The idea of a therapist ‘making mistakes’ or ‘being wrong’ disturbs everyone involved: the client (and possibly a spouse, best friend or family member), the therapist, the therapist’s clinical supervisors (were they to learn of the error). Therapists are health care professionals; the clinical context is not that different than seeing the doctor. Critical aspects of one’s health could be at stake – and the expectation of expertise is the norm. In psychotherapy, though medications and medical equipment are not involved, mistakes can cause harm.
Therapist errors or mistakes
Certainly not all “mistakes”, “errors” or ways of being “wrong” are of the same kind or degree, nor do they have the same degree of consequences. Some mistakes are truly unintentional or inadvertent, the result of insufficient attention or sensitivity to a particular context or situation. This is probably the largest single group of errors, since few of us purposely try to be mistaken. We all generally seek to avoid errors, though we learn soon enough in life that we cannot avoid them altogether. Some of us learn however that the errors led us to something creative or useful that “being right” would not have produced.
Kathryn Schulz, a journalist, has written an excellent book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. It covers many different aspects of ‘wrong-ness’, and some of its points will take readers by surprise.She explores my ‘favorite’ kind of error/wrongness/mistake, the one that the creative or inventive process typically requires.
In this case, error (as in “trial and error”) helps human beings create. If one can be ‘wrong’, and remain calm around that, the path to knowing another person is more real. The notion of the therapist as an authority figure who cannot be wrong sets the therapy back, and makes the client relationship rigid. But this way of knowing can also be discomforting.
What Clients Want
I believe that you, the client, wants a clear picture of what has gone wrong or badly in your life. If you are in therapy because of error(s), or a perception that you have wronged others or been wronged yourself, you probably don’t relish being judged further, or judging others very much. I believe you will be tolerant if there is error in therapy which is genuine and conscious, self-aware and present.
The Collaborative Process
It’s part of the process of one human being understanding another. I often try to capture and express my understanding of my clients’ situations in the form of brief, in-the-moment assessments. I qualify these assessments by saying that they might be mistaken in some respect. We can treat those errors as a way to learn how to work closely. The client’s corrections or revisions are part of the collaborative process. This technique fosters a spirit of modesty and mutual effort. My authority with you is based on accuracy as well as empathy, but being “seen as an authority figure” is not that helpful. Rather, our calm, mutual acceptance of error and wrong-ness in life, in the process of being understood, will help define our relationship.