By Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW
I once called a client a “walking vagina.” For real. This was years ago. I’d like to think I’m more delicate with my Sword of Sarcasm these days; but the truth is I’m not always able to tell the difference between useful humor which cuts through defenses and damaging humor which just hurts feelings.
I know I’m a weirdo and my humor can be fully wrong. I rely on the quality of the relationship, the trust my clients feel towards me that they can come back and tell me if something I say lands in a way that hurts rather than helps or clarifies. This requires trust and courage on the part of my client and humility and non-defensiveness on my part. And it’s helluva good practice for IRL—because people (including this therapist) are imperfect and language is an abstract, approximate tool for building reality.
The backstory of my inappropriate comment was this: my young adult client was being texted in the middle of the night by a guy who was only interested in no-strings-attached sex, while she had a huge crush and yearned for a relationship with this same fellow. This happened enough times that she knew what was going on, but still found it irresistible when he booty-called her. I was trying to engage her self-protective anger to increase her ability to resist him. So, I told her he was treating her like a vagina delivery service. This worked! She stopped responding to him. Yay! But I also hurt her feelings. Boo!
When I hear about how many supposedly terrible therapists there are out there, I wonder what the hell is wrong with my profession?! Then I wonder: what if there are just these unfortunate moments when the therapist is trying to say something useful in a unique, therefore noticeable way but they get it wrong? And if the client feels hurt but they don’t go back and have a conversation, then the comment becomes this toxic thing that erodes trust. And that doesn’t even include the (abundant!) times when the therapist is trying to summarize what is happening and they just don’t get it.
In real life, like in therapy, we are constantly trying to understand one another, communicate needs, make meaning, provide care, and feel received. If you have conflict in your life or in your therapy, try this: call upon your courage and talk to that person. It might not work. They might lack humility or willingness to hear your perspective. They might deny responsibility for hurting you, and when that happens it really sucks. And it might work: you might feel better understood or better understand where they were coming from. But no matter how they respond, you will be operating from a place of courage and willingness to process your pain, rather than withdraw from connection.