On Apologizing To Our Clients
I have been thinking a lot lately around my graduate studies and training to become a therapist. I remember having a mentor (and highly seasoned clinician) reach out to me to congratulate me on my graduation a couple of years ago. The first thing he said was, “Now, all you have to do is forget everything you learned and start actually doing therapy.” We both laughed, but the reality was that he understood there was some truth behind this. Graduate school and additional training did an adequate job preparing me for the job of being a therapist, but ultimately didn’t completely teach me the art of truly being with another person. This became an integral part of my post-graduate training, and something I am sure I will continue to work on for decades.
I thought about this within the context of rupture and repair in the therapeutic relationship. One of the things I’ve learned after graduate school that has been such an asset is apologizing to clients. I cannot remember a single instance when we talked about the concept of role-modeling accountability and apologizing to clients for our very human mistakes. The more I thought about this, the more it blew me away. Every clinician makes small mistakes with their clients. It could be something like inadvertently talking them out of their emotions. It could be dismissing a perspective subtly or indirectly. Whatever it is, we do it at times, not because we are bad therapists, but because we are human beings.
The difference in this situation between good and bad therapy is simple: when we fail to acknowledge our shortcomings and take ownership of our faults we miss a critical connection. Our clients often come to our office (or out to the woods) to become reacquainted with their authentic selves. And this is some of what I believe I know about our collective authentic selves: they are messy, imperfect, and beautiful. They are worthy beyond any condition. They are awe-inspiring. They make mistakes, yet that doesn’t detract from their being whole. And so given that information, we have this amazing opportunity to role-model our humanity. To show our clients what it’s like to acknowledge our limitations without any expectation from the client.
I remember struggling a lot with thinking I needed to be the expert, someone who “knew it all” and could come in almost like a surgeon with a scalpel to help “fix” my clients. This line of thinking is so flawed, and borderline abusive. The idea leads to poor therapy because the therapist may become so afraid of not being “right” that they miss the client in the process. They can become so fixated on symptoms that they forget the potentially life-changing value in a safe, authentic relationship. Clients don’t need fixing, they need finding. I think of myself as just another human that can bring a flashlight and help them on the search. I am just as flawed and imperfect as anyone sitting across from me. The expert vs. novice dynamic that can exist in therapy puts immense pressure on the therapist, and immense shame on the client. Remembering that the client is the expert on THEIR life is one of the biggest imperatives.