Clients need imperfect, real therapists : why blank slate therapists hurt clients

A common complaint I hear from clients about past therapists is

  • they barely spoke
  • their face looked blank and expressionless when I talked
  • they didn’t seem like a real person I could relate to

All of these things make therapy harder for clients, especially those with attachment or developmental trauma.

Not speaking and allowing clients to endlessly monologue or sit in long often unbearable silences, does a number of things. It makes it hard for clients to tell if the therapist’s interest and connection is genuine. It also allows the client to be at the mercy of their inner critic without protection, mirroring emotional abuse experienced as a child.

A blank face echoes the clients experiences of feeling unseen, uninteresting and other effects of the dismissive behaviors of parents.

Not being real, otherwise known as therapists appearing perfect, all knowing and without problems, tends to intensify a client’s shame. It confirms their beliefs that they are fundamentally flawed and existing dichotomies of normal, healthy people vs abnormal, dysfunctional people.

In Pete Walker’s “Complex PTSD: from surviving to thriving” he details the damage done in his own experience of therapy by with a blank slate therapist. His experience of her non-responsiveness echoed his emotionally abusive childhood and allowed his inner critic to ravage him without any interruption from the therapist. This further solidified the strength of his inner critic.

If you’re in the business of being an authentic therapist or you want to be one, here are some key tips.

  1. Be warm and responsive. Do not leave long silences.
  2. Stop believing that your verbalisations will stop a client expressing themselves. Not feeling seen or reassured of your connection is more likely to make clients hide from you than your vocal insertions (of course I am not talking about therapists talking about themselves in a self-aggrandizing or reassurance seeking way).
  3. Stand in the way of your clients’ inner critic and don’t allow your clients critic to abuse themselves in front of you. Show them you care enough to protect them and model how to use a compassion and the make it stop in session.
  4. Use appropriate self-disclosure to allow clients see you are “real” and not a perfect person.

Of the above tips, appropriate self-disclosure makes people the most nervous. “I would never talk about myself, it’s not about me” is something I regularly hear. Certainly self-disclosure has to be purposeful and boundaried to be helpful to clients.

Appropriate self-disclosure can be things like “oh yes that would make me angry too” in response to a clients story of someone stealing their lunch at work or “parenting is hard isn’t it, I really struggle to stay calm with my kids sometimes”. It can be owning up to missing things if you were temporarily distracted “sorry, could you say that again, I got a bit distracted by something I have to do that I’m not looking forward to doing after work today”.

Currently, in my work with my trauma clients, I often do an exercise where I map their polyvagal ladders. When I do this I will share that I move up and down the ladder and that while it may seem to the client that I am always in ventral vagal as that is how I present in session, I have my own triggers that send me down the ladder into sympathetic and dorsal vagal responses.

If you share aspects of your own healing journey with clients it can be helpful but only if you have made sense of your own narrative on that issue. It should never be done for the purpose of clarifying your own narrative or strengthening your healing.

Ask yourself what would you want from a therapist? Blank, perfect and withholding? Or responsive, honestly imperfect and real?

A key factor in my success as both a therapist and supervisor/ coach is my willingness to allow others to see my imperfection (if you don’t believe me, watch one of my videos).

You can be real, you can be you and a caring good enough therapist at the same time. You can be a perfectly imperfect therapist.

For more on how to be an authentic therapist, I recommend Michiel van Vreeswijk’s chapter in “Creative Methods for Schema Therapy (2020)

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