#034 - Gaslighting your clients: Just stop!

If you have practiced psychotherapy for any length of time you have probably gaslighted your clients. This can be hard for therapists to see especially since gaslighting is seen as a form of psychological abuse. It’s commonly defined as manipulating someone into questioning their own sanity, perceptions, and/or memory. While most therapists are not consciously trying to hurt their clients this type of harm can be very subtle.

 Most likely your clients are seeing you because they grew up in homes that were abusive in psychological, physical, sexual, and/or spiritual ways. Growing up in these homes children become hyper-vigilant, and as adults they are very aware. They can sense shifts in energy, facial expressions, body language, and mood. Sitting across from someone who is so perceptive can be complex since they are going to pick up what’s going on with you whether you like it or not!

 For example, your client is saying or doing something that is pushing your buttons. This can happen especially when you are working with someone who is currently dealing with an issue that you, as the therapist, are still trying to figure out in your own life. And you know that if your client would just do things the way you think they should, or if they agreed with your perspective then they would feel better. And then you might even feel better because you proved that your pet theory, to solve the problem you have been unable to resolve in yourself, is accurate and everyone can go home happy! Unfortunately this doesn’t really work. What often happens is you start to get frustrated, but keep on trying to maintain your therapist tone and calm serene face. Your client, because of their childhood, is picking up on this underlying frustrated energy and the struggle ensues between your will and your client’s freedom of choice.

 If you have a good relationship with your client they might say something like, “Are you mad at me?” Or they might not say anything and the struggle will go unnamed, and acted out, in the office. All the while you’re trying to be the “really good unaffected” therapist and your client is fighting for their choice and decision to be heard and respected without losing your connection and love.

 This can get complicated! If your client calls you out you can gaslight them and say, “No I’m not mad!” When in actuality you are frustrated, confused, and have a boatload of countertransference going on. Another option would be to say, “Yes, I have some frustration arising because I have an agenda with you to move through this pain and I think I have the answer for you. And I realize that my agenda is causing some struggle in me, and seems to be disrespectful of your own journey and choices. How is that to hear from me?” If you are willing to really share the truth about your experience then there is an option for repair, deepening of relationship, trust, and love.

 If your client does not call you out, but you notice what’s going on, call yourself out! There is no shame in being honest about the reality of the interaction. It’s all an opportunity for repair. It’s messy, it’s unknown, and it’s rich. Your client needed a caregiver that could repair, be honest, and hold the relationship through rocky times. This is an opportunity to practice healthy relationship with them. It will also benefit you, as the therapist. Because I am sure you are gaslighting your partners, lovers, family members, and friends. Not out of some sadistic abusive part of you, but from a wounded place that is not sure the relationship is strong enough to endure conflict, and you don’t want that person to leave or punish you.

 My suggestion is give it a try, or even notice how you hide in the office or in your daily life. It’s not necessary to share every little detail of all your changing internal phenomena, but it is worth exploring and taking some risks! Believe me the freedom and freshness of experimenting with this will benefit you, your clients, and those you love.