Inception-Level Therapy and Manipulating Clients

Yesterday, I wrote about collaborative therapy as my preference for interacting with my clients. I left out another benefit to collaborative therapy, though, which I’ll explain by invoking the movie Inception. And then that will segue into an ethical discussion about manipulating clients …

Phew. Well, that already escalated.

Okay, ready to go on a ride?

In case you didn’t see or don’t remember Inception, the heroes were on a mission to get the bad guy to sell his company. (I know, I’m super-making this sound like an exciting movie.) Anyway, the catch is that the bad guy has to believe he’s the one who made the decision to sell the company. If he even suspects that he was manipulated into the decision, he won’t sell, and the heroes will have failed. And so, the heroes literally get inside the guy’s head, in order to implant the idea to sell. But, they have to do so in such a subtle way that the guy thinks he came up with the decision himself.

Of course, Inception was a work of fiction, but it turns out non-fiction people have the exact same tendency. In a nutshell, people don’t like being told what to do. They want to make decisions for themselves. And sometimes, whether or not they made their own decision ends up having a greater impact than whether or not they actually like whatever it is they’re deciding on.

To apply it to therapy then, if I tell you to do something, my doing so immediately makes that something way less appealing, even if it’s something you actually wanted to do.

This is where collaboration comes into play. I described collaborative therapy as opening different doors and letting you decide which ones to walk through. This process is way more time-consuming than if I were to simply drag you through a specific doorway of my choosing. Yet, I know that when you’re the one who picks the path, you are far more likely to stay on said path. That’s why it’s important for me to let you choose.

Having said that, though, I will acknowledge that the selection of doors I open is never arbitrary. I often have an idea for which doors I think will be most helpful, and my questions are intended to nudge you down that path.

So for instance, if you decide to stop smoking, you’re more likely to stick with it than if I were to tell you to stop. As a collaborative therapist then, I would never tell you to stop smoking. Instead, I might ask how smoking affects your relationships with your loved ones, how much you spend on cigarettes, how you feel when you’re trying to exercise, and so on.

Obviously, I have a direction I’m wanting us to go. I just have to be subtle about it, like the heroes in Inception, so that you still have the final say on everything.

So this brings up a new concern. Am I being manipulative in using this technique? Is it “sketchy” or unethical?

Yes. And no.

I do admit that I’m being manipulative on some level. But let’s face it, mental manipulation is what we therapists do. It’s what clients come to us for. You want to change your thoughts and feelings, so you hire us to help you. How else would we accomplish change without manipulating you to some extent?

Manipulation is only unethical if I get you to do something you don’t want to do. If you hire a hypnotherapist to hypnotize you into stopping smoking, and you wake up with no desire to ever smoke again … great. Goal accomplished.

If you hire a hypnotherapist to hypnotize you into stopping smoking, and you wake up clucking like a velociraptor … not good. Probably an ethical complaint is in order.

As long as we’re both clear on your goals for therapy, and as long as my manipulation aligns with these goals, then my professional code of ethics (and believe me, therapists have an extensive one) would actually dictate that I use it to help you.

And to be clear, I never lie to you or offer any false information. Really, all I’m doing is bringing to the forefront of your mind the issues that maybe you’re not considering or are subconsciously trying to ignore. And in getting you to consider these issues, you will hopefully choose the set of doors that takes us closest to your therapeutic goals.

It’s inception-level therapy. And 100% ethical.

Lastly, if this method of eliciting behavior change fascinates you, check out motivational interviewing.

Or not.

I mean, I would never tell you to do anything …

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