Do I have your attention now?! The quest to get someone to do what they want brings many people into therapy, whether they want the partner, child, friend, client, or parents to stop smoking, be nice, have sex more often, have sex less often, eat more vegetables and fruit, exercise, do homework, respect them, clean the bathroom, or pay more for services.
The unwelcome news I have to tell them is this: you can’t really get people to do what you want, other than your children, and then only up to a certain age. You can bully others into acting like they’re doing what you want, but trust me: they’re sneaking Twinkies and resenting you for making them sneak. Or, as a wise teacher discussing couples treatment once said, “You can make someone marry you, but you can’t make them love you.” This may be obvious, but it’s a fact we often forget in daily life. The real question is why you think people should do what you want, rather than be true to themselves. That’s the question to ask yourself, rather than looking for a recipe for getting others to bend to your will.
This applies in therapy, too—for therapists!
Many beginning therapists believe their job is to convince patients to do what the therapist thinks they should do, perhaps what the therapist would do in their situation, and in a complicated scenario the therapist spends most of the session time and a good bit of personal time trying to determine what that right thing is, so they can get the patient to do it. Talk about a formula for therapist burnout!
A wise supervisor and skilled therapist working with a new therapist—yes, a good therapist will have a therapist, too—will help the new therapist understand that their job is not to make patients conform to them, but to help patients think through things, instead of just plunging ahead on impulse, and that patients will change if and only if they decide they want to change. Saves a lot of brick walls, if you know what I mean!
Tenderness, not bulldozing
This is something we can all apply when the people we love are being themselves instead of being a version of us: look for what we love in this person whose “crime” is being true to him/herself. What kind of treatment do we want when we’re being ourselves instead of a version of someone else? You’ll never go wrong with love and warmth, whether you’re a new therapist, parent, friend, or partner! Retire the bulldozer and judgments about what people should do, and instead take a tip from the great Otis Redding: try a little tenderness—just not as a persuasion tactic!
Therapy at its best helps people learn to change the only person they can—themselves—and to stop trying to make the rest of the world fall in line.