ICSA Today, Vol. 13, No. 2, 2022, 18-20
Whether it’s cult leaders manipulating for dominance, mental health therapists ignoring client autonomy, or clergy compelling a conversion, a fixing approach is a defining feature within coercive therapeutic relationships.
Have you ever tried to fix someone? I have. Have you ever sensed that someone is trying to fix you? So have I.
When we sense someone trying to fix us, it’s common for vulnerable questions to swirl in our minds, and levels of shame and fear to bubble up:
“Why are they using our time together to try to change me? Am I not enough for them?”
“Are they going to end our relationship if I don’t change?”
“Are there conditions on our relationship? Conditions on their love for me?”
“How deep does their apparent manipulation of me go?”
The shame and fear we might feel from this attempted fixing can often morph into our feeling some resentment toward the fixer. We can become oppositional toward them, sometimes live dishonestly around them, and sometimes decide to appease them altogether—all popular strategies we employ to get their controlling behavior to stop.
I have yet to witness the fixing of a human being. I’ve learned that, despite considerable effort, we simply cannot directly control what others do. We can influence others, yes, and we can model for them healthy behavior. Yet it remains perhaps an inconvenient reality that human beings are remarkably autonomous creatures, with their actions dictated from deep within.
Even mental health therapy cannot directly control what others do. It’s true that most of us who seek out a therapist have thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are generating considerable suffering for ourselves or for others. Still, no fixing is occurring in legitimate therapy rooms.
“Shouldn’t we therapists be fixing them? Isn’t that our job?”
Assuredly, therapy can be useful. That belief is why I became a therapist. It is also why I’ve spent hundreds of hours in my own therapy, which I’ve found useful in soothing my nervous system, cultivating insight, clarifying values, instilling skills, and reducing my role in relational conflict. And notably, even after robust therapy, I am still the same core person I have always been.
Components of Successful Therapy
Fundamental to my successful experience as a therapy client are two factors: The aforementioned improvements within me shifted chiefly as the result of my desire for them to shift: I chose to attend therapy, I chose the therapist, I set the appointments, I set my goals. Additionally, paramount in my therapist’s agenda was the commitment to support me in attaining my goals. I could say “No” to therapeutic interventions, and I could end the relationship with my therapist whenever I wanted. In essence, because of both the deeply personal nature of therapy, and the benefit of the emotional safety that therapy provides to the clients who are focused on changing their behavior, it is vital for therapists to acquire their clients’ consent for therapy.
Sound research promotes that effectiveness in therapy is principally linked to the person’s desire to change (Hubble, Duncan, & Miller, 1999). In spite of this principle, and as many individuals have experienced, attending therapy isn’t always the client’s idea; and doing so isn’t always entirely voluntary. Treatment could be mandated by the legal system, or an employer, or even a so-called healer using coercive tactics.
The purpose of therapy also could be for short-term stabilization, necessary to keep the client and others safe.
I have been [SH1] in the position of yearning for a loved one to seek therapy for what I was perceiving to be destructive behaviors. Pleading for alterations in their behavior, and awkwardly adjusting my role in the relationship, with the desperate hope that something— anything—will somehow be the silver bullet in finally giving me some relief, I would hear about a new behavior modification tool, a rock-star therapist, or a promising trauma technique, and think “This will be it!” My fervent lobbying of the other person would begin. Therapy was the leverage.
“Go to therapy, and then I will…”
“If you don’t start seeing a therapist, I’m gonna…”
“Well, now, I’m sending you to treatment!”
However, using therapy this way, as a threat or punishment—in effect, weaponizing therapy, is in direct contradiction to what therapy is offering—namely, a warm relationship with firm boundaries. For those of us who yearn for someone else to change, relational therapy1 may be a better treatment approach. A humbling reality is that, in a preponderance of dyadic2 conflicts, both parties are in fact contributing, on some level, to the conflict. A trained relational therapist can help illuminate and untangle these dynamics.
The weaponization of therapy can negatively impact relationships and can ultimately sour our view of therapy. A healing relationship between you as the client and your therapist is one of democracy, of ensuring no harm is done to you. Ensuring such a relationship may involve the therapist challenging thoughts and behaviors that appear not to be serving you. The experience ought not involve the therapist challenging your emotions.
As a potential client, useful questions to ask the therapist before you begin therapy, and throughout your therapeutic journey after you have begun, include the following:
“Do I want therapy?”
“For what am I seeking therapy?”
“For whom am I seeking therapy?”
“Does anyone, including the therapist, appear to be coercing me into therapy?”
Healing Is Possible
It is indeed possible for people to heal, thereby shifting their behaviors. Giving ourselves compassion, dwelling in safe environments, and cultivating nurturing relationships can increase our chances for behavior change. Be wary of forceful modalities (including invasive advice, exacted confessions, and instigated catharses) that may initially display pleasing results, yet in reality are shocking us into short-lived modifications. Based in fear, forceful modalities are often not based in evidence, and can, at times, be psychologically traumatizing. To engage in healing therapy, look for therapists who resist relying on simplistic, silver-bullet techniques, and who instead show a willingness to dance with the messy process of behavior change (Prochaska, Redding, & Evers, 2002), a process that rarely goes in a straight line.
 According to Psychology Today, “Relational therapy, sometimes referred to as relational-cultural therapy, is a therapeutic approach based on the idea that mutually satisfying relationships with others are necessary for one’s emotional well-being.” (See https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapy-types/relational-therapy)
 Dyadic conflict is conflict between two people (see https://quizlet.com, Ch 14: Conflict and Negotiation, Flashcards).
 See https://url.emailprotection.link/?bftST3RPzpatIGJZOxU_Cu3JBI-1L8Rbx6SMntnORap-X0ccDt73j432LGfetgic3cR9W9kZrgGQs6L5u5iG3r2ikFrwjk5oMfBUa0Puq8XyUde8EhJwivRZPmhpewDj1pKhHHZ92FAUKQSCdFQn3vWF5Jv3zXuHE34c1YEJFhKU~
Hubble, M. A., Duncan, B. L., and Miller, S. D. (1999). The heart and soul of change: What works in therapy. American Psychological Association.
Prochaska, J. O., Redding, C. A., & Evers, K. (2002). “The transtheoretical model and stages of change.” In K. Glanz, B. K. Rimer, & F. M. Lewis, (Eds.), Health behavior and health education: Theory, research, and practice (3rd Ed.). Jossey-Bass.
About the Author
Adam Arnold, MA, LMFT, LADC is a mental health professional living and working in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is a member of the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) and considers himself both a survivor, and a perpetrator, of spiritual abuse. For more than 10 years, Adam combined his passions for healing and the arts, serving as Founder and Artistic Director of blank slate theatre, a personal growth-oriented theatre for adolescents in Minnesota. While there, he collaborated with culturally and ability-diverse adolescents to produce more than two dozen theatre pieces that center on themes of mental health and social change, including the award-winning Disordered [thy name is teenager], and Bottom, a play about child sex trafficking. Adam was proud to serve as chair of the Safe Schools, Safe Students Conference in Bloomington, Minnesota, which sought to address mental health issues in and innovate family involvement with schools, soothe peer aggression (bullying), and eliminate school shootings. Adam developed The Democratic Youth Engagement (DYE) Model,3 the values and style through which he employs his clinical work.