Should Therapists Apologize? A Raging Debate!

Hi web visitors and friends on social media. Yesterday I got a really interesting email from my esteemed colleague, Angela Krumm, PhD, who created the certification program for TEAM-CBT. Angela’s clinical practice is located at the Feeling Good Institute in Mt. View, California. and they also offer training for therapists. I thought you might enjoy the question, as well as my answer. You will see that the information is relevant to everybody, and not just therapists.

If this topic of developing more loving and satisfying relationships interests you, you can read more about these techniques in my book, Feeling Good Together, available at Amazon and other book sellers.

IMG_1761Hi David,

The TEAM Certified list serve is having a colorful discussion about the use of apologies (specifically, saying “I’m sorry”) within the Five Secrets of Effective Communication. People are pretty engaged and arguing both for and against “I’m sorry.” Would you like me to share the comments with you?

If you’re interested, I’d love to post a response from you about whether you teach people to say “I’m sorry.” I think your general mode (if I remember from past training) is to avoid “I’m sorry” since it’s so generic and less specific than the Five Secrets.

Let me know if you want to see the comments and have a chance to respond.  I can send them to you!

Angela Krumm, PhD

Hi Angela,

To my way of thinking, “I’m sorry” can be effective or dysfunctional, depending on how it is used. In my experience observing clinicians in training, as well as troubled couples in treatment, it is nearly always dysfunctional, but it doesn’t have to be. Let me explain.

I recently treated a troubled couple from Los Angeles who had treated each other shabbily out of anger for many years. Without going into all the details, the husband had an affair with a woman they both knew from their church, and slept with her every night for six months. The affair appeared to be his way of getting back at her for something she had done that hurt him.

His affair was devastating to the wife, and she kept making up excuses for the children why Daddy can’t come home tonight. Every time she tried to express her feelings of being hurt, angry, anxious, humiliated, and betrayed, her husband would say, in a defensive tone of voice, “I’ve said I’m sorry! You have to put that behind you so we can move on! We’ve already talked about this!”

As you can see, he used “I’m sorry” as a way of avoiding listening and hearing how his wife felt. And although they’d bickered about their problems endlessly, he’d never really listened or giving her the chance to be heard.

I don’t want to scapegoat him—she gave the same dismissive and defensive answers when it was her turn to listen to his complaints and feelings. But it seems pretty clear to me that his use of “I’m sorry” was defensive and aggressive. It was his way of saying, “shut up, I don’t want to hear what you have to say.”

Therapists frequently do much the same thing in response to criticisms from patients. For example, a patient might say, “Last session you interrupted our session to take an emergency call, but I’m paying for the time!”

The well-meaning therapist might apologize and say, “I’m really sorry. I’ll remind my secretary to hold calls during our sessions unless it’s something super severe like an actively suicidal patient.”

It should be easy (I hope!) to see that this therapist is also using “I’m sorry” as a way of brushing the patient off, so the therapist doesn’t have to deal with the patient’s anger and hurt feelings. But those kinds of feelings may be a central problem in the patient’s life, and the therapist has missed a golden opportunity to deepen the relationship through the skillful use of the Five Secrets.

I have often said that no therapist in the United States or Canada is able to deal with or acknowledge a patient’s anger. Of course, this is an exaggeration to make a point, but it is SO TRUE most of the time! In my experience, it is very difficult for therapists to master the Five Secrets, for use in therapy, as well as in their personal lives, which can be even harder.

Of course, you can apologize skillfully. Apologies aren’t inherently dysfunctional. For example, you could respond to your patient’s criticism like my example below, which is based on the Five Secrets of Effective Communication. The abbreviations in parentheses at the end of each section indicate the communication technique(s) used in that sentence.

“I felt badly about interrupting the session, too. (IF) This is your time, and any interruption is unfair, and I want to apologize. (DT) The call was from an actively suicidal patient, but still my focus should be on you. (DT) I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re feeling hurt and ignored, and maybe even a bit angry with me, for good reason. (FE; DT) This is especially painful for me, because one of the themes you have described is that ever since you were a kid, the people you care about seem to ignore you, and don’t take you seriously. You said they gave your older brother all the attention, because he was a straight A student, so you end up feeling lonely and rejected most of the time. (IF; FE; DT) Now I’m in the role of ignoring you, and it’s especially painful for me because I respect you tremendously (IF; DT; ST) At the same time, I’m excited, because this is really important and can give us the chance to slay that dragon and deepen our relationship. (ST; Positive Reframing) Can you tell me more what that was like for you, as well as other times I’ve said or done things that hurt your feelings? (IN)”

I’m sure that can be improved upon, and is perhaps too long. But the important thing is that you are honoring your patient’s feelings, and encouraging him or her to open up. In this context, the apology is okay. However, notice that the phrase, “and I want to apologize” probably isn’t even needed.

I would also say that therapists, as well as patients, sometimes polarize things as “this way” vs. “that way,” so they can argue and feel like experts. Sorry if I sound a bit cynical here! Skillful and effective therapy is rarely “this way” vs “that way,” but exists on a higher plane. TEAM-CBT does not consist of simple formulas you can apply. It is an art form that is difficult to master, and simplistic approaches usually won’t be effective.

The bigger issue is that every one of the Five Secrets can be used in a skillful, compassionate, helpful way, or in a dysfunctional way. In fact, this is true of every method and technique in TEAM-CBT. For my two cents, I’d rather hear that people are asking for help in learning, rather than arguing about who is right and who is wrong, but I’m old and probably sound pompous or annoyed, so I will stop babbling!

David

 

 

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Thanks! David

 

2 thoughts on “Should Therapists Apologize? A Raging Debate!

  1. I, several years ago, had a potential suicide watch phone call that might interrupt a session. I neglected to inform my client in the session. My empathy scores sucked. Next session, I asked about my results and hear I had taken a call.
    I did not mention suicide, but told her I was aware that a call might be coming and that it was insensitive and inappropriate of me to take a call in a session that properly should be devoted to her. That her time was important and in the future she would be informed of anything that might interrupt our sessions.
    Perfect scores at session end. Thank you David. I was new to the scale then. I’m better at it now but still learning how many mistakes I can make in the world of empathy

    • Hi Chris, So great to hear from you. Thanks! Coincidentally, I was thinking about you just yesterday! How is your work coming along these days, and how have you been? So glad you are connected to my blogs and stuff! Had no idea! david

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