The powerful therapeutic tool that makes psychologists nervous.
David Servan-Schreiber | November 2007 issue
When I teach psychotherapy to my colleagues who are psychiatrists or psychologists, I am always careful to stress the importance not only of mastering techniques but of paying the utmost attention to patients’ needs. This may mean handing over a box of Kleenex when they are on the verge of tears. Or speaking to them gently and reassuringly when hidden sorrows resurface. Or making sure, after an emotional session, that patients are able to drive, and if not, staying by their sides a little longer. I point out that it is quite simply a matter of being “kind,” since the kinder we
are with patients, the more progress they make. Besides, there are no undesirable side effects: Nobody has ever complained of being too well-treated!
Still, kindness doesn’t always get high marks in psychotherapy. When I recommend it, I am told I may be using the wrong word. “Benevolent neutrality” is better, they say. “Kind” sounds a little soft, they claim. Yet kindness is exactly what I mean. Kindness is, all by itself, a powerful therapeutic tool—especially in everyday relationships.
At the end of a group-therapy session I was conducting with the help of a manual, the last exercise in the book seemed a bit ridiculous to me. A blank sheet was supposed to be taped on the backs of the eight participants and two therapists, of whom I was one, and each of us was to write down what he considered other people’s best qualities. After 12 weeks, I knew not everyone in the group thought highly of everybody else. Nevertheless, the exercise was a resounding success. It is striking to see how something positive can always be found in any individual, even if you don’t intend to form a friendship with her. It is even more surprising to observe the effect when the person is told about it. All the participants had lumps in their throats as they took leave of each other, full of gratitude. Kindness had done its work.
In his remarkable book on the meaning of life, Essential Spirituality, psychiatrist Roger Walsh told a similar story that took place in the 1960s. For a particularly difficult class, a schoolteacher used the technique of the blank sheet pinned to the back of each child to try to change the way the children related to each other. Each child left the school with his sheet of paper listing the compliments, which the teacher had rewritten so they would remain anonymous. Silly? Perhaps. But years later, that same teacher was attending the funeral of one of her pupils who had died in Vietnam. The boy’s mother came up to her. “Do you remember the letter you gave Mark? He hung it over his bed when he came home that night. It was in the inside pocket of his uniform when he died. I wanted to thank you for what you did for him…”
Why doesn’t each one of us carry a letter like that?
David Servan-Schreiber is a psychiatry professor in France and the U.S., author of Healing without Freud or Prozac.