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Rudeness in Psychotherapy

The art of a therapist largely lies in transforming potential rudeness (revealing, exposing intimate, sacred, and shameful matters) into a healing force.

Biblical Ham, as is known, was the youngest son of Noah, and he became famous for seeing his drunken naked father in the vineyard and going to tell his brothers about it. Now, the brothers, being the good ones they were, walked backward with a garment and covered their father's nakedness. From this story, many different conclusions can be drawn. For instance, one might argue against criticizing those in authority. Any mention of their flaws and shortcomings might be seen as a monstrous display of disrespect and should be strictly condemned. Or perhaps: instead of airing dirty laundry, we should cover for each other. Although such conclusions might be drawn, it's evident the story isn't about that—many other devout prophets and saints became renowned precisely for directly addressing the spiritual ailments and moral degradation of those in power.

In contemporary understanding, "rudeness" has simply morphed into coarseness or disrespectful behavior. This habitual use of the term strips it of its deeper meaning, divorcing it from its Old Testament roots. Noah's son didn't openly insult anyone, but as a result of his actions, his father might have felt offended and vulnerable. The main distinguishing feature of rudeness isn't in the manner of behavior, but rather in the resulting feelings of humiliation, vulnerability, and shame experienced by the recipient, while the perpetrator of rudeness (quite the opposite) might feel invulnerable and even superior.

Ham's fault lay in exposing what was intimate and irrelevant to anyone else. A "ham" is someone on the other side of shame, the one who initiates it with awkward or malicious actions. True "hams" can be those who spread shameful gossip or inappropriately expose hidden knowledge about others.

Interestingly, Ham doesn't condemn his father. That would have been a responsible act requiring courage and a demonstration of his own value system. Instead, he quietly whispers to his brothers. By revealing intimate details, he remains seemingly untouched, not implicated. This echoes the actions of a secondary character in "Office Romance", who, upon receiving love letters from a colleague, discreetly informs everyone, creating an atmosphere of shame and humiliation.

A quintessential demonstration of experiencing shame can be likened to the situation where someone pulls down a teenager's underwear in the school locker room (an extremely unpleasant and unfortunately recognizable experience), and the "ham" is the person who does it. Thus, rudeness is the flip side of shame, and the "ham" is the subject of this side.

It must be said that rudeness carries powerful energy and easily becomes a source of bullying, harassment, and mutual suspicion. Noah and his sons managed to deal with rudeness by uniting against it: Noah's children covered his nakedness. However, in life, rudeness more often provokes ridicule, mockery, and public pressure. Therefore, rudeness is actively used for manipulation: the "ham" avoids responsibility, does not openly confront, does not declare their values, instead subtly creates "public opinion." These include discussions during class about a student's behavior and parental tales of a child's shortcomings, often in their presence, to make them feel ashamed. These methods, inherently painful, are somehow considered productive. They are so ingrained in the manipulation of each other by the common folk that even some "personal growth" psychological trainings are built on such shaming and incitement, intended to give individuals the incentive to overcome their complexes. Often, this becomes extremely destructive for the individual.

It's important to distinguish the subtle line between rudeness and exposing flaws. When someone is being rude, they aren't interested in correcting the flaw; they're indifferent to the person and their future. They're only attracted to the scandalousness of exposing someone's shortcomings or intimate details. Rudeness is often used in response to those who expose, saying, "Who are they to reveal our flaws? Their own faces are crooked and so on." Exposing and rudeness are similar, and manipulative manipulation, substituting one for the other, is common. Unfortunately, the audience, targeted by both rudeness and exposure, doesn't always find it easy to distinguish between them. (For instance, one deputy reacted to the media's information about a judge's daughter's $2 million wedding: "They might as well have checked the sheets after the first wedding night – are there any red stains! What rudeness!" – a typical manipulative substitution of exposing theft with scandalous intimate details of someone's personal life.) A "ham" hits a person's weak, vulnerable spot, while a prophet, an expositor, hits their strong spot; they appeal directly to a person's conscience, pointing out flaws and abuses of power, position, or strength, exposing and defending their own position and value system. Sometimes this includes personal, intimate aspects of life (for example, romantic relationships that cover up theft and embezzlement, or certain types of intimate relationships involving incest and violence, disregarding morality – like John the Baptist's condemnation of Herod and Salome). But the expositor tries to stop the unacceptable, relying on morality, ethics, and laws. A "ham" just seeks to shame and bring general condemnation and social pressure, creating a situation of moral harassment.

But what does this have to do with psychotherapy? One of the therapist's tasks is to make the hidden obvious, to expose intimate, problematic areas that a person hides even from themselves, not just from others. In individual therapy, the confidentiality rule partly protects against this. But in group therapy, in demonstrative sessions, during training – how can this be avoided? Even in individual sessions, clients feel exposed and vulnerable, revealing their hidden characteristics, encountering their own limitations. For many, this is an unbearable experience.

Therapists have plenty of ways to be rude to clients. And since rudeness is entirely unhelpful in therapy, it's crucial for therapists to pay attention to situations where they might become rude. This can happen every time a therapist triggers feelings of humiliation or shame in a client while remaining invulnerable themselves. It's important to note that a client experiencing shame isn't necessarily linked to the therapist's rudeness. Shame is a significant experience, and therapists need to be able to support and help clients deal with it. However, there's a difference between a situation where, as a result of sufficient support from the therapist and the client's own process, they decide to confront their shame and a situation where shame arises in the client as a result of the therapist's words or actions, perhaps when the client isn't ready to face it. Rudeness from a therapist manifests in shaming the client or provoking feelings of humiliation. Not only is this unhelpful for the client, but it can also be retraumatizing.

Why is it sometimes difficult for therapists to refrain from being rude? Perhaps it's because the alternative is the ability to confront one's own vulnerability and shame. What did Ham feel when confronted with his father's nakedness? Awkwardness? Shame of his own? Fear that the same could happen to him? These are speculations. But indeed, if we witness someone else's shame, we might feel awkwardness and fear experiencing shame ourselves. Rudeness is one way to protect against these unpleasant experiences: if I'm above the person experiencing shame, perhaps the same won't happen to me. If I become the one shaming, perhaps I can avoid my own humiliation. Even better, if I can convince myself of my own impunity and invulnerability by trying to resemble the expositor.

"In kindergarten," recalls O.M., "the caregivers made a boy from our group undress completely and squat in front of everyone because he was misbehaving during nap time. And then they announced a competition for silence monitors. The monitors were supposed to identify cases of misbehavior and report them to the caregivers. There was no shortage of volunteers. The monitors had an obvious advantage; they could speak louder than others, make remarks, threaten that shame would follow. The monitors themselves, as long as they maintained that status, felt invincible."

Another sign of rudeness, also related to shame, is the violation of intimacy boundaries. When something happens that "exposes" a client's feelings, "brings them out into the open," not because they're ready to confront them or present themselves in front of the therapist, but because the therapist prematurely provokes such openness. Intervening in another's intimate sphere or exposing that sphere without their explicit desire is rudeness. Of course, clients often turn to therapists precisely to discover and somehow deal with hidden (sometimes from themselves) experiences. And therapists often contribute to making what is difficult for the client to face apparent. This in itself is not rude. What makes a therapist's words or actions rude is their untimeliness or inappropriateness (when the client isn't yet ready to face complex experiences or hasn't been adequately supported by the therapist).

A particular instance of rudeness, almost echoing the tale of Noah and Ham, occurs when a therapist breaches confidentiality. In this scenario, the therapist intrudes into the client's intimate sphere with someone else. However, unlike Ham's brothers in the biblical story, this third party lacks the means to "cover up" the client's vulnerability in such a therapist's practice. The only option is to halt the therapist's rudeness.

It's easy for a therapist to become rude when, thanks to their experience and knowledge, they casually expose all of a client's weaknesses. Provocative and frustrating methods often rely on bringing to light what poses a challenge for the client. When we observe the work of Frank Farrell or Fritz Perls, we witness the dredging up of everything settled at the bottom of the pond. The polished image the person had created dissolves, revealing their complexes, aggression, traumas, and flaws. This instantly becomes rudeness if the specialist takes pride in their ability to "bring everything to light", as there's no empathy or desire to help behind such an exposure. In such cases, the individual experiences only shame and humiliation. It's worth mentioning that sometimes this can lead to an explosion of aggression and catharsis in a neurotic person, but the risk is significant. Instead of getting angry at the rude person, the individual may end up being re-traumatized, with unpredictable consequences, including self-destructive behaviors.

We believe that three main indicators of a therapist's rudeness can be identified:

  1. Shaming the client: Instead of providing sufficient support for the client to confront their shame, the therapist induces it or exacerbates it.
  2. The therapist's invulnerability: Instead of being able to confront their own vulnerability, including their own shame, the therapist appears invulnerable.
  3. Interfering with the client's intimacy, violating their boundaries, premature closeness: Instead of accompanying the client on their journey at their own pace, the therapist interferes prematurely.

Shame can lead to various outcomes. In your experience, there may have been examples where deep shame changed your worldview, making you better. Dostoevsky's works abound with such examples (for instance, Raskolnikov's encounter with Sonya Marmeladova). This is the experience of purification through shame, where a person sees their flaws, illnesses, and mistakes clearly and doesn't need to defend themselves because no one is attacking them. On the contrary, these flaws become evident in the light of love, care, and kind treatment.

This experience arises when a person expects condemnation and humiliation, but instead is met with respectful, caring, and empathetic treatment.

"In my life, there was such an example that significantly changed my worldview at the time," recalls V.S., "I was 17 and in a camp in a monastery with my former history teacher. One night, a couple of friends and I got quite drunk, which was evident to everyone by morning. The older teachers who accompanied us decided to call me out in the evening and scold me. I was no longer a schoolboy, and I was ready to listen to them 'with a gun in my pocket'. They tried to talk about the unacceptable behaviour, about what I should say in my defence - pointless reprimands, to which I was prepared. And then the headteacher, the history teacher, said: 'I've known you for a long time and I understand that you didn't drink - you're just not the kind of person who would allow yourself to do that. But you behaved in such a way that people thought you did, and you're an example to many! That's it, go on, don't do that again.' Such a turn of events was extremely unexpected and instantly changed my perspective."

Another example of such an experience can be found in an autobiographical play where a former inmate recounted how she left her work crew due to unbearable conflicts. When she was sent to the mental health facility for this, her crew leader suddenly came to her and said, "I thought you were smarter than that." And that was it - this unexpected hint of respect changed her decision, causing both strong shame and relief. And she asked to return to the same crew she ran away from."

In both situations, there was an expectation of attack and humiliation, which suddenly turned into recognition of human dignity and respect. This is the opposite of rudeness, although it also involves shame. Rudeness is indifferent to the subject and focuses on their flaw, whereas such cleansing and strengthening shame, arising from a reassessment of oneself and a sense of one's own worth, is associated with attention to the person themselves and the secondary nature of their fault or deficiency. It seems that rudeness always seeks to elevate itself, to exalt itself, to "be in the right" at the expense of exposing, publicising, and demonstrating another person's intimate and painful, shameful manifestations. What evokes in a person such an attitude towards them is a mixture of humiliation and shame. Psychotherapy, always related to intimate experience and the discovery of shortcomings, can position itself somewhere on this scale: from rudeness to cleansing shame. And it seems that respect and attention, which the therapist shows to their client, play a key role.

Another scale, with rudeness at one end and the exposure of social ills, injustices, and moral disdain at the other. The difference lies in the desire to change the surrounding reality for the better, which rudeness lacks and in the open declaration of one's own position, a system of values - something a rude person never does. This is the most important task taken on by prophets and the best politicians.

After all, Ham's brothers, Shem and Japheth, did not ignore their father's nudity, did not pretend it didn't exist, but instead covered him, and this story was not consigned to oblivion but preserved through the ages.

Gestalt therapist, trainer Olga Movchan

Gestalt therapist, trainer Vitaliy Sonkin