Solution to David’s Tuesday Tip #3*

Here’s yesterday’s paradoxical tip #3

Therapists’ perceptions of how patients feel–the severity of symptoms–tend to be extremely inaccurate, at best, but most therapists are not aware of this.

What does this mean? Is it true? And if so, what are the consequences?

Is there a solution to this problem? And what, if anything, does the solution have to do with the first of four “Great Deaths” of the therapists ego?

Here’s Dr. David’s solution

My research and clinical experience have indicated that therapists’ perceptions of how their patients feel, and their patients feel about them, can be (and usually are) extremely inaccurate. What this means, in practical terms, is that a patient may be feeling intensely depressed and even suicidal, and yet the therapist thinks the patient is doing well. Or, the patient may be doing reasonably well, but the therapist thinks he or she is still severely depressed.

This inaccuracy involves all the negative emotions–such as depression, anxiety, and anger–and all the positive emotions as well. But since most therapists do not routinely assess patients’ feelings with brief accurate tests at every session, therapist do no know how “off” their perceptions can sometimes be. And while I do not mean to be alarmist, this can sometimes result in a failure of the therapy, or even the death of a suicidal patient.

In addition, although most therapists feel they are experts at communication, my research and clinical experience have indicated that therapists perceptions of the therapeutic alliance are also typically way off. In addition, many therapists grossly overestimate their clinical and communication skills, but they do not realize this!

To solve this problem, I have developed the Brief Mood Survey (BMS), and require all my patients to complete it in the waiting room before each session begins, and once again after the session is over. The BMS asks patients how depressed, suicidal, anxious, and angry they are feeling “right now,” at the start and end of the session. The comparison of the scores gives therapists an extremely accurate assessment of how effective, or ineffective, the session was.

It is, in a sense, like having an emotional X-ray machine available for the first time. The data are extremely valuable, regardless of whether you are doing psychotherapy, psychopharmacology, or a combination of the two.

At the end of the session, patients also complete the Evaluation of Therapy Session in the waiting, and rate the therapist on empathy, helpfulness, and other important dimensions. This only takes about one or two minutes of the patient’s time and provides the therapist with more invaluable, but potentially shocking, information.

So what does all of this have to do with the first of the four “deaths” of the therapist’s ego? Therapists who use these scales will probably make a number of uncomfortable discoveries, including, but not limited, to these:

  1. Therapists will discover that their perceptions of how their patients feel, and how their patients feel about them, will often be wildly and alarmingly inaccurate.
  2. They will often discover that the session was not at all helpful to the patient–in other words, there was little or no improvement in how the patient felt during the session.
  3. The therapist will likely receive failing grades on the Empathy and Helpfulness Scales most patients at every single session, especially if they are using these scales for the first time.

And that’s what I mean by the “death” of the therapist’s ego. You may discover, to put it in street language, that you suck! It’s happened to me often, and I usually find it painful to discover that my perceptions were off and my efforts were not effective.

But here’s the cool thing. This information can empower you to grow and change your therapeutic approach, so you can begin to deliver true healing. If you review the information with your patients in a warm and open way, it can transform the quality of the therapeutic relationship and vastly boost your effectiveness. And that’s pretty darn cool! I’ve been doing this for forty years, and my patients have proven to be my best teachers–by far!

Well, that’s it for today. Thanks so much for reading this, and if you like my blogs and Feeling Good Podcasts and FB Broadcasts, and the many other free features on my website,, please use your sharing buttons to tell your friends. I am trying to build up my numbers as much as possible, and don’t know a great deal about social media, so anything you can do to spread the word will help.

AND you HAVE BEEN helping a lot already! Last month, (April 2018) my Feeling Good Podcasts with my esteemed host, Dr. Fabrice Nye, had more than 52,000 downloads. That’s a new record for us, so THANK YOU! I’d love to see those numbers soar even higher!


* Copyright © 2018 by David D. Burns, MD.

Coming in less than three weeks!

High-Speed TEAM-CBT for Depression and Anxiety Disorders 

I warmly invite you to attend this fabulous, one-day workshop by Drs. David Burns and Jill Levitt on Sunday, May 20th, 2018. Click on the link above for registration information.

  • 6 CE Credits
  • The cost is $135
  • You can join in person or online from wherever you live!

You will enjoy learning from David and Jill, working together to bring powerful, healing techniques to life in a clear, step-by-step way. Their teaching style is entertaining, funny, lucid, and inspiring. This is a day you will remember fondly!

In the afternoon, you will have the chance to do some personal healing so you can overcome your own feelings of insecurity and self-doubt. David and Jill promise to bring at least 60% of the audience into a state of spiritual and psychological enlightenment, WITHOUT years of meditation. That’s not a bad deal!

You will also leave this workshop with renewed confidence as well as specific, powerful tools that you can use right away to improve your clinical outcomes!

You will LOVE this workshop. Seating for those who attend live in Palo Alto will be strictly limited, and seats are filling up fast, so move rapidly if you are interested. Online slots are also limited.

Jill and I hope you can join us!