How nice should a therapist be?
Nice. Someone pleasant, agreeable. “He’s such a nice guy,” we say, imagining someone good natured, kind-hearted. Or exacting, evidencing great skill: “Nicely done!” Or scrupulous, exacting, hard to please: “Give me a nice piece of corned beef” – which really means “give me your best cut, extra lean! Nice can mean trivial, easily dismissed: “that’s nice, but…” or treading carefully, behaving delicately: “be nice to your cousin!” And then there’s making nice, acting as if one were feeling all those good things, somewhat hypocritally. Oh, and the ironic nice, a nice that means not nice at all: “that’s a nice way to say thank you!”
How can one word mean such different – even antithetical – things? Its origin provides hints. Originally Middle English, it meant stupid or foolish, deriving from the Latin nescius ignorant, by way of French. It meant coy, reserved, and by the 16th century fastidious, later still fine, subtle (considered by some the ‘correct’ sense, and on to the current pleasant, agreeable.
What happens when conflict and confrontation-avoidance masquerade as being nice? When does acting nice not only not equal being or feeling nice, but actually serve as a cover for feelings that are anything but nice? When is being nice a cop-out for not dealing with the difficult and messy – but important – stuff?
Which brings us to the question of the day: Exactly how nice should your therapist be? How nice is therapeutic?
Therapy’s not about appearance, but substance. And when it comes to the therapy experience, there’s often a difference between nice and helpful.
If the therapist’s prime motivation is to be liked, well, then, she’s got to act nice to be seen as, thought of, as nice. When being nice is crucial, gratifying the patient is crucial, first and foremost, pretty much always. Even if it means avoiding the tough stuff; especially if it means avoiding the tough stuff that doesn’t feel so, well, nice…
But if the therapist’s prime motivation is to promote learning – to provide tools for a better life, to help her patient become all s/he can be, to heal – real trumps nice every day of the week. It may not always feel nice. But if your therapist goes beyond skin-deep nice, if together you do more than scratch the surface – explore and understand and accept what’s real – you’ve got a shot at good. Real good. Which has a whole lot more healing power than some ironic nice.
Copyright © 2012 Marlin S. Potash. All rights reserved.