There are some things about psychotherapy that feel very natural. There are other things that feel artificial at times. One of the examples of the latter is the degree to which a therapist maintains a neutral demeanor. Some therapists are more strict about this than others. Some may have trained in more classically-oriented programs where maintaining a neutral demeanor is considered a fundamental aspect of therapy. Others may feel like a less formal approach is essential to building a rapport with her clients. Some may have a mix of personal feelings and professional learning that creates some degree of attenuated response without a strictly neutral posture.
Generally, I would estimate that this phenomenon has softened over the last several decades. There are both professional and cultural reasons for this. But still maintaining a degree of neutrality, in general, is an important part of psychotherapy. A therapist needs to understand and relate but not necessarily encourage a person one way or another. After all, the therapist is not there to make decisions for you but to help you form your own decisions about your life with as much clarity as possible. Remaining neutral is a way of not swaying you in a particular direction. There are exceptions, of course, when a therapist needs to offer a clear opinion or stance if she thinks the client is making a particularly bad or dangerous decision. But most things in a person’s life are not that clear. As much as we might all, at times, want to offload the responsibility for a big decision onto another person, we understand that ultimately we are the only ones who can properly make that decision.
Don’t confuse neutrality with apathy or disinterest. It is easy to feel like a neutral demeanor is suggesting that your therapist does not care or feels distant from the issue at hand. That is usually not the case. Again, what is much more likely happening is that the therapist is trying not to weigh in on the issue and give you the impression that she approves one way or another. After all, no therapist wants to make a big mistake and point you in a direction that could be the wrong one. For most issues, therapists can’t be sure of the answer to a particular decision. (Not to mention that there may not be a particularly right answer) Better to help clarify and understand than to take a stance.
Contrast the neutral demeanor with that of a friend with whom you are sharing a significant issue. Take a relationship issue as an example. You may tell your friend about a conflict that has arisen with your partner. She might react with great animation or indignation on your behalf and give you clear, succinct advice on what to do. But we all know how often advice from friends goes unheeded. It is not because we don’t value our friends’ advice but because we are not really asking them for advice but for understanding and support. It is a fairly natural thing for friends to give advice, but we know unconsciously that our friends oftentimes don’t know the whole picture and they feel a natural bias and protectiveness for us. That may not always lead to a full understanding and thereby solid advice. Your therapist, on the other hand, knows that she cannot know the full situation much of the time and should not take a strong position because there are likely other aspects that have not come out yet that could change her opinion quite drastically. And it could happen again, and yet another time after that. Most therapists have fallen into that trap at times and have regretted letting themselves take an unwarranted stance. The best defense against those foolish professional mistakes: stay as neutral as you can.Back to Blog