Imagine this: you have lived in your home for a few years now. It’s comfortable, it’s familiar, it’s, well, home. But it could be better. It could be more pleasing to the eye. It could be updated. Now that you’ve lived in the home, you know what its flaws are and you know what needs to be fixed and well, you think that painting some of the rooms will make a big difference. You like the way the kitchen looks. It’s just about perfect, but the living room, aside from needing a touch-up on the magnolia colored walls should have one darker wall and you have decided on a terracotta color, and the guest bedroom, you have decided, would be nice in a mellow cantaloupe color. So you call up your local well-recommended painter who you heard about through the sister-in-law of the best friend of your butcher and you ask him to come over to give you an estimate on the two rooms.
He arrives and you ask if he has any experience painting beyond the work he did for your butcher’s best friend’s sister-in-law and he at first is a bit put off that you would even question his skill, but then tells you that he can do things with a paint brush that no one else has ever thought of. And you suppress a random thought about what he might mean, but you decide to proceed to tell him about the job you want him to do.
He looks at the kitchen and says, “Oh yeah, I see that this room really needs to be updated.” You say, “Actually, I like it the way it is.” He says, “You can’t be serious.” You ask him to please follow you into the living room and you tell him what you want done there. He tells you that you are right about a darker color, but really, you need a vibrant lime green. You tell him, no, you have decided on terracotta. He becomes insistent. You finally tell him that you need some time to think things through. Don’t call us; we’ll call you.
Once he leaves, you decide to call another painter because you want him to do for you what YOU want. After all, you are paying and you will be the one who is living with the results.
Now imagine this: You walk into a therapist’s office and you say that you are having a problem with anxiety about a job interview. Your therapist, already feeling threatened by your insistence on knowing what his qualifications are, tells you that you don’t really need to prepare for job interviews; you need to examine your childhood and discover why you have this difficulty with presenting yourself to authority figures and where it was that you missed developing healthy self-esteem.
Well, if you are like most clients, you will not walk out. You will think “he’s the expert and so he must know better.” Well, that is not entirely true. In fact, you are the expert on what’s bothering you and what you think a good solution might be. You are not hiring the therapist to do the job HE wants to do. You are hiring him to do the job YOU need done! He is a house painter. He needs to paint the house the colors YOU want on the walls YOU choose. He is in your employ and you do not have to go forward with his agenda. He needs to respect your agenda and priorities.
I believe that people are the experts on themselves. When they are faced with a challenge that is too difficult for them to face alone, they come for help. But they are the ones who determine what they want and need. And we, the therapists, are the house painters.