I am an expert pancake maker. If you want advice on making pancakes, I’m your expert…
…but if it’s advice on your relationship you’re after, I’m more likely to direct you to the latest best selling self help manual.
A group of psychologists published a study in 1993, which suggested 10,000 hours of dedicated practice over a ten-year period makes a person an ‘expert’. Well, I’ve been a therapist in full time practice for almost 20 years so I guess that makes me an uber-expert. If I manage another ten mostly likely I’ll be a grand uber-expert and you’ll probably have to bow or something when you meet me.
Television strap lines flash up on screen pronouncing me a Relationship Expert or worse – Sexpert (it’s not even a word) and journalist and radio presenters have introduced me as all manner of expert: family dynamics, work stress, parenting, sexuality, romance, dating, child abuse, addiction and sex. I definitely should be earning more…
Not for nothing, it’s pretty flattering being called an expert. It gives the insecure element a little a status bump – for a few seconds, which is about how long it takes before someone asks a question or teaches me something that sees me flat on face nose deep in humble pie. What goes up must come down.
I’m not saying I don’t have skills – I’m very quick to understand the dynamics involved in specific relationships and probably have enough experience to make certain broader generalisations based on good observational practice but how could I (or anyone) be an expert on relationships per se, when all relationships are made up of at least two individuals with entirely unique characteristics, experiences and desires existing in a constantly fluctuating universe?
Expert therapists only really exist in the media mind set. I sense most of us are tired with generic expert advice and sound bite wisdom telling how to think, feel, work and love better. Of course we want to feel happier and lead richer more fulfilling lives but advice that doesn’t take into account the peculiarities of our own experience is about as transformative as an inspirational meme.
And it might do more harm than good.
Clients who believe in the expert status of their therapist might mistakenly believe that the therapist has all the answers; that all problems (and solutions) are already expertly known and that once the therapist has implanted the correct suggestions and made the necessary cognitive adjustments, all the pain will be expertly waved away. I’ve watched exhausted clients holding on by their expectant fingernails for rescue literally crumple when they discover I’m only along for the ride; that while I may have some cool tools (a torch and a rough map), they are still going to have to lead the investigation.
So, if the client is the expert – what’s the therapist being paid for?
Changing our world view, healing past pain, learning to live without fear, daring to face ourselves, peering out of denial, standing up to an invisible opponent, surrendering a life long battle, giving up on giving up and starting over is all serious fighting talk. They all mean change is afoot and change is resisted by our nearest and dearest because when we change, they have to.
We need support from someone who isn’t invested in the way things are; someone who has faith in our own expertise and won’t falter when we lose our courage; someone who has no fear of the dark or the unknown and will encourage us to keep going. Someone who is more interested and curious in what we see than what they see and someone who believes that one person’s truth doesn’t undermine or invalidate another’s.
That is some of what we pay a therapist for. It is what we have a right to expect. The client’s job is to bring their expert self knowledge, the therapists’ fee and a willingness to put their best foot forward.