The Blackberry on my client’s lap was signaling a message. Usually, this client silences her phone and puts it away before our session, without any prompting from me. This time, she glanced down at it, pushed a few buttons, and resumed our conversation. I let it go.
Two minutes later: buzz…buzz…buzz…
My client looked down again and started pushing buttons. I called her out.
“What’s up with the phone today? Usually you put it away. Is something going on?”
“It’s just Facebook updates.”
She pushed a few buttons again and put the phone in her pocket. I didn’t hear it vibrate again during the rest of the session.
In my group theories class, we’ve been discussing the concept of process commentary, which Irvin Yalom described in his book The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy as “taboo social behavior” among adults. Process commentary can be defined as comments on here-and-now behavior and the immediate relationships between people. It’s associated mostly with group therapy, but therapists use it to bring attention and immediacy to individual sessions as well. In therapy, process commentary is a powerful tool; in the wider world, they are the type of comments that we sometimes attribute to people who are less socially adept: “Can you believe he actually said that out loud?”
Adults often use process commentary with children, saying things such as, “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” Using process commentary can also seriously get you in hot water with a significant other: “Hmmm, honey, I’m sensing resistance to my request to take the garbage out” might be met with, “Excuse me, counselor, but I am not your client!”
Yalom put forth his ideas about process commentary long before Facebook was an imaginable concept. I’d be curious to know if his ideas about process commentary have changed now that people are posting millions of status messages a day that answer the question, “What’s on your mind?” That very question invites users to tell the world what is happening in the here-and-now. In fact, “Facebook friends” might even get upset if you don’t keep your status updated or you—gasp!—dare to let any significant amount of time pass before posting a status message about an important life event. A friend posted—on his Facebook page, of course—a picture of a bride walking down the aisle, looking at her phone, with the caption: “Facebook Status: Because it isn’t official until you update it.”
Yalom (1995) gives four reasons why process commentary is taboo: socialization anxiety, social norms, fear of retaliation, and power maintenance (p. 137). Facebook by its very construct has blown all of these fears out of the water, and process commentary has become front and center in our lives and the lives of our clients who use Facebook. This powerful program has changed the face of “social norms” for communication and is increasingly harder to ignore, especially when what is said on a Facebook page can negatively affect clients and their relationships, self-concepts, and interactions with others and the world.
If you are on Facebook, you might have had the experience—as I have—of reading a string of comments about a friend’s status that made you blush because of their boldness (of the comments, but maybe the status itself as well). While of course someone has to be a “friend” to comment on someone else’s status, and your name and picture is posted with every comment (assuming you are using your real name), there is still a sense of safety from being behind a computer and not face-to-face that allows people to feel as if they can say—literally—what’s on their minds, without a lot of censoring or thought about interpretation. I have been continually amazed at the depth of self-disclosure of status messages and the sometimes brash, rude, and cruel humor of ensuing comments. In addition, I have witnessed awkward interactions among my classmates that are carried over from crude humor that was posted on Facebook pages. Clients have come to me with stories of “friends” posting hurtful or embarrassing comments on their pages. Anyone who has a Facebook page and “friends” linked to it is susceptible.
How long before this type of discourse finds its way into the counseling session, coming from the client? I can tell you that text messaging shorthand has already found its way into academic writing, everyday speech, and even memorial services (yes, I experienced that firsthand.) How many times have you heard “WTF?” or “TMI!”, stated just as I typed them? One of my clients described her sibling as “Not my BFF,” and expected that I would know what that meant. (I did.) Process commentary as a regular way of communication is probably not far behind.
Yalom (1995) stated, “If individuals felt free to comment at all times on the behavior of others, social life would become intolerably self-conscious, complex, and conflicted” (p. 138).
Well, that time is here. And now. Process commentary is no longer something that just happens in the therapist’s office, delivered by the therapist for growth and awareness purposes. Millions of people engage in it all day, every day. It’s not just changing how people interact with each other in the real world, but it’s also sure to show up in your office, coming from the client, soon.
Yalom, I. D. (1995). The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy (4th ed.). New York: Basic Books.