You might have seen a movie where the main character goes to see a therapist, in a formal-looking room surrounded by books, sitting in a fancy armchair.
The main character stares at the therapist. The therapist stares back at the main character, expressionless. The main character stares back at the therapist. Finally, the main character shares their dilemma and asks for the therapist’s input. But the therapist only replies, “well… what do you think?”
This scenario is a little exaggerated, but it illustrates the classic style of psychoanalysis and Western psychotherapy, where the therapist is supposed to be a “tabula rasa” (which is Latin for blank slate) to the patient. Blank slate therapists intentionally share very little or no information about themselves or their perspectives.
This technique was initially developed to produce certain conditions that can be beneficial to the treatment process, but in my experience, it can do more harm than good.
How the Blank Slate approach can be useful
When a client starts therapy for the first time, they may initially find it awkward, like a one-way conversation. You’re sharing personal details with someone you know very little about, outside of their professional qualifications and whatever additional information you (rightly or wrongly) assume from looking at them.
Because of the limits of your knowledge of who your therapist really is, you are likely to start relating to them in a similar manner as you relate to other important people in your life. For example, if you have an older male therapist, you might unconsciously start responding to him like your dad.
Through looking at and talking about your relationship, you and your therapist can unpack how and why you relate to your dad (and perhaps other authority figures in your life more generally) in that particular way, and help you make any desired changes.
You might not have formed that therapist/dad association and gained this insight if your therapist had disclosed more of himself and you became aware of how “not dadlike” he is. (Maybe he’s a bachelor by choice and an amateur race car driver in his spare time… unless that describes your dad, then you’ll have to substitute other examples — you get the point!)
When being a Blank Slate doesn’t help
Even though some clients get something out of the Blank Slate approach, there are some ways it can seriously backfire. Without real feeling behind how I respond to my clients (ie: surprise when they say something surprising, concern when they share their fears), I can seem like I’m not listening or not interested in what they’re saying.
I think that too often therapists are scared to intervene in what’s happening in real time in the session — worried that doing so will make the client feel invalidated, or be interpreted as trying to “save” the client. However, I don’t find it productive at all to sit back and not react when a client is angrily calling themselves a litany of horrible names — by contrast, my interruption and expression of shock might be the first time the client really understands that they need to cut it ou
Sometimes clients will ask me for advice about how to proceed into their next stage of mental health treatment or what my perspective is on a matter they’re facing. Giving that classic “well, what do you think?” response is likely to be interpreted as me withholding my professional opinion or holding back information that might be helpful to consider.
I don’t want to dictate my clients’ mental health treatment by telling them what to do, but I also don’t want to leave them in the lurch by not providing any input at all. Talking honestly about my ideas and a client’s options is the real way to empower their ability to make an informed choice.
Benefits of getting rid of the Blank Slate
Most clients don’t show up week after week to meet a “professional”; they come back weekly to connect with a human being. Bringing my personality, humor, and the occasional anecdote into the therapy room helps the client and me to relate to each other as people. This is especially true for clients who have experienced medical providers to be aloof and robotic, as well as clients who have personal or historical trauma that results in fear of the medical or mental health systems.
Some of the most powerful moments of therapy can come from the therapist modeling ideas or ways of being to the client that could be helpful to them in their own lives. Let’s say for example that I’ve been meeting with a client for many years who struggles to not fall into panic and chaos whenever anything larger than a small challenge comes into her life.
If during our work together, I go through a significant difficulty (let’s say a divorce) that I am comfortable talking a little bit about, sharing that with the client can show them in real time that it’s possible to go through painful hardships that knock you off your feet, but it’s also possible to cope without completely falling apart.
Even without the Blank Slate, I’m still a therapist
Although I share my perspective and use self-disclosure when appropriate in my practice, I don’t OVERshare with my clients. I meet with clients for their healing journey, not my own. Without being skillfully selective in my sharing, I run the risk of my clients worrying about “burdening” me with their problems, feeling resentful that we’re not focusing on what they’ve come to therapy for, or reluctant to express something they believe I’ll have a negative reaction to based on previous things that I’ve shared.
Being open about my identity can enhance my work with clients, but it never takes the place of the skills I’ve built through my professional knowledge and practice experience. Therapy is different from simply talking to a friend from a similar background. Even within conversations about our identities, I am also incorporating techniques that are part of the therapy process.
Try something new
If you’ve experienced classical Blank Slate approaches to therapy and left unimpressed, you might have a really different experience with a therapist who works in other ways. Set up a free initial phone consultation to discuss starting therapy with me by clicking the button below. I look forward to learning more about you, and sharing a bit about me.