Photo: Ryan Tansey

“I think if I took therapy, the doctor would quit. He’d just pick up the couch and walk out of the room.” -Don Rickles

Okay, I’m guessing that Don Rickles is right – a client like him would encourage many psychologists and psychiatrists to take up plumbing for a living! Most clients aren’t like that. But too many clients have misconceptions about therapy that keep their sessions less productive than they could be.


Therapists spend countless hours learning their profession. They’re there to help people. Yet the one who has the most impact on the success of a therapy – the client – is rarely coached on their part in their own healing and progress. Coming from our “give-me-a-pill-and-make-it-go-away-now” culture, we often walk into our therapist’s office, hand him or her our messy bag of problems and issues, then wait for them to fix it. Oh, we know we’ll have to answer some questions and dig into our personal muck a bit. But in general, we’re expecting the person with those credentials on the wall to do all the heavy lifting.


But great therapists know that if their clients knew certain concepts about life and themselves, not only would they achieve the results they wanted in therapy, they would have the tools to handle more of their issues without a therapist’s services.


In the Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) I teach, we talk about several presuppositions that make therapy sessions and NLP techniques powerful and effective. When a client doesn’t understand or won’t accept these concepts, we know that, no matter what techniques we use or how much time we spend, the therapy will be less impactful than it otherwise could have been. And when the session is done, odds are that the client will continue to create unnecessary obstacles and difficulties on their journey.


Here are a few of the basics that, if understood and applied, can help you dissolve and resolve many of the issues in your life – with or without therapy:


#1 Respect for other people’s reality. Rather than imposing our model of the world on others, honoring what others think and feel as valid and real for them goes a long way to keep communication clear.


Take the example of a teenager who thinks her life is over because she can’t get the latest electronic device to keep up with the “popular kids” at school. As her parent, you may not agree that the latest smartphone is a life-or-death issue. But though the pressure she feels may not be “real” or significant to you, it is to her. You can respect her point of view (without adopting it yourself) by saying, “I understand that you feel stressed about this and I want to help. I don’t feel good about spending that kind of money on this. But I’m open to ideas about how you could earn it. And I’d also like to understand why it’s important to you and what alternatives there might be to help you feel better.”


Okay, anyone with a teenage child knows that this is not exactly how the conversation would go! But can you see the difference it might make to the other person when you acknowledge their truth? Rather than cutting off communication, when you honor another person’s point of view, you open up the channels and deepen the relationship.  Whether it’s your child, a co-worker, spouse, friend or customer, everyone appreciates being listened to with respect.


#2 People are not their behaviors. You are not defined by what you do or have done – and neither are others. We can respect the person (or ourselves) while still disliking a behavior and desiring to change it.


We tend to default to labels. Someone who has cheated becomes a cheater. A person who failed to follow through is unreliable. That guy who just cut you off in traffic is a jerk! Labelling others by their behaviors has many ramifications. For one, it leaves us stuck and gives us less ability to grow and evolve. Think about it: Can a jerk be turned into a non-jerk? Probably not. But can someone who cuts others off in traffic learn to drive a bit slower and use her blinker? Much more likely.


This same concept can be applied to ourselves. Say that you have a history of paying your bills late or over-drawing your checking account. If you label yourself as “bad with money,” it feels like an uphill battle. You’ve defined and judged yourself with a label and now need to change who you are. But what if you merely look at changing the specific behaviors and figuring out the steps you need to take? Doesn’t that feel more possible and empowering?


#3 Everyone is doing the best they can based on their current resources. We’re all doing the best we can based on our current knowledge, understanding, and maturity level.


A 2-year old operates based on his capabilities and his experience of the world. For example, he gives his peanut butter sandwich to the dog and smears Mom’s lipstick all over the living room wall. All the decisions he makes at age 2 have a positive intent behind them (The dog looked hungry. The lipstick was pretty on the wall). Can he make better decisions? Nope. Not until he gains more understanding.


We are just like that 2-year old. If you just made a total mess of your most recent relationship, you were really doing the best you could, based on your knowledge, experience and resources at the time. Were you perfect? Absolutely not. Could you do better in the future? Absolutely, especially if you absorb the lessons from the experience and don’t waste time beating yourself up about it.


Test these concepts out. Apply them to yourself and others. You’ll find that positive change is not as difficult as it might have seemed –and your therapist will thank you!


Dr. Matt