If you read my other blog, then you are aware that I recently did a post about criticism. I wrote that there are two types of criticism and that the type of criticism you use the most says a lot about who you are as a person. Specifically, if you engage in a lot of non-purposeful malicious criticism (Criticism that really serves no purpose other than to damn another person and/or make you look good in comparison) then often that indicates that you’re someone whose trying to distract yourself and others away from your own flaws. In other words, projection. Now, the question some of you may have had while reading that post is “What do I do if I have a client like that?”
Most people come in to therapy to work on themselves, but some people come in to therapy seeking reassurance from the therapist that it really is everyone else’s fault and everyone else whose acting irrational/rude/inconsiderate/idiotic. Although it’s entirely possible that someone could genuinely be surrounded by horrible people (as is often the case in dysfunctional families), sometimes the therapist starts to feel doubts. Sometimes you start to wonder if the client is criticizing others as a smokescreen to cover-up their own irrational/rude/inconsiderate behavior. Maybe it’s actually the client whose causing problems for everyone else? BUT there’s just one problem… How do you even start to work on that when the client has admitted absolutely no wrongdoing? The client seems truly convinced that it’s everyone else whose wrong. As a therapist, what do you do?
Well, for one thing, keep in mind that you don’t know for certain that it’s actually the client that’s causing trouble for the people around them. It’s just a hunch you have and seems likely given probabilities, but you don’t know this for certain so it would definitely be unwise to outright confront the client. Fortunately there is another way, and by the way, this is a great technique to use in a multitude of other circumstances as well. That technique is called “Playing the projection”.
This is a technique that was invented by Fritz Perls. I am well aware that Perls and Gestalt therapy in general is not the most popular therapy out there, but this is a good technique none the less. In this case, when the client starts to criticize other people, you simply ask the client “And what does that say about you?” Let me give you a little dialogue as an example of how you would use this in a session:
Client: Everyone I work with is such an idiot. I swear to God, I am way overqualified for that job and everyone knows it. That’s why my boss keeps trying to get me fired, because he knows I’m smarter than him.
Therapist: And what does that say about you?
Client: ….uh, what do you mean?
Therapist: What does it say about you that everyone you work with is an idiot?
This technique is great for helping people to dig deeper past their criticizing and get down into the root of the problem. It’s great for building insight and understanding, although it does often make people feel uncomfortable in the moment. Usually that discomfort is only momentary and once it subsides, some great work is able to be done in therapy. However, I want to give a warning: If the client gets too uncomfortable, back off. Therapy’s not about torturing people. Obviously any client who feels tortured or judged is very unlikely to come back, and then how will you help them? It’s better to back off for now and then resume this technique at a later session.