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The Therapeutic Uses of Cluelessness

Our feelings of certainty as therapists come hand-in-hand with being the experts in the room, but there’s therapeutic value in assuming and truly experiencing our own cluelessness.

The therapist who is feeling certain could be mistaken, unknowingly misleading the client. The certain therapist could also be correct, but leaving the lost and confused client behind. The clueless therapist is saved from false assumptions, is more able to join with the client, and can model for the client a non-anxious and productive relationship with being lost.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the value of cultivating a sense of ignorance when the client describes their experience; I might be an expert on “anxiety,” but I can’t yet know what they mean by that term. By enforcing an attitude of cluelessness on ourselves, we can provide curiosity, which supports exploration, whereas an answer would shut it down. We can invite the client to place their own cluelessness front-and-center by taking rhetorical questions literally-- the client asking “What’s going on with me?” is confused but also exasperated and emotionally rejects their confusion. We can help them explore by leaning into that confusion-- “Good question! What is going on?”

Cluelessness is an essential part of joining the client. In their attempts to understand and change themselves, they have hit a wall. We have to hit that same wall! There’s little for them to learn when we simply leap over it and carry them with us. When we’ve joined them in the stuckness, they are less humiliated by their own. When we painstakingly scale the wall alongside them, they might learn how to do so themselves. This is all rather vulnerable for the therapist, and that’s the point-- they feel joined when we don’t hide our own limitations.

Most useful is our ability to model patience and productivity when feeling clueless. I use the example of writing essays for school, pointing out how the completed paper always starts with a blank screen, and passes through one or more periods of frustration, self-doubt and despair. I say “Despair is part of the process.” Patience, rather than urgency, gives us room to play, an approach to problem-solving that usually produces better results than pushing through frantically. The therapist can demonstrate a non-anxious curiosity infused with self-compassion.

Admittedly, “productivity through cluelessness” does require knowledge and skillfulness, specifically regarding how to “get a clue." I can’t help the client if I’m clueless about exploration; I have to be at least somewhat good at brainstorming and improvising! And I’ll admit something else-- I still feel clueless about how to actually teach the client these skills. All I have so far are some principles borrowed from the Upright Citizens Brigade improv manual, which are:

All of these principles lead to the same kinds of exploratory actions-- elaborating on our situation, seeking implied facts based on what we already know, and identifying “what matters most” when we look at our situation.

Even still, when I provide the client with these prompts, they often respond with “I don’t have a clue!” I currently have one original intervention to offer which sometimes has better results-- inviting the client to treat their situation as if they were in a book or TV show, as it’s often easier to let loose our imagination in a fictional context. Fictional characters always have a motivation, justified or not. Fictional characters are free to act in outlandish ways, and brainstorming freely is always a good starting place. Critiquing and modifying an unrealistic (or even immoral) idea can get us closer to a good idea, and certainly closer than having no idea.

If it were easy to explore, to cure our cluelessness, then they wouldn’t seek out our help. I’m nowhere near done with figuring out how to teach others how to figure it out, and this cluelessness is where I have to start.

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