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.
Boy oh boy
The “Family Court System” is filled to the brim with “officers of the court” who NEVER seem to recognize the abuser and instead call the victim “crazy” or, just as you say, are deemed the ones ‘abusive’ for fighting back. I’ve lost everything, precious babies who now scorn me, my business, my garden, my animals–‘family’ just writes me off as *my side of the story* would expose their complicity.
I have lots of friends, tho. I sometimes can’t reconcile these two things. How is it that people who are suppose to ‘love’ you cause so much harm? It’s like living a Greek tragedy~
I’ve enjoyed your series, Megan. Thank you for putting pen to paper and calling out the gaslighting so prevalent in the ‘helping’ professions.
“most therapists, in my experience, do not know how to recognize abuse at all.” My experience is that most therapists, and other “mental health professionals,” cover up abuse for profit. And given the reality that “the prevalence of childhood trauma exposure within borderline personality disorder patients has been evidenced to be as high as 92% (Yen et al., 2002). Within individuals diagnosed with psychotic or affective disorders, it reaches 82% (Larsson et al., 2012).”
This most definitely is a systemic problem of the “mental health” industry. And psychologists have been covering up abuse since Freud’s day.
Part of all this systemic abuse covering up by the “mental health” workers is due to the fact that, according to the DSM, no “mental health” worker may ever bill any insurance company for ever helping any child abuse survivor, unless they first misdiagnose abuse survivors with one of the billable DSM disorders.
“I’m sure there are many more unhelpful, dismissive, patronizing and harmful phrases therapists say all the time.” Don’t forget their “chemical imbalance” lies, or did you cover that in one of your previous blogs?
When you look at the tactics and signs of abusive manipulative behavior you’ll notice the mental health industry partakes in almost every single one of them. There is a natural tendency to rationalize why ones own actions are good. One reason they coddle abusers is because they are trying to defend their own manipulative abusive behavior.
If someone is “mentally ill” because they are being abused the solution isn’t therapy or psych drugs. It’s removing them from the abuser. There is a financial conflict of interest to believe the abused person is “ill” among all mental health employees.
The major problem with “life isn’t fair” is it is used to justify shit that is unfair. It is used as an argument to manipulate people into doing what you want them to do.
Going with the flow is alright if the flow you’re going with isn’t objectionable. An aunt/uncle going with the flow to play imaginary games with children can be good and produce happiness. Going with the flow when it pertains to something that can cause harm is like lemmings jumping off a cliff.
Our society has a tendency to attack the messenger. The person pointing out an injustice is assumed as equal in moral status as what causes the injustice.
As the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti points out we are all simultaneously the observer and the observed. You don’t gain quality observation of something by distancing from it. You do that by sensing it for what it is, without preconceived notions, labels or desires to change it.
“No one, no matter what they are wearing or what they themselves have done, “deserves” abuse.”
I agree. However, there is this officer named Philip Brailsford. If you look him up, I think you would agree that he doesn’t deserve abuse. He deserves much worse ^_^
But wow, thinking about it, I managed to find some sympathy for him. His stupid partner had created the most ridiculous of … nah I just can’t on this guy, he looks like a total sociopath. He even swooped in to game the system with 30k a year medical leave payments until the day he dies by claiming that killing that poor man on his hands and knees sobbing and crawling gave him PTSD.
A tragic, battered person, so scared he tries his hardest to seem scary, in a unnecessaryly tense situation due to his partners idiocy, but still… I and any other common person would had just walked up to him in his underwear and helped him up off the floor. But wow, thinking about it, I managed to find some sympathy for him. His stupid partner had created the most ridiculous of … nah I just can’t on this guy, he looks like a real sociopath.
Random observation: That “observer self” sounds like another word for the ego, which is obsessed with separating the individual from the total environment. But ego defines most of our existence, except for people deep into meditation and full-time mystics. We are pretty much always standing back and observing — ourselves, others, things. Which inevitably begs the mention of quantum theory, about which I know you’re somewhat enthused — if the presence of an observer is part of and literally changes that which is observed, what are the implications here? (Not saying I know.)
But I think the essential contradiction running through any attempt to make psychotherapy “better” is the fact that “client/provider” relationships are inherently alienated relationships, necessitated by capitalism and serving the function of adjusting the individual to an oppressive system. This is independent of the wisdom, skill, commitment or integrity of the “tharapist”; it is in fact beyond their control.
Upton Sinclair could tell us why therapists don’t discuss how their power to essentially jail their consumers harms their consumers. How being a shoulder to cry on only because they are overpaid to do so is not a therapeutic environment (by overpaid I mean that their services have zero to very little long term benefits ). How the average person would be better off with the cash but have to use poorer quality services because that is how society operates. How most of their job consists of distracting blame from our dystopian society.
“Get some distance” might be a not so fitting suggestion when the brain is screaming for resolution, but
when involved in situations where resolution is not possible, distance is sometimes empowering. And sometimes distance helps to realize that there are a lot of super important other things.
I remember the first time I heard the phrase “we agree to disagree”, and I observed the faces of
the two men that said that….. Which of course is often simply
a “civil” way of saying “I disagree with you and I still think you’re wrong and it pisses me off” LOL.
Thanks for all your articles. You put a lot of time and effort into them.
I think it’s nearly impossible to not be saying the wrong things at the wrong times to people, especially if
we do not know them. I have had friends say things to me that were NOT helpful, because I was reaching out for a certain response. But then, there they go, off on their tangents from their experiences or training.
I can’t really fault them in hindsight, yet it is interesting how one might not reach out the next time and it can cause a bit of a disconnect.
Perhaps therapists really receive too much training sometimes, thinking that they are using the right words or phrases at the right times, often our responses to others are what we think we should say.
Communication can be so difficult. It would be why many relationships are silent lol. No wonder they can co-exist in a monastary.
THANK YOU for writing this! Decades ago when I wrote the book, The Myth of Women’s Masochism, this was just the kind of reason I wrote it! And as you show, it is still all too relevant. It still sickens me when I hear an abuse victim described as having “brought it on herself, because she needs to suffer.” And if she says she hates the suffering and the fear, the traditional mental health professional (and too often, family and friends who are misguided) reply, “Well, if she doesn’t consciously enjoy it, then obviously UNCONSCIOUSLY she does, or it wouldn’t happen.” So the abuser is totally absolved of responsibility. If you haven’t read Dr. Lenore Walker’s classic book, The Battered Woman, do not miss it! And in my most recent edition of The Myth of Women’s Masochism, I have a section in the new preface about emotional/psychological/verbal abuse and how it is even more insidious than physical abuse because it doesn’t leave visible evidence and because it is too easily dismissed as “He was just kidding” and “You are way too sensitive,” so I include guidelines about how to recognize this kind of abuse.