The night before my parents dropped me off at Penn State University for graduate school, my father tried to encourage me. Perhaps noticing my anxiety about starting from scratch socially, he told me I was likeable and people would want to be with me. I retorted, “You’re just saying that because you’re my dad and you’re supposed to say things like that.”
Occasionally, a person has no good words spoken into them.
Usually, though, we refuse the good words that are being spoken about us.
And we have good reasons for doing so. After all, flattery gets used to manipulate us—some people will say anything to close a deal, whether they’re selling us a car or a night of intimacy. And some people will say good things about us to our face but not-so-good things behind our back. And, sometimes, we’ve become so convinced we’re not good enough that good things simply sound too good to be true.
Instead of acting like a sponge and soaking up good words, we build shells like Teflon—facades that good things slide right off of.
This is one of the greatest challenges for a therapist. As therapists, we see something good and beautiful in the clients we care for, and we put words to it, we express it, and the resistance—whether spoken out loud or uttered silently inside—often takes this form:
“You’re getting paid to say that.”
It’s the equivalent of, “You’re my mom; you have to say I’m beautiful.” The thing is, though, as therapists, that’s not our job. As therapists, our job is to tell the truth. A friend of mine once said, “If you want someone to help you feel good, go find a good friend. If you want someone to help you feel the truth, go find a good therapist.”
We aren’t there to be nice; we’re there to be real.
We’ve been trained to see you, your life, and what’s underneath the surface of both with as much precision as is humanly possible. When what we see might be painful, it’s our job to communicate it to you with as much care as possible. And when what we see is brilliant—refracting light like a diamond embedded at the center of you—it is our job to make our words a mirror, reflecting all that beauty to you with as much clarity as possible.
Yes, it’s true, we get paid to do what we do. And Teflon defenses love this little bit of the truth, seizing upon it, using it, negating what is good with what is monetary. As therapists, it’s as if the good words we want to give are put behind the eight-ball of the invoices we have to give.
But the truth is, we get paid for our time, yet what we see and put into words during that time is free of charge.
Which means when we tell you we see something lovely in you—a hidden wholeness, a blinding light, a tender heart or a fiery spirit or a generous soul; when we tell you we see someone who is brave and strong and resilient, someone who is preparing to share his or her gifts and goodness with the world; when we tell you we see within you passions to be lived and a purpose for your living—we’re not making that stuff up.
We’re merely looking a little more closely than most people do.
For a little longer.
With a slightly steadier, more practiced gaze.
And we’re telling you the truth about who you are.
The time costs money, but the truth is free.
And, indeed, that is what the truth will do, if you’re willing to receive it: it will set you free. Free to be you. Which is to say, free to be fully human—to be wounded and complicated and messy…and shining.
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