Over my years in Trek fandom, I have heard some fans saying that Deanna Troi isn’t a good counselor. While I don’t agree with this, I can understand why some fans might feel that way. The fact is that we don’t often get to see her counseling. We see Doctor Crusher practicing medicine in Sickbay, Chief Engineer Geordi LaForge working in Engineering, and Guinan tending bar in Ten Forward, but I can only think of a few times when we see Deanna Troi actually sitting down for a counseling session with her patients.
Moments when Troi actually gets to be a counselor are infrequent and brief, which makes it hard to appreciate her counseling ability. However, I contend that if we pay close attention to these moments, we will see that Troi is an excellent counselor! Here are three important lessons I have learned from Deanna Troi over the years, lessons that I think are especially relevant today.
Lesson #1: Admitting You’re Afraid Does Not Make You Weak
CW: Suicidal Ideation
In the TNG episode “Night Terrors” the Enterprise gets trapped in a Tyken’s Rift and an unknown force blocks the crew’s ability to reach rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. The lack of REM sleep affects the crew’s mental health and causes them to hallucinate and become irritable, forgetful, and paranoid.
At one point Worf becomes overwhelmed with fear and he decides to end his life. Troi runs to his quarters to stop him and he tells her he wants to die because: “I am no longer a warrior! I am no longer strong!” Worf admits he feels fear and Troi tells him an important message that has stuck with me: “To admit that you’re afraid, gives you strength!” We live in a society that equates fear with weakness and Troi’s message shows us that admitting we are afraid does not make us weak. I think this message is especially important for men, who are expected to repress their emotions due to toxic masculinity. In the article “The Scary Emotions Men Can’t Express” psychotherapist Vincent Fitzgerald states that “real strength exists in expressing our fear and sadness.” By sharing his fear with Troi, Worf was able to find the strength to work through it and then move forward.
Lesson #2: Avoiding Pain Can Make Things Worse in the Long Run
TNG’s episode “The Loss” is about Deanna Troi losing her empathic abilities, but it also has a B story about Troi’s patient Ensign Janet Brooks working through grief after her husband dies. Ensign Brooks has been throwing herself into her work and she proudly tells Troi that she hasn’t missed an hour of duty, that she has been volunteering, and that her language studies are better than ever. She believes she is dealing with his death well, but Troi points out that she isn’t dealing with it at all.
Troi shares something that is particularly relevant to our modern day world: “Recovery from a great loss involves a great deal of pain. If we try to avoid that pain, we can make it harder on ourselves in the long run.” Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W. has written about the physical and emotional toll incomplete grief can have on us, which can include depression, high risk behavior, and anxiety. An example of this is Prince Harry experiencing anxiety and addiction after avoiding the pain of his mother’s death.Troi doesn’t discuss long term grief effects with Ensign Brooks, but she does help her face her pain over several sessions. I do think it is unfortunate that Troi sees herself as unfit to be a counselor in this episode, since it’s so rare that we actually see her counseling. She gives Ensign Brooks excellent advice in the episode, advice that is so relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic, and her doubting herself in this episode overshadows what a great counselor she actually is. Troi thinks she is unfit to be counselor after a second meeting with Brooks, and in their final meeting she tells Brooks she is resigning. Brooks is saddened by this and tells Troi, ”Deanna, you were right about me. I had to go back and look at what I was doing, see why I was trying to convince myself and you that I was a new woman. You made me realize I was doing exactly the same thing to myself as I was before. Trying to hide from the pain. Maybe you couldn’t sense what I was feeling, but you helped.” Brooks’ feedback to Troi demonstrates that Troi IS an excellent counselor and that her advice about processing grief is spot-on.
Lesson #3: If Someone Is Grieving, Respond with Compassion
In the Star Trek: Picard episode “Nepenthe” Picard and Soji arrive on the planet Nepenthe to visit the Troi-Riker family. Picard overhears Soji talking angrily to Troi about how she doesn’t trust anyone. Rather than showing compassion to Soji, he responds with sarcasm. This only upsets Soji more and she responds by shoving him and storming away. Troi bluntly informs Picard that he had it coming and points out all that Soji has been through and that he needs to show her more compassion. She tells him that he needs “to be Jean-Luc Picard. Compassionate, patient, curious.”
What Troi is suggesting to Picard is called companioning. Bereavement author Hope Edelman describes companioning as “Just listening and being there.” Edelman suggests that we not try to fix the person who is grieving, but instead sit with them “in a state of curiosity and compassion” and “holding a space for them to have their own feelings.” Troi’s advice is spot-on and relevant to today, when so many of us are struggling and grieving.
In closing, I do wish that the writers had given Counselor Troi more episodes where she actually got to do her job. I would have loved to have seen her help Lt. LaForge through losing his mother in “Interface,” Wesley Crusher through his guilt in “The First Duty,” and of course spending more time helping Picard process his trauma with the Borg. There were a lot of missed opportunities for Troi to be a counselor, but I believe that the moments she got to be a counselor were the moments when she shined brightest.