Real-life therapists explain “shrinking” on Apple TV+

Everyone’s fighting a battle you don’t know about. And yes, that includes your therapist.

The new Apple TV+ series Shrinking focuses on Jimmy (Jason Segel), a recently widowed therapist who has been in grief for over a year. The first day we follow Jimmy to work, he is hungover and exhausted. He meets with a parade of clients who present themselves with a variety of worldly issues; we have a feeling he has been hearing the same complaints from these people for a long time. And he can’t take it anymore. During a session with a longtime client named Grace (Heidi Gardner), Jimmy’s frustration boils over and he screams the soft part out loud. He tells Grace to leave her husband or he will stop working with her. To his delight and surprise, she agrees.

This moment spurs Jimmy to change his entire approach to therapy. Up to this point, it feels like he called it out, using knowing nods and stereotypical quips like “how does that feel?” Instead of dealing with clients on autopilot, Jimmy decides to let his identity run free. He begins to be radically honest in meetings, freely and often divulging his personal opinions, and surprising clients by pulling them out of meetings and taking them to places like a coffee shop and an MMA sparring gym. Jimmy’s cantankerous but lovable mentor Paul (Harrison Ford) warns against using these tactics on clients, claiming that it would “rob them of their autonomy.”

Therapy on television is always stepped up for entertainment’s sake, and Shrinkage is no exception. But Jimmy’s newfound politics of radical honesty is not in itself uncommon in the therapeutic world. Melissa Scheier, a licensed clinical social worker practicing in Connecticut, considers sharing honest observations with clients “part of the job.” However, she adds, “There are so many things you need to look at — the person’s personality, their insight, your relationship with the client — for whatever you say to be worthwhile in therapy.”

Before engaging in brutal honesty, a responsible therapist must weigh several factors, says Dr. Chandler Chang, clinical psychologist and CEO of Therapy Lab: “I think you have to consider the person’s motivation for change, as well as the relationship between the therapist and the client. We can only work together when there is trust and rapport. If you approach the customer too directly too soon, you destroy that trust and damage the relationship, and you’re done.”

Contrary to Jimmy’s impulsive disclosure to Grace and his last-minute decisions to bring clients out into the world for a portion of their sessions, practicing quality therapy requires mindfulness, planning, and forethought.

“Therapy and psychology are based on science, but part of it is doing a dance of being aware of and caring for the rapport. Then sometimes the right directness ends up perfectly and exactly what the customer needs,” says Chang. But, Chang warns, “You have to be careful about when you’re giving a radically honest observation or piece of advice. We have to be aware not to give advice because it changes the power dynamic.”

Scheier and Chang both believe it takes something more than blurting out instructions to create change. “It’s not so much about being honest with a customer,” says Scheier. “It’s more about skillfully helping them get it.”

For example, according to Chang, sensitive wording might be necessary when addressing a sensitive truth. “If you get the timing right and initiate it like, ‘I don’t know how this is going to end up, but I’m going to say something that might surprise you or even upset you… that’s what I see, it can be very impactful “, he says. “In a way, that’s why people come to therapy. [They’re] looking for some objectivity in a given situation. But it’s up to the therapist to judge, ‘How much objectivity am I sharing on this particular day?’”

While Jimmy appears to have the best of intentions — he reportedly cares about his clients and wants them to improve — he’s also working on his own problems. And it’s clear that he doesn’t think things through fully before proposing big changes in his clients’ lives. Scheier notes that when she interacts with clients, she keeps a “checklist” in mind and asks herself, “Is therapy moving forward without me saying so? Is this serving me or serving the customer?” Change reflects the feeling: “If your interaction with your customers is in any way self-serving, or if it is a personal emotional regulation strategy, remember that this is always in the best interests of the customer customer has to be.”

If we look closely at Jimmy’s situation, much of his radically new approach to therapy actually serves his own interests. As he makes these changes in his professional life, he seems to feel better, breaking out of his grief-stricken emotional paralysis and turning his attention back to his work and family, but we soon find his advice backfires everywhere. Of course it is. Rather than leading his clients to conclusions, he seeks to create change through sheer willpower. Not surprisingly, this doesn’t work in therapy.

“We’re not in the consulting business; We’re in the business of helping people think and learn how to deal with their own problems,” says Scheier. “We’re trying to put them in a place where they don’t need us. If we just stand there all the time and tell them straight up what to do, like a parent would, how will they be able to progress to the next step?”

For all his failings as a therapist, Jimmy is only human. And in the context of Shrinking – a heart-on-sleeve comedy – it’s fun to watch him thrash about and try to help his clients in good-natured if misguided ways. And when all the best therapists have their own therapists (see: “The Patient”, “In Treatment”, “Ted Lasso”), maybe we can hope to see Jimmy on the other side of the couch soon. Real-life therapists explain “shrinking” on Apple TV+

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