The post is about blurting and embarrassment in couples therapy. There are therapy rules, The Therapy I Ching, that predict the process of positive change.
The therapist is an authority, has proprietary knowledge, which is why she is paid the big bucks (this is surely relative and not always deserved, and sometimes no amount of money is enough, but that's another topic for another day). As the authority, she lays down therapy basics at the beginning of treatment, and reinforces them. One might be:
Nobody Gets Hurt Here.This is the essence of the therapist/doctor/rabbi's obligation,
Do No Harm.
Extend that obligation, Do No Harm, to everyone in the room, and we have a shot at getting something done. We don't want anyone to become even more hurt, embarrassed, or depressed in the name of healing.
No one should get hurt while getting better.Hurt can be prevented, but it isn't always, and isn't usually cause for calls to the Department of Professional Regulation. But when someone gets hurt in therapy, it has to be discussed.
The blurt, the cause of the suffering we're talking about today, is associated with the emotional pain of a long-suffering partner. She (for the sake of simplification, make it a she) is fed up, her angst, palpable. It bubbles over with the blurt. She has to inform the therapist, get to the point, how bad her partner really is. Her partner's privacy is violated in the process.
It happens and it is a recovery moment. To her dismay, we have to divert from content, that embarrassing thing she says he does, and roll to the process, that he has been shamed in front of the therapist. How do you de-shame?
Embarrassment is emotional abuse. But it isn't particularly therapeutic to tell someone, You are emotionally abusive. Some people do come to therapy expecting a beating by the doc. If we know that we'll gladly oblige. For example, many who work 12-Step programs use the language: working on character defects. They see this work as laudable, the goal of all therapy, and it is incredible, great stuff. Much healing comes from fixing ourselves, changing, becoming better people. So people who work a program welcome criticism.
But others don't need it, not consciously, and don't come to therapy for it. Safe to say that most of us don't want criticism and judgement in therapy.
Yet there it is, in your office, a huge traffic accident and you have to clean up the mess.
I start with a process statement. Process is the opposite of content. It is the verb to the noun, the interaction. Content is the detail. He steals! That's content. She just outed him, embarrassed him. That's process. The therapist wants to make the process, which is usually unconscious, conscious. Anyone can deal with content.
As soon as the secret is out, the therapist gets it and directs the process.
"What just happened there?"
As if we didn't even know. But we act as if, truly, we need help here. Help us figure out what just happened.
It is a diagnostic question, What just happened there? We're seeking out how sensitive and how aware the patients are. Most of the time the one who blurted will answer right away, "He's angry because I told you that he _____ (fill in the blank). I told on him."
And the therapist can say, "He's angry? Is it anger? Are you sure he's angry?"
Then we can talk about emotions, which is an awesome thing to talk about in therapy. We let this one go on, and on, and on. When we hit embarrassment, or shame, the mother lode, I say, "Ooh, this is a great place to go, a great thing to discuss! Let's talk about life's embarrassing moments! Who wants to begin?"
Silence. Usually, if you want to think of something embarrassing, it is hard. We repress these events, a gift. The therapist must begin.
Since we're talking about me now, I might start them off with one of my great embarrassing moments: Second grade. Too afraid to ask the teacher for permission to use the bathroom.
The stuff of a reality TV show, no? Everyone wants to join in.
The fun of disclosure, real intimacy between partners, is about to begun.