The exposure myth, occasionally perpetrated by psychotherapists themselves, is the belief that by exposing a hidden neglect or trauma (usually one that occurred in childhood), or even an external, physical cause (such as extreme stress or substance abuse), all the patient’s problems will be solved. Suddenly, the patient’s life will become meaningful and happy.
When patients talk about painful events, they are at their most vulnerable. They don’t yet know how to build their healed “new” selves because they weren’t ready for the confrontation with their unhappy “old” selves. In fact, it is not uncommon to find that patients don’t have the emotional scaffolding in place to deal with their pasts.
Emotional scaffolding is our term for the coping strategies and skills that are taught to a patient by a therapist in order to help the patient manage and deal with the deep inner exploration that may be a part of psychotherapy. These groups of skills act as scaffolding or structures upon which exploration can take place and healthy emotions, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors can be built.
Many patients who are raw, wounded, and (even after years of therapy), unable to rebuild their live, just didn’t have the requisite emotional skills in place before they and their therapists plunged in. Psychotherapists who train with me work together with their patients to build the emotional scaffolding they need before encouraging their patients to expose painful, deeply private memories.
Experienced therapists know that exposing and discussing everything about their patients’ pasts—a common approach, unfortunately—is rarely, if ever, necessary. In some cases untimely or unnecessary exposure to painful recollections may even prevent patients from coping with life at the most basic level. They may just shut down or act out. Remember, if a therapist takes someone apart, they may not be able to put them back together again.
Experienced therapists believe in everyone’s right to privacy—especially yours. They believe it is extremely important to help you understand which parts of your life are relevant and need to be talked about and which areas should remain unexposed. There are some types of therapy, though, that encourage therapists and patients to make an unhealthy breach of boundaries. These methods are a reflection of the culture at large, where privacy and modesty have completely fallen by the wayside.
Nowhere is the lack of respect for boundaries more clearly apparent than in our celebrity culture. There the goal is to attain power and adoration—the kind that comes from gaining the attention of others. In order to get attention, celebrities—and the paparazzi that encourage them—stop at almost nothing.
Some people, famous and not famous alike, are driven to expose themselves and breach all boundaries, because they are desperate for attention and love. Some will even humiliate themselves to get it. TV reality shows and many talk shows, for example, feed upon this neediness. And who hasn’t at least glanced at a celebrity tell-all webpage, book or magazine in which abusive childhood experiences are described in lurid detail?
Sure, our earliest experiences and relationships influence us greatly. They truly are a very important factor that can help us understand why we are the way we are. All too often though, uncovering and discussing our family’s dysfunction (and what family isn’t dysfunctional in some way?), has achieved a bizarre social status in our culture.
We all need to know that talking about our pasts in and of itself is not a cure. Exploring the past needlessly, or before one is ready, or exploring it with someone whose trustworthiness is questionable, can be worse than useless. It can cause emotional pain strong enough to instigate a shutdown of feeling and even a shutdown of reason; then the individual’s ability to deal with the present, and possibly the future, has been damaged.
Adapted from Therapy Revolution: Find Help, Get Better and Move On (HCI)