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What do you do for a meaning?

I’ve had a couple of topics waiting, and they’re both going to have to wait a bit longer. I had an interesting thought this afternoon, and by this evening it had grown into a full-fledged reflection, and is on its way to maybe even achieving the status of an understanding.

I was considering the phrase ‘what I do for a living’.  I dislike this phrase. I dislike most variations and most meanings of this phrase. ‘What do you do for a living?’ is often one of the first things people ask when meeting someone new, and it’s just as often not very relevant.

What someone does for a living is specifically what they do that generates enough money to pay the bills, buy the groceries, keep clothes and soap and maybe even a new lip-gloss available. It’s just what it says – it’s a way of keeping up the bits and pieces that allow someone to survive.  It’s also as likely as not to have little to do with someone’s passions, dreams, interests, what they put their heart and soul and energy into. People can work in a job simply because it’s a job. They could have a trust fund, be disabled, or so many ways to try to make ends meet.

‘What do you do for a meaning?’  Why aren’t we asking that?  When I’m introduced to someone, why don’t they want to know what I do for a meaning?

My friend M, for example, works for a large office-supply chain. She makes a decent wage, insurance, all of that. And it’s not at all her passion. She loves food. Finding new restaurants, comparing different recipes for similar dishes, seeking out authentic ethnic food or great places to buy particular ingredients; those are all things she’s passionate about. She writes about it in a blog. Filling orders for paper and desk chairs is what she does for a living. Discovering restaurants and comparing dishes is what she does for a meaning. A meaning is so much more.

I was thinking of that as I left my therapist’s office today (always a good thing when your therapist can make you think!).  I was mentally composing a self-description that included ‘I’m a counselor for a living’.  And then it occurred to me that that statement doesn’t really fit me at all.

(Before I go any further, I do need to add a disclaimer for people who are, have been, or will be my clients. It is NOT your job to make sure I am making enough to live on. We agree on a fee, insurance, whatever; and that’s that. That is not what this post is about.  Yes, building up a business is not the easiest thing to do, but it’s what I’ve chosen to do. I’ve also had repeated opportunities to work for more hours in a per-hour or salary position. That isn’t what I want, and I’m doing okay.)  So moving on…

I am not a counselor, therapist, or any similar term ‘for a living’. A small part of that is, yes, that I don’t (yet!) make enough to live in the style to which I’d love to be accustomed – or even to maintain my own lifestyle now. That’s okay. I do make enough to add to the household budget, I’m married to someone who makes more than I do right now. Together, we do make enough.  But that’s not the main reason this term doesn’t fit.

In fact, that’s really not the reason the term ‘for a living’ doesn’t fit. The main reason is that it doesn’t matter how much I make, I’m not doing it ‘for a living’.  I, like most counselors, have to charge something to be able to afford to be a counselor – but I’m not doing it ‘for a living’.

I am a counselor for a meaning. There are dozens of things I could do to pay for groceries and cat food and insurance and petrol for the car and making sure I have a place to live. I could probably get a job in the same company as M, my friend above. If I needed to, I would.

What do you do for a meaning?  I like this question so, so much better. I happen to do at least one of the things I do for a meaning to make that ‘for a living’ part work as well. I think that makes me lucky, but I don’t think everyone would agree with me. I know that I specifically chose not to do several other things that are meaningful and enjoyable for regular pay or on much of a schedule, because I knew that that would take the meaning out for me.

I do many kinds of art. I paint, sew, make jewelry, do calligraphy, work with clay, do henna art… and several of these things would stop having meaning for me if I did them ‘for a living’. If I were a professional calligrapher, for example, I would most likely be employed writing out endless invitations, addresses, and certificates. The joy I take in putting an important or beautiful text onto a page in beautiful writing, adding lovely or cute or amusing art alongside, would be completely smothered as I ticked off another 50 envelopes.

What do you do for a meaning? I am an artist, a dancer, a counselor, a friend, a gardener, a reader…

What do I do for a meaning? One of the things I do is counseling. I love it. It’s a very important, very meaningful part of my life. I feel like I make a difference. I’m honoured to have people who let me see their struggles & triumphs and to provide a helping hand. That’s a major thing for me. That has meaning.

What do you do for a meaning?  Regardless of what you do to pay the bills, what do you do for a meaning? The IRS can worry about what you do for a living?  I’m changing that question for myself. I’m also daring you to ask. At the next party, the next time you’re meeting a the significant other a relative or friend brings along, the next time you get together with people you don’t know, ask what they do for a meaning.  Then explain what the heck you meant. And then, LISTEN. It’s amazing how great it feels to have someone listen to what you’re passionate about!

If you’re okay replying, tell me what people have said. There’s plenty of room to post replies here!  What do you do for a meaning?  What does the person you met the other day do? What’s meaningful in this world?

 

 

 

 

 

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Seeds of life

A bit of a conversation with a client a few days ago and a bit of a conversation last week with my spouse came together in my brain as a new idea – or at least new to me.  I’m quite willing to believe others have had most of the same ideas I have, and have expressed them much better, but it’s still cool to have a new way for me to look at the world, and to share it with others.

Simply expressed (in 25 words or less): Dreams are the seeds we use to grow our lives.

To elaborate on that, in well over 25 words: I’m referring to dreams as in daydreams or hopes, wishes, or wondering; not dreams as in the rather surreal movies most of us watch throughout our sleep cycles. Obviously I can’t tell you about the conversation with the client, it comes under the ethical and legal right for my clients – for ALL counseling clients, with ALL counselors, to have their information and communication kept private. But it had to do with dreams, and the conversation with my spouse had to do with choice versus predestination.

(Note: If you’re having an issue with a therapist keeping your info private, that’s a different topic from this post, but it’s an important one. If that’s you, I urge you to talk to your therapist, or to talk to a different therapist to get an outside opinion, or to look up your state’s regs & state &/or therapy organization ethical codes to see if your therapist’s treatment of your privacy is acceptable.)

Sorry – that was definitely a digression, but an important one, in my opinion. In any case, after my talk with my client, I started thinking about dreams as seeds.  To give a bit more background info; one of my personal-care, stress-relieving, taking-care-of-me hobbies is gardening.  My garden, like my life, is a work-in-progress. Like my life, there are areas that I thought would work splendidly that are kinda dry or droopy, areas that I didn’t really think would work so well that are amazing, and areas that I just haven’t yet achieved the beautiful, show-off state they’ll be in one day.

A lot of my garden is based on what I call ‘confetti gardening’.  (Who knows – maybe one day I’ll write a book on my gardening methods and have it be a best-seller on ‘Confetti Gardening’ – so you heard it here first!).  I love to gather seeds from wildflowers I enjoy – if they’re growing wild in the same part of the world I live in, there’s a good chance they’ll do well in my garden!  I gather seeds from plants grown by friends & neighbours.  I discreetly gather seeds from plants in community flowerbeds or local areas of greenery in front of stores, downtown, by the library… By ‘discreetly’, I mean that finding someone with the authority to say ‘why yes, go ahead’ is really difficult in many cases – does the manager of any store in a shopping area know who is in charge of planting & caring for the little decorative flower & shrubbery areas throughout the parking lot?  Sometimes I can’t ask, but I also don’t, Do Not go out & rip up plants.  I wait until a group of flowers I like has finished blooming & started going to seed. Then I gather a few seed heads or loose seeds and take them back home.  The gardening services for these areas typically come through and ‘deadhead’ – cut the dead flowers off the plants – at intervals. So I take what isn’t needed for the plant, and only if I can’t find someone to ask.  If you plan to emulate this strategy, be SURE you know when the plant has really gone to seed, only take a little bit, and if you have any questions or misgivings, don’t do it unless you can find someone for permission.

I gather seeds from gardens of strangers – with permission!  A personal garden isn’t like a decorative planting in a space in the sidewalk downtown. A personal garden belongs to someone. ASK if you  want some seeds. They’ll likely be delighted to give you some – and you might make a new friend and start swapping plants & gardening advice, but ASK!!!

Back to my confetti gardening, I take the seeds (bought, traded, harvested) that I want or hope will do well in a particular space, and sprinkle them down.  Yes, I do start some carefully in small pots, yes, I get cuttings of plants and I buy growing plants, but a lot of my garden is from seeds I toss in areas they just might do well in.  And then I wait. Several years ago I carefully planted some lovely dark pansy seeds in a particular flower bed. Nothing happened. No pansies from those seeds grew that spring, or summer. The next spring (yes, after a whole previous spring of care, a summer of not bothering to care for a space that didn’t have a plant, a fall of caring for other, actually growing plants, and a cold freezing snowy winter) one of the pansies sprouted. And it bloomed. It did better than a pack of pansies purchased already in bloom from the store. This spring it came back (the ones I plated from the store pack didn’t).  Seeds work like that.

These are a lot like my dreams – and I hope, like everyone’s dreams. We dream the likely (I’d REALLY like to get a couple new outfits for work soon), and the plausible (I want to start taking regular bellydance classes again).  We dream the maybe (Wouldn’t it be cool to get to go on a white-water rafting trip) and we dream the way out there (What if I adopted a kitten with wings?).  These dreams are the seeds of life. They get tossed out into life – hoping to buy a new outfit without spending too much and maybe go on a cool trip and how the heck would I keep my indoor plants safe if I did have a winged kitten – and we see what happens.

Some of them sprout. Some start to sprout but aren’t in a good place to be nourished. Some aren’t viable no mater what. Some wait and surprise us long after we thought anything could still happen.  The more dreams, the more possibilities of new, interesting parts of life are available.  There are easy, obvious parts of life, and the dreams that sprout and grow so large & take up so much space that other dreams might not get as much of a chance.  My own sprouting career as a counselor is definitely taking up space that an alternate dream of being a rock-star can’t use now; it’s hard to be available every week to talk to clients and touring Europe with a bunch of musicians in a cramped tour bus at the exact same time. 😉

Some dreams end up requiring more care than we can put into them.  The reason I prefer seeds from established plants is that I know they’ll have a better chance of growing in my garden. I want plants to be beautiful & growing well and I’m not the sort who wants to be out making a separate little climate for each plant.  I live in Southern Colorado along the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Summers are usually dry, winters get snow, and have days that dip below 0* Fahrenheit. Rain is wildly different from one year to the next, and I prefer to semi-xerisacpe, where my plants get nearly all of their moisture & climate needs from the climate we have, not from carefully covering, watering, shading, warming…

My life is the same way. I’m willing to do a lot for a dream that matters, but it has to be giving back to me, and sustaining itself as a part of my life.  When I get those new clothes for work, they need to be comfortable to wear, and coordinate with things I already have, and fit who I am – physically and emotionally and suited to my lifestyle.  My dream of perfectly polished fingernails clashes with my dream of spending time working the garden regularly.  Some seeds don’t grow well next to others.

The large, established ‘plants’ in my life (my marriage, my house, the years I put into my college degree) and the ‘climate’ of my life (having a chronic illness, a passion for art & creating, my values & spiritual beliefs) strongly affect what new dreams can more easily take root & grow. This is the part that relates so well to the conversation my spouse & I had. We were comparing free will to destined events. He pointed out that previous choices direct what happens in the future.  It’s not impossible to change course, but the older & more experienced you get, the more energy it takes to make a radical change.  At the time he said this, we had just taken the ramp off of a street onto the freeway (car rides are awesome for personal conversations. You’re basically a captive audience for each other, there’s not a whole lot else to do, and there are time limits, depending on how far you’re going).  It was a wonderful serendipitous analogy. We were swerving onto the southbound ramp (Onto I-25 off of Colfax, for those who drive in Denver), every second getting further from the northbound option. It would have taken a heck of a lot more time, energy, and fussing with side-streets if we’d suddenly decided to turn & head north.  Our journey south wasn’t ‘predestined’, but once we turned, it would have been a LOT harder to go north, especially given the roads in that particular area.

Taking it back around to seeds, or dreams: Growing one plant determines the likely success of others. I have a beautiful blue spruce in my front yard. It was probably planted when the house was built – it’s certainly been there for decades. It’s beautiful, it’s growing well, and I have no desire to change that!  My spruce is big enough and established enough that it quite literally foreshadows what else will grow nearby. Planting seeds that need full sun too close to the tree strongly ‘predestines’ those plants to do poorly.  A few feet further away where it doesn’t cast so much shade, the same seeds have a much better chance.  And it’s possible that a few could defy the odds and grow happily in the shade anyhow – but not as likely.

If I wanted to change that aspect of my garden (and I do NOT want to do this, this is strictly for sake of an example) even taking out the tree wouldn’t simply change things for the garden.  Spruce trees, like most evergreens, are slightly acidic. The needles & cones that fall every year put some of that acidic quality in the soil.  Some plants, like roses & blueberries, LIKE acidic soil.  If I get the chance to grow blueberries, I should either put them near the tree or scoop up some of the fallen needles to amend the soil for the blueberries.  But other plants don’t like acidic soil so much. If I had seeds for a plant that strongly disliked acidic soil, I’d likely not get much growth from planting them near my tree, even if they liked the shade and the other characteristics of the soil. Even if the tree was gone, the soil would be very acidic after years and years of needles composting into the soil around it.  The tree is more than just shade, it’s soil structure, water use, and shelter from wind & rain.

My dreams are the same way. I cast them out into my life, and some get too close to shade, or don’t like the place they land. Some don’t even try to grow until conditions improve. Some break down or blow out of my life entirely. Some need to be consciously moved or tended to, and some take too much work.  Some are even ones I can pass along!  I was given a beautiful ring in a previous relationship. When we broke up, I didn’t want to wear the ring anymore, but it was a perfect style and great fit for my sister-in-law. I hope she’s still enjoying it as much as she did when I gave it to her!

I don’t always, or even often, know just what a seed or a dream will need to thrive. Plenty of times I only find out some detail when it’s too late to change it.  I had a lousy crop of potatoes last year, and found out this past February when reading about companion planting in the garden that potatoes don’t do well near squash. My zucchini were right next to the potatoes! So it goes.

So it goes. Companions and light and shade and nutrients. Direction and size and competition for resources. Only one thing in one space – the next one has to be moved over at least a bit. This is why I want myself, my clients, everyone I know to have many, many dreams. Some won’t grow, and you may never know why. Some may be perfect for the space under a tree, next to a squash, or in a sunny corner; but those things can change.  Dream many, many dreams. Collect spare ones from books and music and conversation. Harvest new dreams from successful ones that are thriving.  Toss them into your life now, or wait until the time seems right, or carefully nurture them on sunny windowsills until they’re big enough to make it on their own. I don’t want to have nothing left to plant if my career became unmanageable, or if someone close to me passes on or moves away –  I’d rather be able to mourn the loss but still be able to plant more seeds.  Always plant more seeds… always plant more dreams.

 

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Trust, distrust, mistrust – what’s it made of, anyhow?

Trust has been coming up a lot for me lately. (You may have noticed this if you read my previous post.) I’m not at all surprised. Trust is something we all deal with; and we don’t get to just learn it once and maybe stop in for a refresher course every 10 to 20 years. No, trust is something that comes up in every relationship, in all kinds of circumstances, in nearly every interaction. Trust is at work when we go ahead and go because the light is green and that means that the people coming on the other street should have a red light and honour it and stop. When I stop to think about how many times and places I have to trust someone I’ve never even met just to drive to the store, to mail a letter, to order a pizza… yes, trust comes up all over the place, all the time.

Since it does, it’s hardly a surprise that trust is going to come up pretty regularly in conversations with clients. Clients are people. They also drive and shop and send letters and order pizza. They talk to friends and family members and significant others. Trust and distrust are ubiquitous.

Achieving the goal of knowing when to trust, how to trust, who to trust is perhaps not so ubiquitous. Even the most well-adjusted, emotionally healthy person on the planet is going to have times where they feel mistrust, or trust when they shouldn’t, or wonder if their trust is being abused.   (I’m also pretty convinced that the most well-adjusted, emotionally healthy person on the planet spends most of their time hiding out somewhere trying to avoid those of us who are not nearly as sane and balanced.) So I think I can say that most of my clients are just like me in this. They aren’t always balanced, they have issues, they wonder if they’re doing things right. We all do.

They’re also like me in that they don’t just wonder, they go to therapy, they talk and write and paint and move and think and journal and share their way through those issues. They have the guts to confront their fears and shadows and imperfections. To all my clients, and me, who also sees a therapist, and everyone else out there in therapy: Way to go Us!!! Therapy is not ubiquitous, even when it should be.

One of the things that people in and out of therapy work on is trust. So just what is trust? How do we break it down to knowing when something feels trustworthy and when it doesn’t? Is it a feeling? A reaction? A thought?

There are a lot of answers out there, but I’m taking it down to a simple definition. Trust is a state of congruence.

Trust is not specifically an emotion. Emotions come in many shades and strengths and variations (sort of like paint – there may be a future post embedded in that thought 😉 ). But taken down to basics, emotions come in roughly five or six types. Glad, Sad, Mad (I like starting those out that way because they rhyme); then Fear, Shame, and if you want a sixth, Alone. Each of these can be big or small, can be healthy or unhealthy, can be separate or combined with other emotions. Emotions are immediate responses from the brain whenever we run into circumstances that set them off. They are, among other things, like little areas that light up to warn us of what’s happening.

Trust isn’t an emotion, because it has more thinking and assessing in it. But it’s not just a thought, because many of us, myself included, go with gut feelings or reactions we can’t fully define in determining trust. Trust includes input from all of these.

Trust is congruence. We all have sets input: thoughts, feelings, memories, and information about any particular situation. When current information, past memories, thoughts, and feelings about a particular person or idea or topic all agree and support each other, we tend to trust that person or situation quite a lot. When our thoughts and feelings and different pieces of information and memory are all in conflict about something or someone, we tend to distrust quite a lot.

Most of the time we have small amounts of incongruence on any particular topic. Information, emotion, and thoughts might match up, but old memories aren’t in agreement. A situation makes us feel both thrilled and excited (both of which are variations on glad or happy) and nervous and worried (variations on scared). We have nothing but positive information and facts, but something feels wrong or off. Each of these situations has places where input just isn’t agreeing.

It’s not comfortable to just sit around without deciding what to do about anything, and it certainly isn’t productive, so we find ways to weigh the input so it’s easier to clearly trust and go forward, or distrust and stop. Knowing where memories come from and why is one way to solve the dilemma. If a review in the news, a friend, and an advertisement all say that a restaurant is good, the smells and sights are appetizing, the menu has foods I like; but the past three times I’ve gone out to eat I really disliked the food; I’m weighing current information, thoughts, and emotions against memories. Assuming that the memories aren’t of the same restaurant, I’m likely to decide to try trusting it. But if my memories are of that particular place, those memories weight a lot more, and just might outvote everything else.

There are times when people know they will be scared of something they want – stage fright or anxiety about a job interview are great examples. Many people refuse to allow their feelings of fear to make the decision. Others are too scared anyhow. Of all the kinds of input, emotions and physical feelings have the strongest immediate force.

There are thousands of examples I could put here, but they all boil down to the same result. Conflicting information results in mistrust. Deciding how to act on trust or mistrust requires knowledge of self and knowledge of outside sources. Regardless of the strength of the input, how realistic it is matters a great deal.

When I work with an adult survivor of childhood abuse, I can guarantee that their memories of childhood will be incongruent with any other input. Even if a survivor is assessing a situation involving the people who perpetrated abuse, their own situation is different. I am a survivor. My memories tell me that my abusers are all adults with a lot of power, that they are all larger than me, and that I am always small and have no power of my own. That was true then, but it isn’t true now. I can acknowledge my fears and honour them; but they aren’t an accurate source of information for situations now.

Instead, I have to consider what I know to be true now. I know that I am an adult. I know I’ve taken courses in self defense. I know that I have a lot of people who have heard my story and believe me. I know that I can ask a friend to come with me if I’m worried. I know that I can make sure I have a way to leave at any time, have a cell phone programmed to dial a friend, and talk to other people to make a decision. I have a lot of power and choices now that I didn’t have as a child.

Many times, the decision to trust or not trust gets way more complex than this, of course. But the basis of trust is the same. When all or most of the input matches up, we feel like we can trust the situation. Even when all the input is saying this is a very bad idea, we can trust – we trust ourselves to get out fast! When input is confusing and conflicting, we feel mistrust, and it is hard to know who to trust and what to do.

From there, two of the most difficult situations are ones where trust doesn’t matter and ones where trust is misplaced. I’ll follow up on these in future posts, because they each deserve their own discussion. Trust is not always the answer. The answer to trust, however, is still congruence. The next time you find yourself in a trust dilemma, try to separate and identify each piece of input. Then try to determine how much each piece really matters in the situation, and how much each piece itself is true. (It’s one of the reasons therapists like articles and books that have a lot of research and support from other articles and books. Stuff that has a lot of support from other sources is more trustworthy that something that’s one person’s idea. If we’re going to be applying a new idea to actual people who are trying to work through tough issues, we want to be able to trust the information we’re using.)

If you can decide how much each piece of input matters, how strongly it affects you, and how truthful it is, you’ve worked out a lot of how much to trust this situation. You go forward, and you see the results of your decision. Then you can use them to help figure out how much to trust the next thing, and to look back and see if the input you had was worthwhile. That’s the process of learning to trust. It’s not a very easy process, but it’s a very worthwhile one. I wish you good luck and clear thinking in that process and hope you’ll wish some back to me. We’re all on different paths, but we’re all on this journey together.

 

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Reflections on therapists; Reflections to clients

Today I’m writing in response to something I read on another blog that hit home in several different ways for me. It’s not the first time I’ve heard something similar, and while I wish things were different, it won’t be the last. At the same time, I can put myself on the other side of the situation. The issue was between a client and a therapist, and while I don’t think I can put myself into the other therapist’s shoes, I can definitely put myself into the seat next to her in a classroom or at a seminar.

Rephrasing this in my own words, the issue involved the therapist telling the client that she might feel less stress if she didn’t make herself do so much so often. While I believe the therapist meant well and certainly had a point that people are often stressed by doing more than they can or want to do, the client was understandably upset by this. The stressful things she makes herself do involve caring for her children, taking care of herself, managing household chores, and similar issues. The therapist followed this up with telling the client she is very self-aware, very good at using coping skills, and that she, the therapist, can’t really do anything else for the client, so she will stop seeing her.

The client writes that she felt rejected, that she was already having problems with depression (hence seeing a therapist) and that the rejection didn’t help, and that she really wonders if life just doesn’t ever get better – that she will always feel too tired, too sad, to stressed.

Reading this reminded me of two other instances. One happened in the town I now live in, where someone told me that the local county mental health clinic basically looks at people’s ability to meet day-to-day needs, and does not push farther. They want clients in and out in 8 sessions, ideally, and do not want to take the time if a client comes in asking for help to look at past baggage that they have been carrying for years. The attitude is ‘you’re functional. Leave it alone’.

The second instance happened to me several years ago. I was seeing a therapist who professed to work with some of the issues I wanted to deal with at that time. Within a few weeks of seeing her she told me that I acted very differently from most people she’s treated with the same issues. This was a neutral statement, and she wasn’t either willing or able to explain it further, so we went on. After a few months she was very upset by some of the things I told her. She wasn’t upset on my behalf; she was upset that I had talked to my then fiancée instead of talking first to her. At the time, my fiancée had been accompanying me to sessions when he could so that we could talk about how things that affected me affected him, and vice-versa. She told me that she would no longer see me if he was present. That sent up a red flag to me, and I pushed the issue. Although she wouldn’t say so in so many words, she essentially felt either threatened that I trusted him more than her, or she felt that he was a bad influence on me (how?? I don’t know), but she wasn’t willing to say either of these things directly. Instead, she said she could no longer work with me.

I felt incredibly hurt. I felt rejected. I felt like I couldn’t even have a problem in the right way! When I hear these stories, I hear an echo of the same feelings. They are part of the reason I decided to become a counselor – so that I could be the kind of counselor I wanted to have.

Because I am a counselor, and have been through lots of school and continue to attend seminars and conferences and such, I have to take a moment and step to the other side of the situation. In classes about working with clients, therapists are told that when they are not able to continue to help a client, they need to stop seeing that client. They may need to refer the client to someone else. They may need to tell the client specific things they believe the client needs to do in order to continue therapy. There are so many reasons that a counselor could feel unequipped to help or that they are not meeting the client’s needs, but a counselor who is not helping the client does need to stop seeing the client.

This is not just a suggestion. In most places it is a law, and it is certainly an ethical rule. It stems from the need to protect clients. It is unethical to keep inventing issues for a client to work on just to keep the client coming to therapy, and paying the fee. It is unethical to try to help a client with a difficult issue that the counselor feels unequipped to work with. It is sometimes important to nudge people to try their wings, to rely on their own skills. As counselors, we have these considerations repeated over and over, and good counselors keep them in mind.

Going a step further, counselors are human, too. Counselors feel worried, nervous, and out of their depth sometimes. They do have times where they need to put self-care first.

However.

However, there are times where counselors are not truly seeing the needs of their clients. In school, I noticed that most of my classmates spoke a language of relative wellness and safety. They did not speak the language of trauma. They did not automatically check doors and windows to know where to escape if necessary. They did not have a small voice in the back of their head that suggested that someone in charge, like a professor, could do very painful or demeaning things to them if they did not behave correctly. They did not consider inside or outside, tiny halls or large auditoriums, people with a certain hair or skin colour, facial hair or lack of facial hair, a certain pitch of voice or accent to be a potential threat or to raise the heart rate just by existing.

When we talked about things like trust, emotional safety, or ability to speak about difficult issues, I knew that many of the people I sat next to were imagining a very different scenario than I was. As just one example: When we had guests to speak to a class about trauma, it seemed that some of my classmates had not given a thought to ideas like whether a veteran would want to be able to see out a window or request a tour of the building with emphasis on exits before being comfortable to speak to the class.

With that in mind, I am addressing this primarily to my fellow counselors.

When you meet with a client who has been abused, or has anxiety, or depression, or has been through a very traumatic situation, especially an ongoing one, you are meeting with someone who comes from a different place than you are at. You look around your office noticing a comfortable place to sit, your diplomas and certifications speaking of your credentials, your sincere tone and calm demeanor; and you think you see safety and reliability. Your client looks around to see how many doors and windows are there. Most likely, she wants to be able to escape through all of them if necessary, but doesn’t want anyone to be able to look in. She considers the furniture. Can it be thrown? Used as a barricade? Do you have anything hiding behind it? She thinks about how you talk to her. Are you really hearing the fear? The pain? Can you understand it if you do?

You’ve been trained in a variety of tests and tools and routines. You can diagnose if he’s suicidal, eating disordered, depressed, fearful. You have a strong sense of ‘normal’, and you see your client through that lens. It’s normal to have enough energy to wake up, care for kids, make and eat breakfast, get dressed. It’s normal to feel sleepy, to forget something you were supposed to bring along or to take an hour to feel fully awake. Your client speaks of the fatigue of getting ready for the day, of the scramble to get self and/or family ready, to get going, and you think you’ve experienced what he expresses.

You don’t know. Your client is not talking about needing an extra cup of coffee, your client is talking about sincerely wondering if anything today is actually worth getting up. Your client talks about feeling forgetful, strained, bogged down. You think of the notebook resting on the table at home instead of being at work. You think of hunting down a child’s shoe, of not being sure what to make for dinner tonight, of having to fit in a meeting after work.

Your client is talking about wondering if they actually plugged in the coffee maker, or if it was an iron. Or maybe they touched nothing at all. Your client noticed today that their child’s shoes are different from the ones they remember, and would like to ask you if that kind of memory loss is normal.

Your client jokes that she might get more out of therapy today if she just napped for the hour on your couch. You don’t know she’s perfectly serious.

  • Before you ask, your client is perfectly normal, in her world, his world, my world. Your client is not demented or schizophrenic or delusional. Your client is trying to cope with an enormous amount of stress and fear and pain and frustration; and every tiny thing that goes wrong adds to that load.

For a checkpoint, think about the last time you were very, very tired. Too tired to remember that if you saved the outline of your paper onto a thumb drive, it’s likely still on the computer you were working on if you can’t find the thumb drive. Tired enough that you caught yourself waking up here and there from micro-naps. Think about the last time you felt like everything in the world was riding on one, difficult maneuver that you didn’t think you had control over. Maybe it was a test to be licensed, or to be accepted into school. Maybe it was a tricky place in a relationship. Think about that.

Think about the last time you were emotionally very hurt; a fight, a death, a major disappointment. The last time you didn’t think that anything could really make you happy again.

If you can, think about all these feelings – tired, stressed, anxious, and sad – all rolled into one. Think about how futile everything seemed. Think about how difficult it was to remember to eat – or how eating was the only think that made you feel connected to the world for a minute. Think about how you seemed constantly tired but sleep just made you think things you didn’t like, or made you toss and turn. Think about the feeling that a huge rock was balanced above you, and you had so little control over when it would fall or what it would hit on the way down.

Now: remember that most likely, this was not a usual feeling for you. You felt happy and calm and productive before it, you had an idea that you would feel good and centered and meaningful after you got through it. Think about the ideas you had – that you could always become a truck driver or a guitarist if school didn’t work out, that is the sadness never lifted you’d channel it into art or poetry. Think of the little things – a massage, a walk, a song that you found for yourself, and gave yourself, to remind you to get through.

And think of how much it helped if someone was with you, not making you do anything, but just experiencing the same thing, offering an ear or a hug or being willing to make that trip to the store so you didn’t have to.

Your client doesn’t have many of those last things. Your client doesn’t remember when it felt better. Your client doesn’t have the idea that dreams can come true; or if one dream falls through, it’s a shot at realizing another. Your client may not quite, actually, feel real.

  • Your client is still not crazy, still not hallucinating, still not schizotypic or autistic or, worst, exaggerating or making it all up.

Your client has not learned HOW to be happy, safe, comfortable, fitting. Many of us, even counselors, think that being happy, feeling safe, fitting in is simply something that happens. It isn’t. It’s something we learn IF we have happy role models, a safe place to grow up, people who accept and encourage us. If we don’t have those factors, we don’t learn those lessons.

Forget, for a moment, the details of the abuse, the level of depression or anxiety on your handy test, their current estimated level of functioning. Just think about leaning, for a moment.

Learning starts at the moment you become aware. Learning starts as soon as you can see or hear or taste or touch or smell or feel or think. Learning starts as soon as you start to be.

Someone who has not been shown much happiness doesn’t learn to recognize it, to feel it, to know it.

Someone who has not had stability does not learn how to make plans and count on them.

Someone who is punished for exploring starts to retreat. Someone who is told, or shown, or both, that the world is a scary and unreliable place starts to feel anxious. Someone who does not know that it is safe to express becomes depressed.

As a metaphor, consider comfort as a cup of hot cocoa. You could have all the hot cocoa in the world, with whipped cream and marshmallows and candy sticks and cinnamon; and if you had never seen or heard of anything resembling a mug, you would have no idea how to acquire and drink a simple, soothing, comfort of a cup of cocoa.

Your client has no mugs. Your client has not been raised with mugs. Your client is uncertain of stores, because they don’t know how to look for a mug or how to tell if it’s the right kind.

All around them, people are rolling their eyes, pointing out that cocoa is available in so many places. Good cocoa and average cocoa and excellent gourmet cocoa and flavoured cocoa and the kind that’s in a packet and has been left too long – but at least it’s cocoa. And your client not only lacks a mug. Your client lacks the idea of a mug.

Most of the time in school, in supervision, in workshops and books and articles and discussions; we as therapists are learning how to improve our clients’ mugs, or cocoa, or both. We’re helping clients notice the cocoa. We’re helping clients consider the best brand for them, their preferred flavor, whether they like marshmallows or cream or plain. We’re going out on a limb, sometimes, and suggesting they may prefer coffee, or tea. We’re taught to help clients to consider how often they can and should drink cocoa, if they should drink it with others, what that want to do if someone continually takes cocoa from the break room and never brings any in.

And then we have a client with no mug come in, and they’ve been through a LOT of therapy. They’ve been in groups and read books and done their homework. They can prepare cocoa starting with cacao beans, and they have 6 years of notes that they took on the subtle differences in every brand and additive and comparison on cocoa, and how they feel about it all.

But they have no idea how to use a mug.

At this point, my analogy breaks down, because it would be so easy if we could just hand a mug and say ‘you’re cured’. And it is a bit more involved than that… or maybe not. Because they need to learn to select a mug; To tell if a mug is clean or dirty, whole or broken. They need to know if it’s okay to get more than one mug, where to get it. They need to know when it’s okay to share with others or not.

We need to model using a mug, yes. We need to keep on modelling it. We need to let the client talk and talk and talk about the same story of wondering what a mug was, because they need to speak of it.

While we’re at it, we need to model spoons and straws, saucers and cream pitchers. We need to show them how to use hot water, how to heat water. And no, that isn’t all. A lot of therapists figure that they have it pretty well complete after they’ve shown the client what they’re missing and how to use it. We’re specifically told we aren’t supposed to be ‘professional friends’. We aren’t supposed to keep treating clients who can ‘do it on their own’ or who are ‘healthy’ now. We’re not supposed to treat outside of our levels of competence.

Our Clients Need More.

Our clients need someone to sit with them as they practice their skills. Our clients need someone to sit with them as they practice their skills again. Our clients need a place that has come to feel safe, because they do know where the exits are and what’s behind the chair. And they know they aren’t alone. Our clients need to know that it’s not enough for us if they know how to use the tools, and the tools to care for the tools.

It’s not enough until they feel safe, serene, and happy as a standard part of life.

For some people this means working with several different therapists. This can be sequential, or it can be congruent. A client can certainly see one therapist for DBT and one therapist for art therapy and one for life coaching. Other times it means seeing the same therapist for a long time, even when the therapist isn’t really seeing change. You, my colleague, are not seeing change at these times because you ARE the change.

You feel comfortable with yourself. You feel happy when happy things happen. You worry and feel sad, but you aren’t consumed by worry and sadness. You wake up, get dressed, get to work, take care of your family and interests and hobbies without losing your grasp on your rope. Your client is learning how to do this from you. You don’t have to adopt the client or tell them about your life in detail. But every session, you model hope, and you are teaching your client how to get it… as long as you don’t ruin it by telling them that they can’t do it, that they’re wrong, that they should be doing something else, that they’re too damaged, to scared, too hurting.

So… how are you teaching it, and how do you keep it up, and where is the line between pushing your bird to fly and dropping them off a branch unsupported?

No, I can’t tell you exactly where it is for every person. But I can tell you the basics. For one thing, we have mirror neurons. Go look them up, really! They’re awesome and more is being discovered all the time. Mirror neurons fire when someone else does something. When you feel happy, calm, and content – your client’s mirror neurons fire and they feel happy or calm or content. When you do something, someone watching has mirror neurons firing helping their brain understand what it’s like to do that thing. That’s right. You don’t have to be the guru of happiness or the lama of serenity. You have to be you, and your clients’ mirror neurons will fire off their own happiness and calm and learning.

You keep it up by keeping yourself cleaned up from your own mirror neurons hurting you. All along, when your client is feeling tiny bits of hope and health and confidence, modeled and passed on by you; you’re noticing their anxiety, their stress, their fear. Your mirror neurons are starting to wonder if there is a problem, and are trying to bring you down and downer. Self-care is NOT a luxury for therapists; it’s a part of treating your clients. Massage or a long shower or a yoga class or working in your garden or whatever. Anything healthy that makes you feel good and cleans out the negativity is essential, so you can keep reflecting the positive, literally.

You keep it up by telling your clients they can do this. You can and should let some of your feelings show when they share with you. It is terrible when children are abused. It is scary to have awful dreams. It is stressful to be trying to build the life they never had while hanging on to what they’ve got. It’s also possible and doable, and you need to express that, too.

You cannot tell your clients that they are too damaged, too traumatized, too abused; or that they already know enough, that they can do this as well on their couch at home as in your office. If your client is able to make it to your office, they are able to make it through. There are times and places for intensive or inpatient work. I wish more of us had the opportunity to have people reflecting hope and confidence and health at us for hours or days or weeks, instead of one appointment every week or two. But if they were too damaged to make it, they wouldn’t be in your office.

If they’re ready to fly solo, there’s a good chance they’ll know, and they’ll be suggesting it. In fact, a lot of us are so used to our lives that we’re more likely to shy away from committing to working deeper and try to leave anyhow, or we’ll take one tiny bit of relief as an amazing change and assume it doesn’t get any better. It doesn’t matter if they’re self-aware, know all the tools, meditate and journal and draw and use affirmations – in isolation, all of these reflect from the client to the client. That limits change. We’re social creatures. We’re not meant to live in isolation. We’re hopeful creatures who desperately want to feel good, and good enough. If we’re alone, or living with people who don’t feel good, then our mirror neurons aren’t reflecting good, and it’s not nearly as helpful as it is when we experience being with someone who gives positive reflections.

You are not being a professional friend or encouraging a malingerer. You’re acting as a reflection of who they want to be. Therapist, therapist, on the couch, show me how to stop the ouch. Counselor, counselor in the chair; show me how it feels to care.

Really lousy poetry, I’m sorry. I can do better, but it doesn’t follow the theme 😉 Your biggest role is not to do, it’s to be. Your client can get to better. They need someone to walk alongside them on their journey there.

You are doing enough. They are not too damaged. They can feel better – and so can I – and so can you.

 

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What I need you to know about therapy

What do therapists know that clients don’t? What do therapists want clients to know? What do therapists not tell clients? The answers could fill years of blogging even from one therapist, and fill many more posts if every therapist, counselor, pastor, life coach, and psychologist were asked! Right now I’m narrowing it down to one answer that I want you to know; from my dual viewpoint as a therapist and as a client.
Many therapists are also in therapy, and in my experience this is a very good thing. It helps me stay balanced, to know where my own worries and stresses are and to deal with them so they don’t come up in your session. It also means that I can sympathize with your point of view as a client.
As both a counselor and a client, my answer to ‘what do I want you to know?’ is ‘You won’t always feel as connected in some sessions as you do in others. Your therapist won’t always feel as connected, either. And therapy is still happening.’ If you have a good connection to your therapist, therapy is still happening even if you don’t feel as connected, even if you feel like you didn’t say much, even if.
I did put in the caveat ‘if you have a good connection to your therapist’. Therapy is a relationship. It’s a very specific relationship. This is why therapists can’t do therapy with their family or close friends. It’s why therapists are forbidden from having sexual activity with clients, and from doing therapy with anyone they ever had a sexual or romantic relationship with. The therapeutic relationship has to be itself, not a part of another relationship. It’s okay if you see your therapist in the grocery store. It’s often okay if you go to the same church or belong to the same organization. In fact, many people want a therapist who has the same beliefs, or who has gone through the same things. In my practice, my business cards read ‘Flying Free Healing Arts – Alikina (Allie) Iubhar – Therapy with someone who’s been there’. Because I am a survivor of abuse, and many survivors want to know that their therapist really ‘gets it’.
Even so, therapy is a specific relationship. And like any relationship, it needs to be healthy. When you feel a sense of connection, feel like your therapist cares, that you matter, that’s the start of a good therapeutic relationship. When you can say whatever you need to, when you therapist isn’t upset or confused, but understands most of what you’re saying and listens when you explain the rest, that’s the next part. When you can feel all your emotions (yep – even anger & fear & grief) with your therapist and know you’re understood, and that you and your emotions are okay with your therapist, you and you therapist have built the foundation that therapy comes from.
Even when your therapist understands, and when you can talk about whatever you need to, and when your therapist will ask insightful questions and explain things and suggest directions for you to consider, even when you have a very good therapeutic relationship; yes, you can have a day where you just don’t feel as connected. If you have a lot of those days, it might mean that you’re having some problems with your therapist. It for sure means you need to talk to them, and to say what you’re feeling, and what you need. But now and again, if you don’t feel like your therapist is as close today, or that they don’t seem to understand… that’s okay.
Therapists, counselors, when you feel like you aren’t as in tune with your client that one time… that’s okay. Again, if it’s happening a lot you need to address it. First, that’s why you have your own therapist. You can and should talk to your therapist about it. A lot of us have ‘supervision’, where we talk to someone with more experience, or we get together with a few colleagues, and we talk about things that concern us. And if it’s happening a lot with one specific client, a therapist should address it with that client. But every now and then feeling not as connected is a part of therapy.
(A note to clients: If your therapist talks to their own therapist about you, your confidentiality is still safe. For one thing, any therapist your own therapist talks to has to keep everything confidential. For another thing, unless you’re being treated by several therapists, like in a hospital or intensive program, therapists don’t usually name names. When I talk to my therapist about my own experiences, I say things like ‘my Wednesday afternoon client’ or ‘my newest client’. I’m talking about a worry or feeling I’m having, not giving out details about you.)
Back to talking about connection: That’s right – feeling less connected sometimes is a part of the relationship. It’s a part of therapy, and not only is it okay, I think it’s good. Up above, where I talked about it being important to be able to have all kinds of emotions and feelings with your therapist? Feeling less, saying less, having less connection is one way of having a feeling. If it’s okay to feel more in therapy; to say things you don’t say to anyone else, or to bring out all the upset, uncomfortable, extreme thoughts and feelings for therapy, then it’s also okay to have the opposite.
Feeling less connection is a level of feeling. It’s not a very comfortable level for a lot of people. Most people need connection. We’re social creatures. Therapists are in a profession where we work with a lot of feelings. We might feel even less comfortable with a lack of connection. All of us – clients, therapists, people who aren’t in therapy – need our relationships, our groups, our connections. But it’s still okay to be connected enough to someone to not have to feel as much just then. I know that sounds counter-intuitive, to be connected enough that you can feel less connected. But it’s a level of feeling. It’s okay to feel less connected for that session.
So that’s what I, as a therapist and as a client, want you to know today. I want you to know that it’s okay to have different levels of connection. For clients, less connection once in a while means your therapist still cares, they’re still paying attention to you, you matter just as much. Therapists, just reverse that. You still care, your client still matters, and you can feel different levels of connection and know you haven’t done anything to damage the therapeutic relationship. Not only is therapy still going on, but I think it’s an important part of therapy. I think it’s the level of connection where we can feel differently, and know that the therapist will still be there. If we, as clients, can feel less connected sometimes and know our therapists are still there, we’ve traveled another few steps on a path of trust and communication. That’s a pretty good thing.

 

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