For this sixth and final part of the series I’ve been writing about the various things professionals who actually want to be helpful should stop saying, I’ll be covering one phrase in particular that I’m surprised I have not addressed right out of the gate: “it takes two.” That’s right on par with “fake it till you make it” from last month’s post; both are severely out of touch, among other things.
First, though, a word about language: please don’t get distracted by my use of the word “client.” I am using this word and not clarifying every time that I mean client/consumer/ patient/service receiver/person who really doesn’t actually have a problem but has been so pathologized by the system that the system gaslights them by labeling them as client/consumer/patient/service receiver, etc. because this is the word the mental health industry uses and I want to mock its usage of that word. Commenting on my use of that word is a a) missing the point and b) derailing. Stay focused, folks. This is our last one of these.
It Takes Two
In a difficulty between two people, whether it’s a couple or two friends or a parent and a child, there are definitely two people involved for sure. It’s quite common that both people are contributing to the issue in one way or another; however, there is at least one instance that renders “it takes two” unavailable for blanket-statement use, and that is abuse.
It does not “take two” to cause abuse. Ever. The person who is perpetuating the abuse is the only one with the problem. This should be straightforward enough, but, because of the emotionally abusive, empathy-killing, gaslighting culture we live in, the following also needs to be said: no one deserves abuse, ever. No one, no matter what they are wearing or what they themselves have done, “deserves” abuse.
This applies even to those who have abused others. I get that this is controversial; the reason that abusers do not deserve abuse is because inflicting abuse on an abuser perpetuates the cycle of abuse. It does not bring the justice many people think/hope that it will.
Even if “no one deserves abuse” was straightforward, though, we would be facing another fairly large problem: most therapists, in my experience, do not know how to recognize abuse at all. They are often manipulated by the abuser to such an extent that they label the abused person the abuser.
After that happens, the abused person loses credibility, voice and power; often, the therapist starts catering to the abuser, coddling them as if their childhood trauma or low self-esteem or previous abusive relationships cause abuse (none of those things cause abuse: read Why Does He Do That by Lindy Bancroft, if you’re confused on that point) or excuse their abusive behavior toward another human being.
I’m not sure why so many therapists fail to identify abuse and reverse victim and abuser in an eerily DARVO-type move, albeit unconsciously (hopefully)—if I were to speculate, I would say centuries of capitalism-induced trauma and thus, the warped view of what actually is healthy versus not healthy that we are all subject to, as well as heteronormative patriarchy and the success powerful people (usually men) have had in undermining women’s credibility as authorities on their own experience are all major contributors to why therapists routinely miss the signs of an abusive relationship.
I can hear the complaints and objections now: #NotAllMen! Don’t let bad apples ruin the bunch! But what about women who abuse men? First of all, the fact that not all men are abusive is irrelevant since so many abuse victims suffered at the hands of a man. Second, the actual saying is, “One bad apple ruins the bunch” for a reason. Also, when you find a bad apple, you remove it from the bunch, you don’t let it continue to affect the rest of the apples. Third, I will again refer to Lindy Bancroft on this one; suffice it to say, the percentage of women who abuse men is infinitesimal to the amount of men who abuse women, statistically speaking. I will again refer to Lindy Bancroft for anyone who seriously wants to try to argue an equation between men’s abuse of women and women’s abuse of men.
The fact that therapists don’t see abuse when it’s right in front of them so often means that “it takes two” is not a safe phrase to use. You, the therapist, might literally not be able to recognize when you are talking to someone who is being abused, in which case you’re saying “it takes two” to someone who has 0% of the responsibility for how they are being treated.
Because of how frequently therapists are manipulated by abusers into mixing up abuser and abusee, they have a high likelihood of saying “it takes two” to someone being abused. The last thing we need is more therapists gaslighting their clients and calling it healing/helping/therapy.
Life’s Not Fair
The reason we should retire “life’s not fair” is not because it’s false. It’s not; life truly is unfair. Therapists should stop saying it in part because it’s extremely dismissive and in part because words have creative power and shape how we think about and interact with the world.
I know there are a lot of therapists, and people in general, who think that stating the truth/the obvious is in some way helpful, but, in the first place, everyone who has been on the planet more than five minutes already knows life isn’t fair. Stating the obvious is what a therapist does when they have no actual response to what the client is saying, either because it doesn’t occur to them to be empathetic or because they think that offering empathy would spoil the client and hinder their healing process, much like parenting experts up until quite recently thought that letting a baby “cry it out” without anyone responding was a way to keep a child from growing up to be an entitled jerk.
I’m sorry, but how does depriving a tiny, helpless human of their needs for food, a diaper change, or even “just” comfort (horrifying that our society gotten so screwed up that we don’t believe comfort/belonging is a base-level need on the same level as food, water and shelter, right?) produce empathetic adults able and happy to respond to the needs of those close to them in their lives?
Similarly, “life’s not fair” does not in any way address the needs of the person on the therapist’s couch. That person needs to be met emotionally—that is, with empathy and compassion for the fact that they are experiencing a moment when life’s not fair. They need a real response—your presence in that dark, disorienting room of injustice.
Back to the idea that words have creative power. What we speak shapes our thoughts and the thoughts of those who hear them in ways that we are not subconsciously aware of. Our brains mistake repetition with truth, so, to those professional “helpers” who won’t quit with the “life’s not fair” bit, I ask you: that’s the kind of world you want to keep creating?
Go With the Flow
This one strikes me as similar to “fake it till you make it.” Don’t bother to try to change the circumstances. Take it all on yourself. There is definitely a personal-well-being benefit to not being so “sticky” that you are constantly fighting everything that comes your way, but going with the flow, as flippantly as professionals seem to advise it, isn’t the same as choosing your battles.
I’ve also noticed a pattern, both from personal experience and from hearing others’ stories about their experiences in therapy, that a therapist will more commonly suggest going with the flow when a part of the client that the therapist finds difficult to deal with (due mostly to their own personal triggers rather than anything the client is actually doing) comes up during a session. In that way and in those instances, it is self-serving and thus inappropriate.
Only the client has the right to decide when they go with the flow. Personally, I choose never because, as Warren Buffet (yes, I’m aware of how strange of a person this is to be quoting in such an article, but he makes a really good and imminently transferrable/ universalizable point) says, “Only dead fish go with the flow.” Whether overly dramatic or not, the point remains: going with the flow, especially when preached from the offices of professionals, is very often a tool to get people to behave more agreeably and to fit people to the needs of capitalism, which include standardization, productivity, and efficiency, all at whatever cost to the individual is necessary to achieve them.
More importantly, the rampant repetition of this phrase makes those of us who do not fit into the mainstream seem obstinate, oppositional, and defiant rather than authentic; people to be suppressed rather than supported. Enshrining people who go with the flow as role models for everyone in society makes it harder for dissenting voices to speak up in the first place and be taken seriously when they do. You don’t even have to take this to the extreme, as our capitalism-soaked society does with most things by mass producing them, to see that going with the flow flattens diversity and renders individuality impossible.
For professionals to truly be helpful, they need to support the uniqueness of each person no matter how “difficult” or “sticky” they might be experiencing them, and spend their time remaking the world into a place that’s safe for the expression of individuality that affirms commonality rather than hammering everyone into sameness for the benefit of a rapacious system that cares nothing for the needs of human beings.
Get Some Distance
I’m not trying to be ironic by ending this post, and thus this series, with a discussion about the problems with advising people to “get some distance.” Sometimes, when professionals say, “get some distance,” they mean “take a break” to “calm down.” Taking breaks has never helped me calm down; all it’s done is made me more anxious about ever getting a chance to truly resolve an issue—about being the only one left with an issue and thus being labeled difficult/crazy/the problem/holding grudges.
More often than not, if it takes longer than 24 hours to return to a conversation, I feel like the waiting is punishment and, thus, it makes resolving the original issue much harder. It has been more beneficial for my overall sense of physiological peace and mental/emotional well-being to resolve things as quickly as possible, even if that means strong emotions.
I’m not sure who decided that kneeling at the altar of stoicism was automatically the best decision for everyone all the time, but it’s emotionally abusive to hold everyone to that standard for everything. People have feelings. The only way that’s going to change is through the chemical restraints of psychotropic medication, and I would not call anything about the widespread availability of them “progress” in any form.
Sometimes, when professionals want a client to “get some distance,” what they mean is to “step into the observer role.” First of all, I have never met a therapist who is good at explaining how to actually do that; the common assumption is that all people have an “observer” part of themselves and that they know intuitively how to access such a part. But also, why are we assuming, first of all, that distance will give us the neutrality we are being directed to find? Why is neutrality the goal at all?
Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel says that there is no neutral, really. “Remaining neutral” is always siding with the oppressor.
When my pastor told me he had feelings for me, essentially blamed me for them, and the entire church sided with him, the best man at my wedding and his wife didn’t want to hear about it because they wanted “to remain neutral.” That, in my book, is a deep betrayal—of course, they conveniently disagreed when I tried to talk to them about how upsetting that was (and my ex-husband, who claimed to be close friends with the best man, was conveniently “not bothered” by it and did not want to talk to them with me about it, so I did that as I did everything in that “marriage”: alone).
Even if neutrality were an acceptable goal (which you can probably see by now that I do not think it is), how are therapists so sure that it’s even possible? Everyone has personal biases and biases that come with being human (like the negativity bias, for example). If we achieved a state of neutrality, how would we know?
And again, I would like to question the idea that neutrality itself is neutral. Speaking of biases, how is it that our “observer” self isn’t also biased or prejudiced? How can we be sure that whatever part we find doing the “observing” isn’t also doing so through its own filter? (Yes, you could argue that, by definition, the observer part is neutral, but then I would just point you back to the issues with neutrality).
Also, if what psychologists mean by neutrality is “free of emotion,” then I would argue that that is itself a bias, and a really dangerous one at that. I think we need to take a good look at the legacy of The “Enlightenment,” which elevates “reason” and “rationality” above emotion as if they are actually separate things. And, if they are, why is the sociopathic voiding of emotion automatically better than the messiness of feeling? Why the duality here and “everything in moderation” in every other area?
I’m sure there are many more unhelpful, dismissive, patronizing and harmful phrases therapists say all the time. And, if folks want to suggest ones for me to cover, I would be happy to do so. Otherwise, this ends what I did not know at the outset would be a six-part series on trying to get professionals in shape while the mental-health industry exists in its current form. Thanks for tracking with me for half a year (a weird, weird year, at that). Next month, who knows? Isn’t everything a wild card these days?
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.