health · healthcare · mental health · psychological inquiry · psychology · psychotherapy · wellness

Psychotherapist as provocateur

Provocateur: a person who provokes dissension; agitator.

Effective therapeutic change must include pivotal moments of therapeutic provocation. Yet we all know patients most love psychotherapists that make them feel good. But honestly unconditional positive regard only goes so far and therapy that focuses on producing good feelings is ultimately unhelpful and frankly dishonest. Why? Because real change rests on the hard work of facilitating mental clarity, humility, uprightness, and fierce compassion—not just in the patient but also in the mental health professional. To accomplish that task, a psychotherapist must be willing to call patients on their blind spots, their hubris, avoidance, and plain old bullshit.

Yes, that can be uncomfortable and possibly confrontative. Therefore, a therapeutic professional has to look deeply at their own blind spots, avoidances, hubris and bullshit with courage and compassionate regard for basic human suffering. We are fallible humans too.

Some of that blind spot work involves honest assessment of whether one is clinging to pleasurable feelings that arise from being a patient’s good gal or savior. Ouch! Even writing that sentence elicits feelings of disgust when I consider how much harm is done to a patient when a psychotherapist is lost in their own ego fixation. That is the worst form of therapeutic unconsciousness.

I remember many years ago reading Irvin Yalom’s, The Gift of Therapy. This manual on how to skillfully accomplish self-disclosure blew my mind and showed me the value of continually assessing the best interests of a patient and acting solely on that. Sometimes I don’t know or I can’t decide what is in their best interest. That is when I ask them directly.

Often asking involves provocation in one form or another. Provoking by questioning a blind spot or naming an oft-discussed avoidance. Even directly pointing at hubris, assumptiveness, or outright disownment of responsibility. This kind of provocation for the purpose of clear-seeing can frustrate or even anger a patient. Anger shows they trust you. So rather than backing away in fearfulness, lean in to skillful inquiry.

It’s like surfing a wave of habit reactivity on a surfboard of mutual curiosity about the patient’s feelings. All while inviting them to join you on the surfboard of openness to accomplish shifting reactivity to responsivity. Not rejecting; not accepting—this is the way to model equanimous provocative inquiry that leads to wisdom and transformation.  

And best of all, this process allows a psychotherapist to model fearlessness and facilitate movement away from defensive eruptions and into intentional, deliberate engagement with confused or distressful thoughts and feelings. For me, that movement produces the most change. Change born from a patient skillfully facing their own internal provocations and realizations with or without the psychotherapist.

complex trauma · health · mental health · mindfulness · psychology · psychotherapy · PTSD · PTSD treatment · Somatic Experiencing · somatic psychotherapy · Trauma · trauma healing · trauma therapy · wellness

The ‘somatic therapist’ nightmare

Increasingly, I am hearing disturbing stories from new patients about what is being labeled in the SF Bay Area as ‘somatic therapy’. What is clear is how many clinical and non-clinical people are calling themselves ‘somatic therapists’ and offering subpar to damaging services to individuals in need of effective mental health treatment for PTSD. 

Frankly, I have no idea what a somatic therapist is. Yet so many people are seeking somatic therapy because these days pop psychology views everything as traumatic and somatics as the cure for all trauma. This reminds me of what happened 15 years ago when mindfulness became the clinical intervention for every malady. We all know how poorly that worked out.

Integrative psychotherapy acknowledges that mental health is interdependently determined by the systemic quality of one’s mind states, emotions, and bodily responses. Human beings are organisms in constant flux; continually homeostatically reacting and responding to causes and conditions. Our thoughts are conditioned by body health as much as physical health is undermined by a chaotic mind and highly-reactive emotions.

Because traumatic experiences impact the entire human organism, resolving traumatic experiences must be a whole system endeavor. Changing thoughts is not enough. Loosening muscles and tissues will not prevent future bracing each time a challenging-enough situation occurs. And emotion regulation is a body-mind-heart mission.

Somatic Experiencing® (SE™) focuses on and accomplishes whole system trauma resolution. SE is a complex theoretical model delivered in a three-year training program. It takes time to learn how to recognize, work with, and deliver skills for effectively resolving the nervous system dysregulation commonly found in PTSD sufferers.

Other clinically helpful trauma methodologies include Sensorimotor Psychotherapy and EMDR. However, EMDR is often too activating and unhelpful for people with complex-PTSD who experienced early developmental trauma prior to adult traumatic events. SE is an excellent methodology for those individuals.

I encourage asking anyone claiming to be a ‘somatic therapist’ what training they have undergone and if they are a licensed clinical professional. Unlicensed practitioners are unregulated practitioners with no legal or ethical oversight. That is a minefield to avoid particularly for trauma sufferers.