Requiem for a Therapist: A Tribute to Robin Williams

With so many Hollywood-portrayals of therapists as bumbling, good-in-theory but practically good-for-nothing innocents, William's portrayal was a breath of fresh air. As a tribute to him, here are five things I learned fromthat have deeply influenced my own therapeutic style.
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Like so many others, I was saddened to hear of the death of actor and comedian, Robin Williams that was made public Monday. To hear that his death was at the end of a life-long battle with depression that ended in suicide was an additional blow, both as a fellow sojourner with my own emotional and spiritual battles, and as a mental health therapist.

In the development of my own therapeutic style, I learned a lot from my education, more from my therapist-mentors, and still more from being in therapy. I took some time to reminisce about all of this today after learning of Williams' death. I came to the conclusion that it would be difficult to overstate the artistic influence Williams' portrayal of therapist Sean Maguire had on me in the film, Good Will Hunting.

In it, Matt Damon plays savant-brilliant, but deeply troubled Will Hunting, who in addition to being a chronic, violent offender, deliberately and habitually underachieves for fear of what would happen if the world truly saw him. While working at his job as a custodian at MIT, Will Hunting is caught by MIT Professor Gerald Lambeau (played by Stellan Skarsgård) solving arithmetic problems that only relative geniuses could begin to complete. After Hunting's latest round of trouble with the law, the MIT professor convinces a judge to release him to his tutelage, which includes attempts to develop his mathematical skills and several attempts at counseling with a number of high-brow psychotherapists who can't get through to him. Eventually, Hunting ends up with Williams' Maguire character, a psychotherapist and community college professor with a dubious historical relationship to Lambeau, and the two develop a therapeutic relationship that is the stuff therapists dream about.

With so many Hollywood-portrayals of therapists as bumbling, good-in-theory but practically good-for-nothing innocents, William's portrayal was a breath of fresh air. As a tribute to him, here are five things I learned from Good Will Hunting that have deeply influenced my own therapeutic style.

1. Clients see your stuff. And by the way, therapists have stuff. It doesn't feel good when people poke on it, so we shouldn't poke on their stuff callously either.

According to Fulbright Scholar and Cal State-Fullerton Professor Jeffrey Kottler's quintessential work, On Being a Therapist,

"Our journey to become therapists began for most us, not with the urge to save the world or help people, but rather to save ourselves...Half of therapists polled in a large-scale survey confessed that their choice to become a therapist...was motivated largely by the resolution to work through their own problems."

Kottler goes on to say that an additional motivation is "feeling a greater sense of power and control, not only over others but yourself." "After all," admitted an experienced therapist, "if you're always focusing on other people's problems, it's easy to wriggle out of focusing on your own. People think I have it all together - ha! After a while, maybe I started to believe the same thing..."

Clients have a way of revealing us that no one else can. They let us into their worlds, but good therapists can't help but let them into our own. When they get in, it hurts. Remember that when you're poking around in their worlds.

2. Therapy has turning points. In them, truly regarding clients means affirming them and confronting them at the same time. But the ball must be in their court -- you cannot do the work for them.

Therapy is a constant, but earnestly played chess match. A good therapist has no pretense, no masks to wear. There is a constant volley -- back and forth, back and forth -- with each move being a new opportunity to increase mutuality and vulnerability both on the part of client and therapist. Many therapeutic relationships crash before they ever take-off because of an imbalance in this regard -- too much take, not enough give, or vice versa.

I'm always struck at how difficult it is to be candid but warm at the same time. To say, "I love you, and I see you. I see you, and I love you." It's the kind of transaction that can only occur in the context of a developing, worked-for, trust-filled relationship where rejection and walk-out is possible at any given time.

But once I've laid my cards down, the only thing I can do is see if my clients are still interested in the hard work of therapy. I always hope they are.

3. Show clients who you are. Be your irreverent self. When you do, they'll be challenged. When you do, they'll challenge you.

Therapy is not an imbalanced relationship where someone who has much (presumed to be the therapist) gives to someone who has little or nothing (presumed to be the client). Instead, its an environment of mutuality where I am giving of who I genuinely am -- not what the client wants me to be, and not what I want me to be -- but my regular, old, cussing and irreverent self, because I can be no other thing anyhow. This willingness to be myself encourages my clients that it may just be okay for them to be themselves too..

Once clients see who you really are, they're likely to find out you're not a god, you're not a soothsayer, you're not a sage. You're just a human, trying to understand the confusion and pain of the world every bit as much as they are. It may be a let down for them if that's not what they wanted. And it may be scary for you as a therapist when they see your imperfections and inconsistencies and present them back to you. Do it anyhow -- let them challenge you to be a better therapist and a better human.

4. You must be an advocate.

By the time they've reached our offices, mom, dad, uncle, pastor, teacher, and all manner of other well-intended but misguided friends and loved ones have tried deeply and earnestly to "fix" our clients. Ironically, much of what we do in therapy is to avoid that very thing, recognizing that only with deep trust, and unconditional positive regard and acceptance, can they possibly find themselves in an environment where real change is possible. One of the first lessons my counseling mentor taught me was the admonition, "Don't rob people of their pain." When we ignore this, we offer quick solutions and clichéd anecdotes, and we create the very resistance (and primary obstacle to change) we hope to avoid.

But just because you're trying this counter-intuitive approach doesn't mean others will be convinced. Part of helping people change means impacting the systems around them. And members of those systems may see things from a different perspective, or have their own motives for pushing your clients. To the best of your ability, stand up to them.

5. Being a therapist is totally, totally worth it.

They don't come often. In fact, I can probably count the amount of them that I've had in my nearly twelve years of therapy on two hands. But breakthroughs come. And when they do, you get the remarkable, holy opportunity to disconfirm every self-destructive, self-hating, life-destroying message a person has ever told him/herself or been told by someone else.

And when you do, the message for them, an indeed, for you, is very simple. You are loved.

Thank you, Mr. Williams.

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