s Big Book of Familiar Quotations a profound source of therapeutic guidance.
I began to realize with this post, the nature of the comment process is indented, to realize a certain way of placing typed, not spoken words on the “table”. The structure as now formatted, feeds my comment subordinated to BC, which in some ways, for me is problematic. Soon, if not already, if you are or will become an LSW, and a Master at that, how will you or do you process time, as structure? As time, an essential element in the discourse that is an expression even at the neural level?
Just another platitude to shut us up.
No, time does not heal all wounds. Spending time at a therapist’s office to try to do that just prolongs the pain imnsho.
I’m so sorry you ex treated you so badly. I have a very similar ex…who is living happily with his latest female vic, who successfully alienated my children from me, who was awarded *all the property* leaving me homeless. The courtroom was just another venue for abuse.
When I can’t sleep at night, I wonder how it is that the wicked have no problem sleeping; “how do you sleep at night?”
I don’t know. I just don’t get it. As much as I intellectually know that ‘life isn’t fair’ I can’t let go of the injustice!!
“Normally, my stance is that intention does not matter nearly as much as impact.”
I find that an interesting statement Megan.
I was recently out bush walking and came across a graveyard. Funny but it’s a place where I like to think about time healing all wounds. I came across the grave of a 14 year old boy whose name and picture seemed familiar. When I got home I googled his name and then it all came back. This young man had been kidnapped and tortured for hours in the bush, and then brutally murdered by a young man and his girl friend. She has been released and he is due for release back into the community very soon.
The impact on the parents was as you would expect, devastating. And I think that is directly related to the intent of the people who killed their son.
I try and compare my torture and kidnapping to what was done to this boy, and find myself wondering how he would have ever healed had he escaped alive. I know that as far as intent goes, the people who tortured and kidnapped me did try and minimize the damage of their conduct (finally deciding that I should be unintentionally negatively outcomed, though not all agreed with that as being a solution to the states problem of my complaining), though 9 years on I still can’t sleep due to the fear of being snatched from my bed and subjected to further torture. So how on earth could this boy ever recover? I’ve no idea where I would start with such a situation. Though what I know is that the people who did these evil deeds were not in a situation where they could tamper with the evidence/proof, and further psychologically harm the victim. Police did not send the parents away telling them “Sorry, we don’t have a copy of the Criminal Code in this Station”. And evidence was gathered rather than turned away when it did not tell the story they desired. Of course there is “insufficient evidence” if you refuse to take the documented proof of serious offences and spend more time telling the victim you are going to arrest them for having the proof they were tortured and kidnapped rather than document their account of what happened. Unlike the people in my situation who have managed to neglect their duty to enable such vile deeds. They both tried to conceal their acts, and both failed (yes I have the proof).
I visit the graves and think of the line from the movie Full Metal Jacket, “the dead know only one thing, it is better to be living”. Though given the way I feel inside these days, I am among friends there. Betrayed by my whole community, wanting to leave and being denied access to legal representation to retrieve my property because the State is busy committing human rights abuses.
Good series of articles.
…this series of articles is about what people in the helping profession—that is, people with an inordinate amount power bestowed on them by themselves and an uneducated (thus, trusting) general public—say to their clients/patients/ program participants/whatever bullshit PC name they’re using for the human beings that pay their salaries and/or are subjected to the brutalizing processes that this culture still calls “treatment”…I am not talking about peer-to-peer interactions; those have entirely different power dynamics…”
A vital distinction — thanks for making this clear, it makes your intent in writing the series more comprehensible.
Mao wrote a 2 part essay on “Contradictions Among the People” vs. “Contradictions Between the People and the Enemy”; your clarification brought this to mind.
Where I would take it next however is a critique of the entire concept of “professional human beings,” and of focusing on the suffering individual rather than the oppressive system perpetuating the suffering.
Btw I like this: “clients/patients/ program participants/whatever bullshit PC name they’re using for the human beings that pay their salaries and/or are subjected to the brutalizing processes that this culture still calls ‘treatment'”
Maybe we could use that as an alternate term. (You forgot “consumer” btw, or maybe that was deliberate). 🙂
The clarification is appreciated. But then your first example is from a relationship, not a therapy session.
While of course therapists will get nowhere if they say things that make their patients wrong, the same thing could be said for other relationships, even if there is less power asymmetry.
Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a “therapists’ code” that therapists would get trained in? And if a patient felt the therapist was violating that code, the violation could be reported to some sort of mediator? I know of such a code. It is not appropriate to promote it here, but it has been an important part of my training.
“Give it time to heal” is a statement based on observations of how bodies heal, but shows an almost total ignorance of how the mind works. It is a great way to tell that a therapist has no real idea what to do to help you. Chances are the immediate effects of a traumatic event will wear off, but the potential power of that event to affect you later can only be handled either by addressing the event directly or by addressing the being’s ability to rise above such experiences.
I understand the personal nature of this series of essays and that they are really aimed at the helping professions. But every person should be able to step in and help someone in a time of need. I have worn both hats (therapist and patient) but spent most of my life wearing neither. Yet I’m glad I have some training in this area, as you never know when a situation will come up where someone needs your help.
But every person should be able to step in and help someone in a time of need.
Herein lies a subtle contradiction — referring to innate human capacities of empathy and support as “skills” and “expertise” to be employed by a “therapist” perpetuates the basic alienation of people from themselves (which is also a basic feature of capitalism). Something you seem to recognize with your above quote.
I like the observation that some of these statements, like the “it’s not about you” may be helpful if they are said by someone with less power than a therapist.
I am a therapist, and I’m aware that it’s important to be careful about what I say! One thing that helps when one is in a professional role is to say things more tentatively, as in “I wonder if it may help to think that it isn’t about you, or that at least much of it is not about you.”
This makes it easy for the person to reject the idea if it doesn’t fit. Also it helps if the therapist asks if anything they are saying doesn’t seem quite right, and acknowledges they may say things that don’t fit for the person and asks to be informed when that happens.
Regarding moderation, I much like the Oscar Wilde version: “everything in moderation, including moderation!”
And there is the tricky matter of the sense in which any statement is understood. I like the Discordian saying that “all statements are true in some sense, false in some sense, and meaningless in some sense…..” We don’t always know how our statements will come across, so we have to be aware they might come across quite contrary to what we intended.
“I wonder if it may help to think that it isn’t about you, or that at least much of it is not about you.”
Bit like the lawyer who said to me (back in the early 1980s) “It might be best before I ask this question that you tell me that you only ever smoked it at parties. Now, how often do you smoke cannabis?” Worked a treat when he said to the Magistrate “My client tells me your Honor …..”
But what if I had spoken the truth? I smoked it whenever police were making a drop off at the Hotel where I hustled pool? I smoked it whenever Senior Constable came back from the race track with empty pockets and did a ‘bust’ of the young guys in the toilets to take their money, and sell the drugs they were carrying at a reduced rate?
I mean to this day I watch the television and hear “Police today uncovered a plan to import 5 Million dollars worth of cocaine” and they show the drugs they found. But it means they are paying three times what everyone else is paying for the stuff when you look at their ‘estimate’. Market manipulation if you ask me.
I don’t know if my point here is obvious but …….
By providing a ‘fork in the road’ situation (“I wonder if it may help to think that it isn’t about you, or that at least much of it is not about you.”) are we not limiting the pathways that can be taken by a ‘client’?
So for example the lawyer is leading me off down a path that suits everybody (minimise the punishment available to the magistrate with a truth he will accept in the absence of evidence to the contrary). I mean, confronting the magistrate with the truth in court would merely result in me being punished for speaking a truth he prefers to not be aware of (the drugs are being provided by police who are not being remunerated according to what they believe they are worth). I can think of similar situations in the ‘therapy’ environment, for example children raped by priests. We don’t like that truth so maybe it is their illness speaking and they have misinterpreted the situation. And of course they have no legal or mental capacity to make such an allegation, perhaps best we shove them off down the well worn path of mental patient, and view the rapist as having a character flaw and hope they get ‘treatment’ for their personality disorder. The other path the difficult one which results in …….. we are, after all creatures who seek the easy way.
By allowing MY truth to be managed according to the system, when they went back to find the ‘fish’, they found a whole bunch of people had been deliberately harmed. The ‘system’ is the problem when it comes to concealing the truth, and providing pre determined pathways is damaging to people who need the truth to heal (listen carefully to people harmed by ‘psychiatry’ and what do you hear?). In that sense avoiding the system is probably the best thing you can do for your ‘mental health’.