By Dr Stephen Andrew
It’s an all too common psychotherapeutic scenario.
You’ve reached a point in life where some outside help is needed. Names and numbers are gathered from friends or the internet. You make a call, arrange a time and arrive to meet your new therapist. As the session starts you feel a curious mixture of hope and uncertainty as you and your counsellor begin to get to know each other. Behind your opening dialogue sits a stack of silent questions: can I trust this person, will they care for me, and will my time with them make a positive difference in my life?
As you tell your story and start to disclose aspects of yourself that are personal, intimate and perhaps unconventional, you see your therapist nodding, reflecting, asking questions and perhaps taking notes. So far so good.
Then you notice something disconcerting about the therapist and their responses to you. Your body offers up a clue in the form of a small shiver as you begin to realise you are being judged. Sometimes this judgement is subtle – a soft grimace on the face of the therapist or a furrowed brow and slow head shake. Sometimes it is more direct – some advice aimed to steer you in a particular direction and inevitably away from your thoughts, feelings, values and experiences.
You feel foolish, clam up and may want to leave the room. Emotions like shame, sadness, confusion and despair may be felt. Your attempt to get help has hit a wall and that wall is called judgement.
Some years ago I sought out a therapist to talk about my relational world. I was beginning to explore polyamory and struggling with aspects of jealousy, control, communication, sexuality and honesty. After what I now see as a slow build up to more overt judgemental statements, my therapist seemed to be subtly disapproving of what I was telling her. I checked in with myself. Was this my own uncertainty at play here? Was I projecting my doubt or ignorance or fear onto her?
It turned out that I was doing nothing of the kind and that I was accurately reading her (not so subtle) body language. Eventually she peered over her glasses, took a deep breath and spoke what I assume had been on her mind for some time. “Polyamory, you know, has a very poor track record. I mean, do you actually know of any long term polyamorous relationships that, well…work?” She raised her eyebrows to further underscore the rhetoric of her words. I took a deep breath. Feeling suddenly foolish, my eyes scanned her office looking for a safe place to land.
She meant well. She wanted to help. But as her judgement of my story (my life, no less) chilled the room, I felt a need to retreat. I became defensive and cagey. I lost confidence – in me, her and the process. I tried unsuccessfully to string some coherent sentences together and scrambled to defend myself (not something a counselling client should ever feel they have to do). My heart and soul left the building at that moment. At the end of the session, my body followed.
My confusion intensified. My clarity (which had begun to emerge as I told my tale) clouded over. I had been judged, and in that judgement, I was diminished and objectified. Importantly, I was not helped. I’d lost face, time and money. Her judgement was a therapeutic deal-breaker.
In my work as a therapist, I will often inquire into a new client’s previous experience with psychotherapy. If my client locates themselves outside of the (so-called) sexual mainstream, stories of previous negative experiences of therapy almost always include tales of being judged by the therapist. As I said at the top of this piece, it’s a story I have heard often.
In his book On Being a Client, David Howe states: “There is almost universal agreement amongst clients that counsellors and therapists should not be judgemental”. When that line is crossed, the impact on those seeking help can be profound. “Clients who feel judged will most likely leave treatment, and for good reason” says therapist Joseph Burgo. Sometimes this leaving can lead to a rejection of all therapists and all therapy.
In the face of a sometimes powerful urge to judge, Carl Rogers advocates acceptance instead of judgment. Rogers, one of the most respected and influential therapists in the history of the profession, says:
“When the therapist is experiencing a positive, non-judgemental, acceptant attitude toward whatever the client is at that moment, therapeutic movement or change is more likely. Acceptance involves the therapist’s willingness for the client to be whatever immediate feeling is going on – confusion, resentment, fear, anger, courage, love, or pride. It is a non-possessive caring. When the therapist prizes the client in a total rather than a conditional way, forward movement is likely.”
There are links here to unconditional love, the sort of care we crave from those closest to us and that we all needed from our caregivers when we were small. In therapy, this type of regard is expressed as a deep respect for the wisdom of the client and their experiences of themselves in the world. That non-judgemental honouring, (alongside empathic understanding and an authentic therapeutic presence) forms the basis of a helping relationship that can have profound positive impacts on a client in therapy.
– Stephen Andrew
Stephen is a person-centred counsellor, psychologist, supervisor and educator. He offers presence, deep listening and a fundamental trust in the person and the process. He seeks to create a relationship with his clients that is different other personal and professional connections that they have in their lives. He helps them seek out and find the resources already within themselves, reflect his understanding of what they are speaking about and does so without judgement. His engagement here is as genuine and authentic as possible. His work is poly-friendly and queer-friendly.
He can be contacted on 0407 367 568.