The Judgment Trap
Are you or your clients distracted and distressed by judgments about their problems?
As if having bad feelings weren’t bad enough, many clients criticize their bad feelings, making them feel even worse. “You shouldn’t feel bad!” “You’re being a silly goose about this.” “Can’t you be a man and ‘suck it up’?” Any judgment adds yet another layer of trance, distancing clients even further from their problems and any possible solutions.
Whenever a client describes his or her feelings as “bad,” it can be useful to point out that these feelings are effectively good. Like pain or the trouble light on your dashboard, they signal that something needs attention. Clients who don’t have these feelings might fail to heed the underlying issue and suffer further consequences. People born without pain receptors continually damage their bodies because they lack vital feedback. Even just changing a description from “bad” to “unpleasant” can redirect attention from trying to eliminate the feeling—as addicts and many others do—to solving the problem that causes it.
Years ago, I was invited by Bill, a career Air Force psychiatrist, to teach the staff at his base a little about Gestalt therapy. Afterward, as we walked to my car, Bill opened up to me about his unhappiness with life in the military. Despite the good salary, the free healthcare, and the other benefits that kept him there, he found himself bridling at rules and restrictions he disliked intensely and avoiding conflicts that might get him in trouble with his superiors. At one point, he said wearily, “I pay a terrible price for all those benefits.” Just wanting to be friendly, I said, “Well, I guess we all have our price,” meaning that we all sometimes have to make compromises in a less-than-perfect world, and that benefits never come to us without some kind of cost.
Later, I learned that my simple “we” comment, which took no more than six seconds to say—an example of ultrabrief therapy—expanded the scope of Bill’s thinking, helping him realize how common his situation was. By allowing him to discard his self-judgment, this normalization helped him examine the price he was paying and, eventually, move on to an emotionally less costly life.
When clients think of their problems (and sometimes themselves) as being weird or abnormal, they’re comparing themselves with a standard or ideal. Giving them a new comparison—particularly by using extreme and absurd examples—can open up their inner world and help them expand the scope of their thinking. For instance, if a client says he has a lot of fears, you can ask, in a curious and interested voice, “Oh, are you one of those people who’s afraid of dust mice under the bed? Do you worry that someone is going to go through your trash and save your fingernail clippings to make a voodoo doll and put a hex on you? Do you worry about a passing airplane dropping a piece of ‘blue ice’ from the toilet on your head? Just how bad is this?”
Usually the client will laugh, and say, “No, no, it’s not that bad!” and go on to correct you and clarify what he is afraid of, but from a different perspective and feeling state. In contrast with extreme examples, clients may come to see their problems as much less weird—and therefore much easier to solve.
Escaping the Tyranny of Language
Are your communications directed too much toward clients’ conscious, verbal understanding and too little toward their unconscious responses?
Most of the problems that bring clients to therapy are responses and behaviors that aren’t under their conscious control: they can’t simply decide to stop having them or to change them. That means that they originate in the brain’s subdominant hemisphere, which is much less verbal, and/or in even more primitive subcortical structures in the midbrain, the parts that we share with other mammals. That’s where the problem is, and that’s where the solution has to occur.