Staff Perspective: Because Someone Else Said it Much Better - Using Quotes in Therapy

Staff Perspective: Because Someone Else Said it Much Better - Using Quotes in Therapy

Note to reader: At CDP, we often share blogs full of valuable information based on recent research or evidence. At other times, we enjoy the opportunity to reflect on something we have found poignant or interesting. This is one of those latter times.

I love to read. Sure, I enjoy learning; but, there are just so many smart, thoughtful, funny, and witty people out there who find ways to say things better than I could ever imagine.

Early in my career, I found myself bringing in quotes from my reading to share with my patients - these little nuggets of goodness that made me think of them or a situation we were talking about. Those quotes were serendipity at its best, because over time I have come to appreciate that quotes can play a myriad of roles in a therapeutic context. I share a few of these ideas below, and also include some of my favorite examples of how quotes showed up in treatment.

Quotes as a point of conversation
Have you ever found your patient is hesitant to enter into treatment? Maybe I should be glad I can’t count how many people say “no” to this. Regardless, this happened for me on the regular when I worked with youth, especially when a patient’s parent was far more eager for them to get treatment than they were. Of course, this can happen with a patient at any age, especially if treatment is mandated or when a patient enters into care trying to please someone else (like a spouse) but they really aren’t committed yet.

There are plenty of ways to handle this situation, but I have found it helpful to have a topic that the patient can expound on without there being any expectation of a “right/wrong” answer. A favorite that seemed to almost always generate conversation was Jane Goodall’s quote, “What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”

To be totally frank, I’ve had my fair share of, “well that’s a load of _____” in response to this - but hey, it still got things going. That said, I’ve at least as commonly learned about someone’s dreams or ambitions - the most memorable being a young man who used to fear the sound of flushing toilets and planned to find a way to replace the flushing sound with music. Again, we broke the ice and got things moving…although in an admittedly unexpected way to start.

Quotes to get to know your patient
While a patient’s reaction to a quote certainly helps me get to know them, I’ve also found it helpful to suggest patients come into sessions with quotes that have been meaningful that week. This helps me understand the types of things they search for, enjoy, and resonate with - both in terms of the sources of their quotes as well as the words themselves. I’ve been told quotes from TV shows, movies, video games, social media posts, and important people in someone’s life.

My favorite? Well, you should know that I’ve worked in some agrarian locales. With that preface, my favorite was easily, “You know, if you wrestle the pig, you better expect ya gonna get dirty.” And you know what? This is both literally and figuratively quite true.

Quotes to help explain an evidence-based strategy
Okay, so let me start by saying that I’m not suggesting you should step away from the evidence-based way to introduce a strategy. Nor should you avoid talking about the science behind it. But if I’m being real, sometimes that just doesn’t make sense to folks.

Enter the quote. A favorite recent moment came when I was working with someone who could benefit from developing a trauma narrative. It is such tough work, and they really weren’t all that interested. I understood the reticence, but of course I had the job of trying to think through how I could explain this in a way that made it seem compelling to dig through traumatic memories to try to decrease their potency.

Thank goodness for Daniel Nayeri who wrote, “Everything Sad is Untrue (a true story)” (2020) - and thank goodness my patient was reading the book between sessions. In one part of the book, Nayeri writes, “Memories are tricky things. They can fade or fester. You have to seal them up tight like pickles and keep out impurities like how hurt you feel when you open them. Or they’ll ferment and poison your brain.”

All I can say is that that series of lines made way more sense than my efforts to explain what I hoped we could accomplish in treatment. Oh, and we laughed about poisonous fermenting pickles in our brains - which didn’t hurt, either.

Quotes as a mantra
In treatment, we also often try to support patients in developing a more accurate or helpful narrative for situations. Not uncommonly, we see themes to these moments and we may help our patients develop a mantra of sorts to help them stay focused on what they should listen for and how they may want to respond. This is another place where quotes can be a good model, and they can also be a source of inspiration or a way to reinforce the message patients are learning through treatment.

This probably makes sense to you, and honestly, I couldn’t begin to identify a favorite here. So, I’ll just share a few quotes that gave me goosebumps while also helping the patient who identified them:

“Though no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand new ending.” -Carl Bard
“Behold the turtle. He makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.” -James Bryant Conant
“Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” -Will Rogers
“It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” -Chinese proverb
“Large streams from little mountains flow, tall oaks from little acorns grow.” -David Everett

P.S. on this one: if you’ve ever taken one of our DoD Child Collaboration Study trainings, some of these might look familiar - I’m never one to turn down borrowing a good quote after it's been introduced to me.

Quotes for the Therapist
I feel very fortunate to be in a profession where there is an opportunity to support healing and well-being, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it’s sometimes really hard. As much as my patients might need a little inspiration, sometimes so do I. Finding quotes that remind why I do what I do has been an essential part of my self-care as a psychologist.

I happen to love the beach, so for a long time I’ve been drawn to Loren Eiseley’s 16-page essay in 1969 entitled “The Star Thrower” (1969) which has been adapted into a brief story about a child who conveys a spirit of hope and care for the needs of every living creature. “The Star Thrower” begins with an older man walking down a beach after a terrible storm, which has caused countless starfish to wash upon the shore. As he continues his walk, he observes a child in the distance who appears to be returning the starfish to the sea, one by one. In the story, the man is perhaps charmed by this effort, but cannot help himself from asking the star thrower how they can believe that their effort matters, with so many starfish covering the shore. The star thrower listens calmly, then smiles and returns yet another starfish to the ocean as they reply, “You see, it matters to this one.”

Like I said upfront: other people just have so much wisdom to share in ways that’s so much better than I could imagine on my own. Their words can speak powerfully in ways that add meaning and context to the work happening inside the room, often in ways that far exceed what would have happened if I relied upon my words alone. And thank goodness for that.

The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.

Andrea Israel, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist serving as a Military Behavioral Health Child Psychologist at the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.

References for Quotations
Quotations are a tricky thing. They are often published without referencing the original source. To that end, I worked hard to provide you with an accurate representation of what was said and by whom; but most of the quotations lack sufficient information to provide full attribution via a reference. Here are the few I can reference:
Eiseley, L. (1969). The unexpected universe. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World.
Nayeri, D. (2020). Everything sad is untrue: (a true story). Montclair, New Jersey: Levine Querido.