Therapy: Can You Handle the Honest Truth?

01/13/2012 09:54 EST | Updated 03/14/2012 05:12 EDT

During my years of training, both academic and experiential, I have learned all sorts of methods of softening the messages I delivered to my clients. One of the most effective was reframing, like telling someone they were good at finding methods to meet their needs instead of remarking about all the friends and family they'd ripped off to supply their drug habit. Okay, so that's not really a fair example, but it works to illustrate how loathe we were as rookie psychotherapists to hold our clients responsible for their actions, to ask them to justify their behaviours, to confront.

I remember being careful with my clients, forming my questions and responses so as not to challenge them. I wanted them to remain comfortable, to like me and the process of change. For the most part, I was successful and so was the therapy, but sometimes, after a session, I felt rather inauthentic. I knew that what I was thinking and what I was speaking were offset by "niceness."

As I became more seasoned, I began to trust the therapeutic process more and started taking more risks with what my clients could manage. Consistently, one of two things happened. Either they became angry with me or they rose to every challenge and effected the changes they had sought therapy for originally.

The difference in these reactions was unmistakable and I examined why some reacted favourably while others did not. Before long, I realized the determining factor was the client's willingness or ability (not always the same thing) to take responsibility for their own behaviour. If they could do this, regardless of what the issue was or even how their partners reacted, they were able and often enthusiastic to modify the behaviour that was troubling them.

This was an aha! moment for me as a therapist. From then on, I showed each client early and consistently that I am truthful, honest and non-judgemental. I model for them that I, too, would be responsible. Ironically, I do this primarily by not using niceties and reframes. I speak to my clients with adult candor, always warm but never protective.

Even my intake calls took on an immediate change in tone. Those clients not yet ready to make changes -- those consumed with rage and retribution, those seeking validation for poor choices -- immediately identify themselves and I refer them to more appropriate resources. Ah, but those who do not understand their situations and truly want to learn how to improve them, they, too, immediately distinguish themselves as appropriate candidates for what I think sex therapy is intended to be: brief, high-impact and client-driven. Yes!

As I move through the process of self-discovery with those clients, I am humbled and amazed time and time again at how each of the risks I take with them is met with their willingness to surpass my expectations. The more I trust that they have their answers, if only I ask them what they would say if they were uncensored and not judged, the simpler the process becomes.

I have learned, also, the value of interspersing solo sessions with couples's meetings. It is here more than anywhere that I model kind honesty over protective deception and we carry that into our couples's meetings. I have witnessed relationships salvaged with this truthfulness, which heretofore would have faltered under the weight of well-meaning reticence to say what needed to be said, but could not be uttered.

I suppose it is natural to be wary of change and to feel protective of our dear ones. I'm so pleased I've learned how to pierce the barriers that hold us prisoner to our good intentions. I am so grateful to the clients who teach me these lessons day after day.