The Power of Therapeutic Confrontation: Unleashing Healing through Honesty
Therapeutic confrontation is a powerful and transformative technique used in psychotherapy and counseling. It involves addressing thought patterns, behaviors, or emotions in a direct and honest manner, with the intention of fostering personal growth and positive change. While the term “confrontation” may sound, well, confrontational, it is an intentional and skillful way of compassionately challenging individuals to examine their beliefs and behaviors.
Rollo May wrote, “the major experiences such as birth, death, love, anxiety, guilt are not problems to be solved, but paradoxes to be confronted and acknowledged” (May, 1999, Pg. 67). Confrontation, whether accomplished through self-examination or through the help of an outside other, is an essential process for personal growth. However, the method in which confrontation is expressed (by self or other) is important. Harsh criticism only drives our vulnerable self back into hiding to avoid the shame.
Therapeutic Confrontation is the process of providing direct, reality-oriented feedback to a client regarding their thoughts, feelings or behavior.
What is Therapeutic Confrontation?
Therapeutic confrontation serves as a catalyst for self-reflection and self-awareness. It provides individuals with an opportunity to explore underlying issues, gain insight into their own experiences, and break free from self-defeating patterns. We operate in automatic mode. We react to external stimuli with protective defenses without our protection breaking the surface of awareness. Often, from an outside perspective, these automatic protections are visible. A therapist may provide feedback from this outside perspective, allowing the client to focus attention to the hidden processes at work.
Basically, therapeutic confrontation is necessary and a foundational element of therapy. Psychotherapist James Janik, specifically referring to the client’s defense of denial, explains” the confrontation of denial… is essential in reestablishing a healthy equilibrium between the individual and the world” (Janik, 1992).
Basically, under the right conditions, and done with considerable care, a therapist may bring a client’s attention to cognitive processes that the client is overlooking. Hopefully, with gentle redirection, the process may be brought to the client’s working memory for closer examination. The primary objective of therapeutic confrontation is not to attack or criticize but rather to create a safe and supportive environment where clients can confront their own thoughts, beliefs, and actions. Basically, it is a collaborative process between the therapist and the client, based on trust, empathy, and mutual respect.
Resistance and Confrontation
A common theme in therapy is resistance. Typically, we see resistance as undesirable. However, in therapy resistance is necessary. Picture, if you will, the exercise function of a resistance band. When we pull the band beyond its pre-set length, it resists. With therapy, the goal is to stretch the client beyond pre-set thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors. Growth always occurs through resistance. A person is not a lifeless blob of clay that easily molds to the will of the therapist.
Paul Berstein and Nemour Landaiche explain, “From the beginning through to the termination of therapy, the client is encouraged to challenge deeply held beliefs, test modified emotional responses, and experiment with unfamiliar behavior.” Consequently, they proceed to explain, “the client is continually learning to expand his or her awareness of self and of the availability options for change. In this respect, the work of therapy always revolves around the resolution of resistance.” They conclude, “without resistance, therapy cannot take place. A lack of resistance means that nothing is being encountered or worked through” (Berstein & Landaiche, 2004).
Confrontation, in many respects, is the force used to expand the client. It is the process in therapy that creates the resistance which, consequently, leads to the possibility of client growth when the therapist employs it correctly.
The Benefits of Therapeutic Confrontation
Therapeutic confrontation can yield numerous benefits, ultimately leading to profound personal growth and transformation. Laura Moeseneder and her colleagues describe a “confronting intervention as a focus on discrepancies for which the patient may or may not be aware of” (Moeseneder. et al., 2017). Perhaps, one can call it a shot of reality to stimulate change. Moreover, confrontation brings to consciousness discrepancies in adaptive functioning.
1. Increased Self-Awareness:
By bringing hidden and unconscious beliefs or behaviors to the surface, therapeutic confrontation helps individuals gain a deeper understanding of themselves. It allows them to explore underlying issues and make connections between their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
2. Encouraging Personal Responsibility:
Through gentle confrontation, individuals are encouraged to take ownership of their actions and choices. This process empowers them to make conscious decisions and take responsibility for their own well-being.
3. Changing Unhelpful Patterns:
Therapeutic confrontation can help individuals identify and challenge self-destructive patterns that may be hindering their personal growth. It enables them to break free from negative cycles and adopt healthier and more adaptive ways of thinking and behaving.
4. Enhancing Communication Skills:
By learning to engage in therapeutic confrontation, individuals develop effective communication skills. It enables them to express their needs, assert boundaries, and engage in healthy conflict resolution.
5. Strengthening Relationships:
Therapeutic confrontation facilitates open and honest communication within relationships. Moreover, it encourages individuals to express their concerns and needs, leading to deeper connections and improved conflict resolution.
The Role of the Therapist
Therapists employing therapeutic confrontation must possess the necessary skills and expertise to ensure its effectiveness. They create a safe and non-judgmental space where individuals feel comfortable exploring challenging topics. Additionally, therapists use empathy, active listening, and gentle guidance to navigate the confrontation process and facilitate meaningful self-discovery.
Bernstein and Landaiche instruct that “sometimes the therapist must push in order to encounter the resistance that is essential for therapy; at other times (they) must back off. Throughout the process the therapist works to maintain a steady and flexible state of interpersonal resistance and resolution” (2004).
Dr. Lawrence Heller wrote, “helping clients experience how they maintain dysfunctional patterns requires tact and sensitivity to each individual’s vulnerability as well as, when necessary, an element of confrontation.” Markedly, He emphasizes, “it is important that clients do not feel blamed or shamed for perpetuating patterns that were once life-saving; at the same time it is important for them to see that they are “actors” re-creating and acting out old survival patterns” (Heller & LaPierre, 2012, Kindle location: 3,789).
Martha C. Nussbaum illustrates confrontation by referring to the parent child relationship. She wrote that “when a child commits a bad act, a good family will convey to the child a clear message about the unacceptability of the act, but in a spirit of love and generosity, encouraging the child to separate the child’s basic ongoing self from the wrongful act and to think of him- or herself as capable of good in the future.” She continues, “It helps if parents model the virtues themselves, and their delicate combination of confrontation and reintegration is made more effective by the child’s own love and emulation” (Nussbaum, 2018, Kindle location: 4,447).
Risks of Therapeutic Confrontation
One of the primary risks of therapeutic confrontation is the deterioration of the therapist client relationship. Sometimes the therapist confronts a trait, belief, or behavior that will not budge. This occurs in all relationships. A strong protective boundary in a certain area may be untouchable at the present moment. If the therapist continually pushes, the relationship begins to deteriorate. Bernstein and Landaiche refer to these as “interactional stalemates” (2004).
Confrontation may lead defensive reactions where the client buries the unwelcome material even deeper. Confrontation that is not readily received may produce feeling of shame in the client. Instead of openness, the client furthers themselves from the therapist’s observation. This inevitably will happen. However, the skilled therapist recognizes the impasse, takes note of the circumstances and backs off until growth in other areas allows for checking this boundary again.
Therapeutic confrontation is a powerful tool that can unlock the potential for personal growth and healing. Accordingly, by confronting thought patterns, behaviors, or emotions in a supportive and empathetic way, individuals can break free from destructive patterns and embark on a journey of self-discovery. However, the therapist must remember that therapeutic confrontation is not about aggression or blame; it is about fostering self-awareness, personal responsibility, and positive change.
Bernstein, Paul; Landaiche, Nemour (2004). Resistance, counterresistance, and balance: A framework for managing the experience of impasse in psychotherapy. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 22(1), 5-19. DOI: 10.1007/BF00952338
Heller, Lawrence; LaPierre, Aline (2012). Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship. North Atlantic Books; 1st edition.
May, Rollo (1981/1999). Freedom and Destiny. W. W. Norton & Company.
Moeseneder, Laura; Figlioli, Patrick; Caspar, Franz (2017). Confronting Patients: Therapists’ Model of a Responsiveness Based Approach. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 48(2), 61-67. DOI: 10.1007/s10879-017-9371-x
Nussbaum, Martha C. (2018). Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice. Oxford University Press; Reprint edition.