I’m in the change business, I say, because folks come to see me to change something– their anger, their grief, their loneliness, their self esteem, their fears, their obsessions, their addictions. They come like big waves every hour. Truly, if you think of the cumulative effect of such a torrent of dysfunctional waves capped with needy foam splashing through your door five days a week, well, it’s overwhelming. It is. Let me pause with a redundant comment and take a breath. Whew!! Many of my clients are so consumed in emotional deserts or feeling furnaces that they forget to breathe, so I feel compelled to take deep breaths for them. Inhale– one, two, three, four. Hold– two, three, four. Exhale–two, three, four. Nothing–two, three, four. Ahhh!! A furious funnel of suction pulls like a rip current as one client is sucked away by life out yonder while another crashes onto my couch. How is it that I don’t also get sucked out into that ocean of pathology?
This is not a deep philosophical question. Rather, it’s about strategies or habits that allow a mental health provider not to become exhausted by the constant pounding of issue after issue, rolling above pain, fear, sadness, guilt, shame, abandonment, self loathing, and much more. No matter how much you sympathize with the client, you cannot jump in their quicksand or dive into their rip tide. You will no longer be of any help to him/her, nor will you be any help to yourself. Jackknifing into their frozen waters or their boiling cauldrons just creates a bigger mess for someone else to respond to later. First responders know this. Don’t become another victim in the rescue.
How does this process of counseling work? I don’t know; I just know that it works more often than it doesn’t. Researchers like to isolate factors that contribute to a good counseling outcome– relationship, empathy, firm boundaries, validation, guiding treatment plans, probing questions, etc. etc. I agree that there are many components, but the whole of counseling is not equal to the sum of its parts. No, something very special happens when two folks share in episodes of vulnerability, peeling back layers of social wallpaper to expose the cracked plaster underneath. No one needs another layer of wallpaper, as fashionable as it may be. Get to the source, the cause of their sagging, crumbled soul, and the wall paper illusion will curl away. But how does the counselor not also come unglued?
I like to think I am grounded, deeply anchored below the beach sand, safely outside the quicksand, above the wallpaper. Not to sound arrogant or superior, no. Rather, I feel comfortable with others’ big emotions. Some folks have endless patience with jet engine noise or crying babies. That’s not me. However, I can sit with a person in deep pain and not feel an urgency to stop their flow or correct or educate them. Instead I act as the talking mirror and inform them of what I see or feel, trying to accurately reflect them to themselves. At other times I’m the cognitive crane operator lifting heavy loads out of their psyche that they have identified. I hoist up ugly beliefs and past episodes, and then roll them out for inspection and processing. It’s the client’s call whether to lift or drop it or put it back in the dark waters of their psyche.
Nevertheless, the arrow of change goes both ways. You cannot be profoundly present with another human being for hours without changing in some way. You can’t be surrounded by the shifting sands of change without changing yourself. Water, wind and sand over time will smooth your rough edges, while invading fissures and crevices. By constantly dealing with disparate selves, your own self awareness mushrooms. If you played golf 8 hours a day, you’d get better, right? If you played chess for 7 hours a day, you’d see things the occasional player never experiences. The same learning and skill development takes place when you provide therapy 8 hours a day.
The therapist can give away skills and empathy and knowledge, but he cannot give himself away. The next hour’s client needs something entirely different, and so you must adjust accordingly. This one needs hope, that one needs firm authority. The angry teenager needs to complain about his parents’ ineptitude. The perfectionist needs to learn that perfect does not exist. Grievers need comfort and faith in the future. The divorcing partner needs validation and objectivity and the name of a good hitman. And sure, they all need God. Some go there; others don’t. I have to start with God or I’ll be swept away in meaningless pain.
An open tent door. How cool! Somehow in my associative mind, I think that going into the open tent is like going to counseling. It takes courage to enter this private space. There is an acknowledged boundary, i.e., the tent walls. The chief or leader or shaman operates in that space. Ideally one leaves something negative on the tent floor and takes something positive away in the exchange process, in and out of the delta, tent door.
Insurance companies will never get this concept. Rarely do they ask the consumer if he/she benefitted from the counseling experience. That would be too obvious a question. Instead they have scales and expected time frames for disorders. If the client improves rapidly, that’s okay. Metroplaco United saves money. However, if anther client has complex issues or isn’t moving the measurement numbers, well, it must be time to discharge. I don’t worry too much what the bean counters want, though. I do my thing the way I believe it should be done. The human heart changes if and when its owner decides to change. You can take that truth to the bank, my blog dogs.