I’m in a session with a client, and I’m gritting my teeth. It is becoming a familiar reaction to an ever more common problem: TMI. No, I’m not talking about hearing something awkward, although certainly that happens too. It’s not that the information is too much because it’s uncomfortable to hear; it’s too much because it’s just too much. I don’t need to know the backstory of how you obtained the family dog in order to understand that the kids aren’t taking responsibility for it. I don’t need to know what you ate at Thanksgiving dinner if the problem is that your ex-husband showed up uninvited. It’s just unnecessary.
I admit, a major role that therapists play is sorting through information. I actually often enjoy that part of the job. It’s kind of like a treasure hunt. Which part of this story matters? Where is the insight that’s going to help my client understand his or her situation better? But there’s a difference between the normal mining for gold a counselor does and simply being a receptacle for useless information, and that’s the problem I’ve been having lately.
The classic example that comes to my mind whenever I think about this topic is a couples’ counseling session. Almost without fail, whenever I see couples, we get into a situation in which they stop a productive discussion about a recent conflict to argue about….wait for it…what time the fight happened. I am dead serious.
The husband says: “No, we went to your parents’ on Saturday morning.”
The wife retorts: “No we didn’t, Saturday was little Stephen Fleming’s birthday party! Remember you got to sleep in while I had to drive Leah to his party?”
“No, Sunday morning was the birthday party. Saturday morning we went to your parents’ house.”
“Who has a children’s party on Sunday morning? It was definitely Saturday…”
And so on.
As opposed to marriage counseling, when Extraneous Information Syndrome happens in an individual counseling session, it’s not so much an argument as an overwhelming explosion of words. People jump from topic to topic and get caught up in rabbit trails. The subjects they do focus on are usually things that aren’t helpful to counseling, like a movie they saw recently or why they like my shoes.
My supervisor, in general, gives a lot of great advice, but she told me one thing in particular that I found really helpful with this situation. She told me that every feeling we have in a session is something we should pay attention to. (I know, right? You mean counselors have to pay attention to their feelings too?) I had just been thinking of my annoyance in session as something I had to deal with. I didn’t stop to consider that it meant something.
The fact that EIS clients often frustrate me is a symptom. It’s a symptom that something’s wrong. I just need to look for it. Here are some of the reasons I have found: sometimes people can be particular about details sometimes because they feel having the “right” information gives them power. It is quite possible the couples that argue about whether the fight was at 3 in the afternoon or 11:30 at night are trying to get the upper hand in the bigger picture by being “right” in the little picture. It can also be something to hide behind when uncomfortable topics come up. For example, if I think about the fight, I’ll have to think about the fact that our marriage is in trouble, and so I think I’ll just focus on the day of the week the fight occurred.
Put in that context, EIS starts to make sense. Sometimes people can give you too much personal information to make it feel more like you’re their friend than your counselor, either because they don’t have another friend or they don’t want to confront the fact that they’re in counseling. Sometimes it can be a way of relieving anxiety, especially for teenagers.
As I found, it can also be something else.
Back to the session that was making me grit my teeth. On this occasion, I was speaking with a young girl. She was tiny, hair pushed back in a ponytail with pieces coming out. She didn’t look me in the eye while talking to me, but she talked..a lot. She was the worst case of EIS I’d seen in a while. Endless extraneous information, and the explanations! Oh, the explanations. She related to me stories about her mother and aunt’s abusive behavior, (which is understandable), but then she told me more stories. And more stories. And still more. I tried to stop to process these, thinking maybe she needed to work through it, but she was like a runaway train. We covered so much information, but none of it was deep enough to do any good at that time. After a while, I began to feel helpless to do anything to change it.
Then, for once, I got it right.
On inspiration, I put a hand out into the space between us so that she would focus on me. When I had eye contact, a moment later, I told her. “Stop. You don’t have to convince me you were abused. I believe you.”
Almost immediately, she started crying.
EIS can also be the means by which a person tries to convince themselves that they are okay, that they have a right to feel what they feel. This is when we as clinicians need most to recognize it for what it is and provide that unconditional acceptance and support. What was obvious to me (that she was abused) was not obvious to her. That’s why she felt the need to say it so many times. She was trying to prove to me, but most of all herself, that she had a right to feel this way. By correctly understanding what her behavior really meant, I can now reach her much more effectively.
That’s the treatment for EIS: get down to the soul of it. Look for the reason. And then go after the real problem.
Stephanie Ann Adams is a counselor who believes in the ability of the mind to understand and change behaviors, and in each person’s power to create the life they want. Her blog can be found at www.sassynsane.blogspot.com.