I have enjoyed the 50s and 60s police series Dragnet since I was a youngster, largely because my parents enjoyed it when it originally aired and we watched the reruns together. Younger readers of this blog may not know the series, as even the parody film (starring Tom Hanks and Dan Akroyd) is nearly 30 years old. The series follows Sgt. Joe Friday (played by actor Jack Webb), a no-nonsense Los Angeles cop, who often admonishes witnesses to stick to “just the facts, ma’am” when they digress in their descriptions of crimes or events.
But, in most cases, are there many (or any) facts? For the police, perhaps, there are plenty of facts. Someone is dead or something is stolen. That is a fact. However, it is likely worthwhile to question this assumption as well, given that eyewitness statements have been shown again and again to be unreliable. There may be basic facts, but how well known are the facts about “what happened?” I face some of the same challenges when working with new clients and listening to their stories and to their description of whatever brought them to therapy.
This phenomenon is frequently in full effect when couples arrive for couples therapy. I notice that the wife’s story is often fully at odds with the husband’s, and vice versa. Sometimes, the matters in dispute are more factual in nature. “You drink every night.” “No I don’t.” That is a factual dispute: a person either drinks nightly, or they don’t. But is there more? Could it feel like to the drinking partner that they don’t drink every night if they take a break from drinking one night a week? Does this mean that the accusation “you drink every night” is factually untrue? Or, if it feels to the non-drinking partner that their husband or wife is intoxicated on a nightly basis, is it not “true” even if the drinker abstains for one or two nights a week? At this point we enter the realm of emotional truths, in which the person’s perceptions are the truth, even though two different people’s perceptions may be wildly divergent. As a therapist I generally respond to the truth the person “feels,” as this is likely what they are responding to, even those responses may be problematic. Sgt. Joe Friday would not be happy with this explanation of events.
Another time I notice this is when clients use the phrase “(so and so) made me mad!” I notice this phrase is especially popular with children and adolescents. This often brings to mind the figure of fairy or sprite, climbing into the person’s brain stem and hitting the “anger” button (shades of Inside Out there…). Is this a fact? Perhaps, as the person who “made you mad” was undoubtedly in the room when the anger occurred, and may even have been instigating trouble on purpose, something that we can all attest occurs between siblings. But if it’s a fact, why does the following work so well? Teenagers often claim emphatically that they want to be in charge of their decisions. When I hear “so and so made me mad” I often respond “I’m surprised you give so and so that kind of control over your life, given how much you want to make your own decision.” In a shocking twist, the facts frequently change, emphasizing “so and so’s” actions, and de-emphasizing the client’s response. Is it still factual?
While you might not be able to hold yourself to the high standards of moral pillar Joe Friday, ask yourself: how often am I mixing up facts and opinions? Would someone else observing this situation see the same “facts”? You may be amazed how often your perception of the “truth” changes.
Therapy Goes POP
Perspectives on therapy and mental health as viewed through the lens of popular culture