How to Be Your Own Advocate

If you've ever wondered what makes a therapist/psychologist/counselor/social worker (hereafter just, therapist) different from your hair stylist, then this is a good post for you to read. I'm going to pull the curtain back on what actually sets these people apart in our society as the gatekeepers of problem solving. 

Keep in mind that this list is supposed to be an ideal one. Hence, if it goes the way it's supposed to, then this list is what you SHOULD find in your clinician. 

1. They are evidence-based problem solvers. 

You can get problems solved anywhere. Go talk to your girlfriends or listen to your buddies rant over a football game. Meditate. Pray. 

All potential options. Usually though, someone seeks me out when they feel they've exhausted all the options. What makes a therapist different is that she or he has been trained in problem solving methods that have been demonstrated to be scientifically effective. 

We're not just throwing random thoughts out there. We have a method to the madness. Or at least, we should. 

2. They are excellent relationship builders.

Of all the things that make therapy work, relationship building is the most important. That, and what you, the client, bring to the table work together to produce the change you're looking for. Plenty of therapists will use different evidence-based approaches to help you solve problems. 

But none of those are effective if your relationship with your therapist is poor. 

3. They are aware of their own judgments and values. 

This is probably the more important of the three, and coincidentally, it's the one I want to spend some time on today. All of these are important. We could spend time talking about how you could spot a therapist using evidence-based treatment, but this last one has me steaming right now and I think you should know why. 

At least once or twice a week in my office, I hear someone tell me that they've finally got their spouse figured out because of something they read on....

Fill in the blank. 

Huffington Post. Elephant Journal. The New York Times. The comics section of the daily newspaper. 

The most recent article I discovered tried to convince it's readers that the reason people have affairs was because of this nefarious little personality trait called "machiavellianism." Machiavellianism is a pop-psychology nonsense word that has absolutely zero meaning and value in clinical language. 

You won't find it in the DSM-V (The bible of mental health). You won't find it in almost any credible manual that instructs clinicians how to help people recovering from infidelity. 

And that's because it's not a useful term to describe this problem. But the article is written in such a way that makes you think it's a perfectly legitimate explanation for why people have affairs. 

It's not. 

I'm not going to get too far into the details, but suffice it to say that the author cites a journal article from a journal that doesn't do clinical research, that doesn't have a strong peer review process and that was relying on data nearly half a century old. 

The point is this. 

When you're out there looking for answers to your questions, which we all do in the age of Google, you're going to be tempted to believe the advice of experts whose writing suits the suspicions you already have. 

Be careful. 

I expect that part of the problem with the author of the infidelity post I listed above was that she wasn't as aware of her own unconscious judgments as she should be. She used value-driven critical language to describe people's motives. She relied on poorly executed research to explain her theory. 

You'll find a lot of this swimming around the internet. Therapists aren't immune from value judgments. Despite what your shrink may tell you, she or he is not objective. There's no such thing. We shouldn't strive for it either. It's bad therapy. 

Rather, we're trained to be aware of our judgments and decide intelligently whether we should act on them, or reveal them to our clients. 

You, however, have a responsibility as well. You're responsibility is to be an empowered client. Don't fall prey to intelligent sounding words just because they link to a study. Go to the study. Research the journal. Examine the author's claims. If you're not familiar with research, just ask someone who is to help you understand. 

You are always your most powerful resource. Just because a therapist says something or writes something, doesn't make it right. You have the power to determine that truth for yourself.

Dr. Mathis Kennington