When Psychotherapists Are Less Healthy Than Their Clients

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From Daniel Mackler: “Over time I started to formulate an idea of why it is so common — not always true, but so commonly true — that therapy clients are healthier than their therapists . . . The first [reason] is that therapy clients so often are humble. They’re ready to learn, they’re willing to grow, to look at themselves and consider that they might be wrong. That is a very healthy state that . . . provokes more healthiness, provokes more growth. Whereas being really humble is not a common quality in psychotherapists. A good psychotherapist will inevitably be humble but most are not . . .

I’ve observed quite a lot of therapists and mostly what I see is they’re the opposite of humble — they are arrogant. Now there are different ways that they can hide it: they can hide it by being professional; they can hide it by using all sorts of fancy language; they can hide it from themselves by being in denial; but so many therapists, perhaps most, are very arrogant. They believe they have the answers, they have the tools, they have the techniques, they have the diagnostic power on their side, they know what to do in every situation. And if they can’t help someone — and so much of the time when people have real problems, really open problems . . . therapists really don’t know what to do — they know how to try to tie up a person’s problems and make it seem like it’s gone away, but they don’t know how to really help them through their problems, because most therapists haven’t figured out how to help themselves through their own problems . . . And so . . . if they can’t figure out how to push the client’s feelings down, make them bury their feelings, perhaps even through pathologizing them, shaming them, breaking them down, hurting them in different ways, perhaps even replicating the very traumas that caused the client to have his or her problems in the first place; if the therapist cannot do that . . . then they get rid of them. They say ‘Your problems are too serious for me, you need to go see a psychiatrist, you need a higher form of care,’ or simply, ‘I just can’t work with you, I can’t deal with your problems,’ or ‘You need medication, you need something more’ . . . What they’re really saying, if they could be really fundamentally honest: You are threatening my arrogance too much, you are threatening my façade too much, you are threatening my denial too much, you are too healthy and health-oriented for me, I am too shut down to be able to work with you, I need to get rid of you.

The problem is none of this is said out in the open, it’s not said using these actual words; the therapist would have to be very, very humble to say these things to the client. So instead they just blame the client. And so often . . . [the client believes] the therapist. They believe that this person knows better and they feel ashamed and often they shut down and want to crush their own growth process in order to do what the therapist says is right . . .

So the second area . . . is about the different levels or stages of the healing process. When people are the least healed, when people are the most stuck on their emotional healing process from the traumas they have experienced in their life, they are dissociated. They’re blocked from their feelings, from their post-traumatic feelings, often from knowledge or awareness of how much they are traumatized. They are not really suffering that much; they’re not growing that much; they’re really out of touch. This dissociated state is extremely common in psychotherapists . . . They’re not in touch with their deeper feelings [and] their deeper traumas. Or actually — this is probably more common — they’re in touch with a small number of their traumas but not a greater scope of their traumas; and by and large they have fit into society’s and the mental health system’s conception of what healthiness is, and that is to be dissociated. To push down traumas, to not heal them, to forgive all your traumatizers, to rise above, to be close with your parents and other people who might have harmed you: this is called ‘healthiness’ — you have ‘come out the other side,’ you’ve ‘learned how to live in the now,’ you can ‘be present,’ you have maybe some of your feelings back, you have figured out how to ‘function in the world’; but fundamentally, on a psychological level, these people are dissociated. And they get a lot of perks for being dissociated, because one of the perks is society calls them healthy.

Well, people very rarely come to psychotherapy as a client if they are in a dissociated state. People who are in dissociated states rarely go to psychotherapy because if you’re dissociated enough, often you feel pretty good. People come to psychotherapy when their dissociation is not working — when they are in a healthier state than dissociation — when their dissociation has broken open and they are suffering, they are in pain, they’re feeling horrible, they’re feeling frustration, anguish, existential despair, perhaps they’re feeling anger, rage, perhaps they’re being flooded with memories and all these terrible feelings of loss for what they went through . . . Now if the psychotherapist is actually healthier, they can help the person deal with their suffering by going up to an even healthier state, which is moving into grieving. Grieving is where the person acknowledges their loss, starts to integrate all these different feelings, steps forward into making sense of what they are going through now and where it came from, really making sense of their childhood history, of the traumas they suffered, of the losses and the abandonments and the neglects and the violations and the abuses that they suffered. This is how people heal from suffering. This is how they make sense of suffering and get their life back, reconnect with the truth that’s deeply within them, underneath their traumas.

But that’s not what most psychotherapists do for their clients, because most psychotherapists haven’t figured out much or sometimes at all how to do this for themselves. Some whole schools of therapy are about not dealing with this at all. In fact what most psychotherapists do — with the backing of the mental health system — is they take people who are in suffering and try to help them go back into dissociation. That’s what the psychotherapists themselves have done. This is the ideal of the mental health system and society, and they do this to their clients — they take people who are in a healthier state and they try to make them less healthy. What they do is they try to make the clients become reflections of the therapists themselves. And this is very common, and the sad thing is they don’t say to their clients that that’s what they are doing because they don’t even know it themselves — they’re not healthy enough, they don’t have enough perspective on their own selves as people, as healing people, lack-of-healing people or as psychotherapists, to know that this is, on an emotional level, what is going on in this dynamic. They actually believe often that they are helping their clients when they are taking their clients and pushing them, pressuring, manipulating them, often, back into dissociation. And often the clients believe them, because the clients have come so vulnerable and so humble, they want to believe that this person with the fancy office and the fancy degrees and the fancy clothes and the person who accepts their money and has knowledge and societal backing and a license and malpractice insurance — they want to believe that this person knows what they’re talking about . . .

Well when it becomes interesting is when the client doesn’t accept what the psychotherapist says — and often the client has a little voice inside their head that says ‘I don’t think this is right’; but so often the psychotherapist has so much power that they crush that voice sometimes for months or years, sometimes forever in people. But there are some psychotherapy clients . . . who just know; they’re like, ‘No, what my psychotherapist was doing to me was not right, they were not helping me grow, they were trying to push me to do the opposite of growing, they were trying to break me down, shame me, replicate the traumas that I already went through.’ And this is where psychotherapy relationships between client and therapist can become very problematic, very dramatic; there can be a lot of conflict between therapist and client, there can be a lot of sparks . . . it can really cause a lot of existential crisis inside of the psychotherapist. Because the client is actually trying to wake up the therapist. In effect what the client is saying to the therapist is ‘Wake up, wake up! Feel your feelings, go back to what you went through in your life, so that you can help me!’ And the psychotherapist doesn’t want to do it, because it is too painful. They don’t want to break down the façade of their life. So instead, they go to war with the client, and they try to break the client down. And . . . usually what happens is either — and this is the best case — somehow the relationship ends and the client quits and moves on in their life and figures out how to process what actually happened in the psychotherapy; or — and I’ve seen this happen sometimes and it’s really sad — this is when the therapist actually can do some pretty nasty things to the client. Sometimes, for instance, they can get the client hospitalized psychiatrically. ‘Oh, this person is having a psychotic breakdown,’ and sometimes they’re actually driving their client crazy, driving them mad, literally, and can get them forcibly hospitalized . . .

I think in the best case scenario when these kind of dynamics happen and the client starts to become aware that they are healthier than their psychotherapist, the best thing that they can do is get out — pull out as quickly as possible — just move on, because being with someone who is in a position of power over one who is actually less healthy is a very dangerous situation.”

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7 COMMENTS

  1. Well done Daniel Mackler

    As I am not a ‘psy-professional’ and am not a Mad in America staff writer (I’m not a therapist or any other form of ‘psy professional’ as many, most or all of Mad in America’s own staff writers-editors might be….?),

    ****I invite all readers of Mad in America to listen to the song below by the late and great Amy Winehouse – and perhaps insert the word ‘therapy’ in place of the word ‘rehab’ – and then, sing along to it 🙂

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KUmZp8pR1uc

    This is my last comment for MIA at this time.
    Signing off

    Magdalene D’Silva 1 Nov 2022

    • Amy Winehouse spoke with a friend on the night she passed, they said she was in a happy and positive frame of mind; and that she mentioned she would be prepared to give up everything she had, just to be able to walk down the street without being recognised.

  2. My god!
    This line rocks! “Because the client is actually trying to wake up the therapist.”
    I agree 100%

    In training school, at least the one I attended, the idea was to be in a group and do not use logic, rational or cognition for many years – only emotions and feelings.

    So we were all broken down to our child parts (no adult only uses emotions and affects in real life). The problem is not that we were shown how our child parts acted or were (which was good) but that the progression of the program never allowed the reality of the break of cognition to be discussed. It was called just being indirect therapy! This does not work in training though cause I hope we could all see but couldn’t discuss.

    It was like no rational. No logic. no cognition for many years and then graduate. So most therapists are not fully integrated their affects, emotions and logic and then do the same to the clients because the integration of emotions and logic was not completed at training.

    In practice:
    The client walks in. the therapist functions as the cognition. The client is reduced (shrank) to emotions and feelings alone for years – they become super vulnerable cause they sort of de-value their own thinking taken by the therapist (or become unconscious and fall into power imbalance situation) – and they start to depend on the therapist for the thinking.

    Unfortunately, full dissociation!

    so when the client finally gives the crown to the therapist and admits full dependence, they may be told they are healed because they experience real attachment. And therapists will laugh about it in supervision or with their colleagues how they made the clients experienced attachment which is really just brainwashing form in adult or narcissistic methods used by narcissistically inclined people. No difference in mechanism but therapists will say different in meaning!

    Ps. I did recover in making sense of my trauma and making peace with my grieving in therapy but with one caveat – I did not seek validation of the therapist person. I used the approach of what is technically called Ernst Kris’s concept of Regression in the service of the ego BUT I had a lot of support outside of therapy to pull it off meaning I could easily get back to reality after therapy session. But I could only do this because I was being trained.

  3. If mh wasn’t hell bent on pathologizing behaviors and enforcing social control, there’d be legitimate inquiry into why there are variations in individuals’ ability to tolerate the pressure to stay in the socially required dissociative state.
    The cardinal (social) sin of attempting to buck off layers of dissociative state very quickly is “psychosis.” I think there are those of us who are unable to digest the dissociative state and make it feel or look good. It like a reaction to an offending toxin where the body purges the toxins as best it can, but it doesn’t look like “health” to the uninformed.
    The inquiry might describe different determinants such as trauma dosage, privilege, and cultural differences as to why there are different modes of resistance and healing from normalized zombie states.