I wrote last week about how surprisingly simple it can be to turn around an angry patient. Two small words hold the key to taming the beast: "You're right." Those words are like a magic tonic, a soothing balm. The patient drops his offensive posture, loses his hostile glare. His hackles soften. His ears are open, receptive. Magic.
But it's not enough merely to mouth the two magic words. You need to believe them, to find the grain of truth in the patient's angry accusations and hold it up to the light. Typically that grain of truth contains a failing of your own. That's hard to admit.
In the CBT group I attend we use role-plays as learning tools. We mimic angry patients, throwing harsh words at our colleagues as a challenge to their empathetic skills.
It's curious that even when you are merely acting a role, pretending to be upset, you can feel in yourself the good or bad reaction to the 'therapist's' words. Defensiveness from the therapist provokes further heights of anger. But the crucial initial words "you're right" produce a rush of surprise and disarmament, a shock of pleasure at being understood, a hint of gleeful righteousness, and an intense curiosity and complete willingness to listen to what's coming next.
Rookies never get the task right the first time, or even the first ten times, even after having the strategy thoroughly explained and seeing more experienced members employ it. They simply can't get themselves to say, "You're right; I've failed; you're understandably angry; but tell me more so I can try to fix it." Instead they mouth platitudes like "I hear that you're frustrated," or "Why don't you calm down so we can discuss this," or they get defensive and explain why the patient is wrong to be angry. These strategies are all, of course, bound to escalate the situation.
Never, never on the first try do they plainly acknowledge the patient's anger and the faults of the therapist. I sure didn't, and I've yet to see any other rookies manage it either. It's suspiciously simple, yet incredibly difficult to do.
As I mentioned last week, I've been using this strategy on belligerent colleagues and other assorted meanies as well as on patients. It's been absolutely foolproof so far. But interestingly, when I shared the strategy with some of the psych residents who are not in the seminar, I met stubborn disbelief.
"I don't think it's appropriate to just subdue yourself to the demands of the patient. You have to maintain your own integrity," one woman said.
She'd verbalized the gut resistance to this strategy that comes from your own ego. That's exactly why it's so hard to implement, despite being so simple. Because you have to lose in order to win. You have to cave in order to prevail. You have to drop your ego in the dust and squish it with your toe in order to have any hope of success.
Even in the false environment of the role-play, where your partner flings made-up accusations at you, it's hard to accept and apologize for these acts you didn't commit. In that setting it's really just a script you could recite with no personal involvement whatsoever. "You're right, I did [fall asleep during your session/give you the wrong drug/insert horrific therapeutic sin of your choice], I bet you're feeling really angry right now." That's it, and with minor variations it's pretty much always the same. Yet it takes a long time to be able to do, even under laboratory conditions. How much harder is it when it's truly your own actions that are being assaulted.
Seeing the patient's anger as a threat to your ego integrity is losing sight of the goal of the therapy, which is to help the patient. The goal is not to maintain your own sense of dignity and self-worth; presumably you've already got a healthy dose of those or you haven't any business trying to therapize others. And if you consistently put the goal of preserving your dignity ahead of the goal of helping the patient, you'll have a lot of frustrated patients and that won't be good for your ego as a therapist in the long run anyway.
But we're accustomed to working hard to maintain our dignity and self-worth, because people without them are racked with doubts and insecurities and generally have a difficult time in life. So we're pretty well programmed to protect our egos, which we do in different ways depending on our basic characters, stages in life, and how we frame ourselves to ourselves. But we all do it. When faced with a blow to our egos, we're socialized to parry it, swiftly and surely.
However, it's all too easy to forget that an interaction between a therapist and a patient is not the same as a typical social situation. Your goal is to help the patient support and develop his ego, not to prop up your own. But when faced with a threat, it's instinctive to forget that, and to fall back on the strategies that have always been helpful (defending or rationalizing or denying your actions, deflecting the blame, etc.).
Hence my colleague's assertion that it was important to maintain one's own integrity. But important for what, I'd ask? Important for the patient, I suspect she'd say - to set limits, to teach the patient how to behave calmly and fairly. But the key point here is that there is always a reason for the anger. Truly isolated, reasonless, purely biological anger is a rare thing that occurs with specific brain lesions, typically affecting the hypothalamus. Real humans in the real world have triggers, and if the patient is lashing out at you it's likely that you're at least part of the trigger. It's your job to be the level head and figure out what that part is and what you can do about it. Otherwise your chances of getting the patient to a state where he can be calm and fair are going to be on the slim side of nonexistent.
1 week ago