Clinician's Digest

By Cooper, Garry | Psychotherapy Networker, July/August 2002 | Go to article overview

Clinician's Digest


Cooper, Garry, Psychotherapy Networker


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A Nervous Therapist Is a Good Therapist

Therapists who feel anxious just before a session are more likely to understand their clients' emotions than therapists in a pleasant mood. That finding is reported in the March issue of Psychotherapy Research.

Researchers assessed the moods of 27 therapists-in-training and their clients at the beginning of a session; immediately after the session, therapists and clients assessed the therapists' empathy. The study measured "intellectual empathy," which occurs when the therapist's understanding of a client's perspective and emotional state matches the client's own, and emotional empathy, which occurs when the therapist feels a same emotion as the client. It found that therapists who began sessions feeling anxious were more likely to empathize intellectually with their clients than therapists who began sessions feeling calm. Neither disposition provided an edge in achieving emotional empathy.

Lead researcher Changming Duan, of the University of Missouri at Kansas City, speculates that because therapists are motivated to do a good job, mild anxiety can increase their level of concentration and arousal, much as athletes turn their anxiety into a focus on their sport. Because intellectual empathy is a cognitive state, not an emotional one, aroused concentration likely enhances it.

Duan cites what he calls "state maintenance theory" to explain why therapists in a good mood may not be ideally effective: someone in a good mood doesn't want to replace it with someone else's bad mood. It's possible that a therapist who's feeling good would empathize with a happy client, but, as Duan points out, in ordinary clinical practice, that fortunate combination seldom occurs.

The Therapist as Yenta

 If your clients need a date, Frederick Levenson can fix them up. Levenson, a psychoanalytically trained therapist who practices in New York City, is the founder of TheraDate, a matchmaking service based on confidential profiles submitted by clients' therapists.

"America is suffering from an epidemic, anaclitic depression based upon a lack of connection and bonding between men and women," he says. If therapy is supposed to help people connect to others, he reasons, why not help clients find compatible matches?

TheraDate clients shell out $2,000, at which point their therapists receive a highly detailed questionnaire. In addition to answering typical dating-service queries about the client's body type and physical attractiveness, therapists provide information on the client's defense mechanisms, family histories, birth order, and sibling and parent relationships. They also explain such things as whether clients are submissive or dominant, concrete or abstract, and whether they have an appropriate, inappropriate, sarcastic, or sadistic sense of humor. The form takes about an hour to fill out, and applicants are matched by similarities. "The idea that opposites attract has absolutely no basis in research," Levenson says, claiming that his process is more accurate than the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI).

Levenson sees his venture as ethical, but not everyone agrees. Thomas O'Connor, executive officer of the California Board of Psychology, and Richard Milone, chair of the American Psychiatric Association Ethics Committee, argue that therapists who participate in TheraDate are engaging in dual relationships, conflating therapy with matchmaking and stepping outside the parameters of standard care. …

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