You Don’t Have to Tell me…
“You don’t have to tell me what feeling you had when your ex-wife showed up…”
“You could if you want… either way, take a moment to try to locate that feeling in your body and stay with it for a moment…”
“You don’t have to tell me how you felt when your date ghosted you last night… is it OK to just take a few minutes to reflect on that… anything you remember… or sense…? maybe name for yourself what was going on inside… for you…”
One version of the theory of change behind psychodynamic therapies is the making of the unconscious conscious. Or more gently, being mindful and bring awareness to the unconscious mind.
There are many other traditions, religious and philosophical that promote elevated consciousness or awareness. “You shall know the truth and it shall make you free.” said Jesus. “The unexamined life is not worth living.” said Socrates.
Insight, the conscious awareness and naming of internal processes, is a significant aspect of this “knowing the truth.” At the same time, “Insights is overrated” is a statement attributed to Milton Erickson by rumor. I could not verify the actual source.
Insight is overrated because it does not touch issues that are deeply seated in the unconscious mind. Insight often ignores the body. Insight cannot help much in cases of trauma. In addition, trying to bring insight to sensitive areas can often evoke shame. Thus, adding unconscious material or burying things even deeper, instead of uncovering. Insight can be re-traumatizing.
Insight often does not lead to action. When clients come to therapy saying “I want to figure out…” I often tell them that we could work for a long time “figuring out” and they will still suffer from the same pains.
I completely trust the benefits of elevated consciousness. The discussion here is more about the methods and the actions that might lead to raised awareness. How does one MAKE the unconscious conscious? Are there various alternative routes, each suitable for different circumstances?
Frequently, this is done by interpretation or explanation that might promote insight. That implies the invitation to reflect on memories, feelings, and thoughts. And, offer to the client some understandings about possible mechanisms behind the client’s process of creating thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Specifically, the less desirable variety, those that wishing to change them might have led in the first place to initiating therapy.
What is not so frequently considered in that context, is the immensity of shame that comes in response to the light-shining insight, or even to the remote suggestion of new awareness. Shame is possibly the most painful emotion. The one to be avoided at all cost.
The inner judge or critic is often a first line of protection against that shame. The common logic behind it being: “I can judge myself faster and better than anyone else.”
When I first started recording my dreams, I made a practice of leaving a notebook and a pen next to my bed, and committed to write down the dreams the moment I woke up. I remember very well the night of emerging from a dream, picking up my notebook and pen in the dark half asleep, and hearing a very clear inner voice that said “we are not going to write this…”
Sometime I ask a client “do you know that I will not judge you, whatever you might tell me?” Such exchange always takes place after a significant time of trust building. Before a question like that is asked, I make the assessment that the client is at least safe enough to respond in the negative. If they say that they do not feel sufficiently safe with me, I praise them for the courage and the trust to tell me an uncomfortable truth.
Removing the need to reveal secrets or some other unpleasant or unflattering story, relieves the pressure and adds to safety. The phrase “You don’t have to tell me…” is a form of trance induction. It helps the client relax while focusing on whatever it is that they don’t need to tell.
On the one hand this phrase promotes insight while minimizing shame. On the other hand, it suggests that I might actually know what it is, or at least aware that there is something important hiding in the unconscious. I will come back to this point later, when discussing projections.
The vague indication that the therapist knows something, is reminiscent to the acknowledging of Felt-Sense in Focusing, or to Externalizing the Problem in Narrative Therapy. In both cases there is an acknowledgment of a third entity. In addition to the client and therapist’s engaging in conscious conversation, there is a hint towards another unconscious participant.
“You don’t have to tell me…” promotes insight without pressure. There is nothing obvious for the client to resist. In comparison, “Please tell me more about…” can often evoke the inner, or outer response of “I don’t want to” or “I don’t know.”
There are many ways to help another person raise awareness.
There is simple pointing out of perceptions: “did you notice the new painting?” “Do you see anything new in the room” “Please take a moment to look around and notice what you see” “anything surprised you in that situation?” When my son was upset or crying at age one or two, I would often pick him up and take him to the window. There I would point to objects and name them. Often that would calm him down. Many more similar examples can be made using other senses.
There is teaching of methods and new ways of organizing thoughts and perceptions: “You could look around searching for a specific color” “Did you notice that when you close one eye the world might look different? How about the other eye?” “When you notice things, do you more often hear them first or see them?”
There is teaching about emotions: “How do you distinguish embarrassment from self-consciousness?”
“Guilt is when you think you have done something wrong, shame is when you think something is wrong with you, and you better hide it.”
These are a few examples covering very little scope, demonstrating how the therapist-client interaction can function as a direct awareness raising.
Even the pointing out of sights and sounds can evoke resistance. Surely, when dealing with emotions, the client has long-practiced ways of bypassing or avoiding anything that can be painful. Confronting that, is likely to evoke opposition or shame.
Can the permission to not tell, support mechanisms of repression and suppression that are possibly at the root of the problem the client came to therapy for?
This is a good question to ask, at least from a psychodynamic perspective.
Psychodynamic theory of change includes the initial projection on the therapist (Transference) and later working with it and resolving that projection by giving it back (“I am not your father…” etc.)
“You do not have to tell me…” avoids some aspects of that projection. At the same time, it invites another kind of ‘wizard’ projection. Assuming the unconscious message that the therapist might know what is not told, is conveyed. Arguably, the therapy can proceed and conclude positively without ever “resolving” that projection.
Whenever I note such projections in my clients, I gently convey to them that they are the agents of change and that they have done the work. I as the therapist am only a catalyst or sounding board. That reduces the chance for dependency, and more importantly, it increases the chance for a lasting change after therapy ends. This emphasis on agency helps the client own the change and possibly adjust their identity to include the change.
I am not suggesting that “you don’t have to tell me…” is always the preferred intervention. There are certainly times for probing, for naming feelings more specifically, for locating feelings in the body and for suggesting interpretations. Yet, it is useful to have other options, especially when such interventions seem to lead mainly to resistance, avoidance, and shame.