capturing the beautiful calamity of healing in therapy

You Better be Praising Your Clients!

This post will be short, concise, and straightforward. It’s been a very busy week with a lot of awesome sessions, and a common theme has stood out to me: We don’t give people nearly enough validation.

I believe in the power of genuine compliments. I believe in validation and recognition of all feats, big or small, because any action towards the goals you want to achieve is an action that  matters.

Seasoned therapists are used to this proverbial shuffle of daily clients with varying issues and concerns. Because of this constant flow, it can be easy to overlook the difficulty of change; in fact, many professionals may even forget the profound courage it takes to even enter therapy in the first place. There is tremendous strength and willingness to reveal anything to a complete stranger, and most of our clients go beyond even that.

At the core of therapy, the client has to know we are on his or her side. It has to be both explicitly and implicitly stated and experienced. Cheerleader is part of the job description: we have to instill the hope and optimism our clients struggle to internalize. We have to hold the faith that they are amazing, amazing people.

I’ve heard the argument that excess praise can inflate the ego. I don’t know if I’ve ever actually seen this. Most people aren’t in therapy because they’ve been complimented too many times. Most people aren’t in therapy because they feel too good about themselves. Nope, most of the time, the people walking through my door feel defeated, hopeless, painfully insecure and incompetent, fragile and shattered, unlovable and unworthy. Most of them are starving, absolutely starving, for any positive reinforcement.

Genuine praise is a powerful intervention because it allows for us to show our own feelings and countertransference towards our clients. To me, this dynamic is vital for any recovery or change. Clients need to know this person- this stranger sitting across from them, hearing the nitty-gritty details of our intimate lives- cares about who they are!

Clients need to know there is unconditional positive regard and support. Just as a young child depends on his mother for validation, a partner depends on her spouse for encouragement, and an employee depends on her boss for feedback, clients need to know their time with us is treasured. They also need to know they are worthy, important, and beautifully unique. Oftentimes, our job includes more challenging aspects: the confronting and interpreting, the guidance of changing how a client thinks or acts. The praise and warmth, the very skills and talents that lead so many of us to this field, often come more naturally…and yet, they tend to get overlooked or dismissed.

I explicitly praise every client in every session, and often it’s multiple times. I keep the praise specific and authentic: related to who they are or what they did or what they’re working towards. And, sometimes, all of the above. I don’t care how old, sick, or cynical the person may be: we all want to feel important, and we all need to hear that somebody thinks we are amazing.

Without this warmth, without this praise, without the knowing that a therapist cares and accepts a client for exactly who he or she is, therapy cannot reach full potential. The client will feel some varying degree of shame, distrust, or judgment. As humans, we exist in constant survival mode, and if we do not feel cared for enough, we utilize a variety of defense mechanisms to conceal or alter our identities in a way that feels safe.

The majority of our clients dislike themselves in some capacity. It’s our job to show them just how amazing and competent they were, are, and still can be.