Clients often seem worried that I will judge them for the things they say in session. I have a resting disgruntled face so I have to remain conscious of my expression during session to avoid giving them any inadvertent evidence that this is true. The reality is that I’m very rarely judging, mostly I’m reacting. Part of a normal human relationship – which the counseling relationship is – involves reacting to each other.
In therapy, my reactions are filtered between my automatic responses and what I think will be most helpful to the client. I don’t always get to go with my first response in therapy. With many of my clients, my first response is a desire to hug them because the things they are struggling with are genuinely painful. I also frequently feel worried. I worry about the patterns I’ve seen develop in their actions and reactions and worry about where this current iteration will lead them.
But worry, too, is often not helpful. It implies a desire to control or to supplant my judgment for theirs and that’s not the message I want to send to my clients or even, when I actually think about it, what I think is the appropriate response to my worry. Instead, I’m trying to focus on offering support and presenting my response in a way that asks the client to consider what’s best for them.
Lately I’m trying to apply this therapeutic approach to parenting. One of my daughters recently told me that her friend’s boyfriend called her “ugly”. My daughter was particularly hurt that her friend didn’t challenge the boyfriend, but instead laughed. My instant reaction is anger both with the boyfriend and also towards my daughter’s friend. Underneath the anger is worry, though. Worry that my daughter will internalize this message and a little piece of her self esteem and self belief will be lost. Worry that she’ll react in a way that will give the boyfriend more opportunities to hurt her feelings and the friend more chances to disappoint. Worry that she won’t protect herself and will just feel that teenage drive to swallow her justified hurt. Worry that she’ll be consumed by the hurt.
My first reaction, then, to help and to solve, isn’t useful so I’m trying to keep it to myself. I offered support (I may have called the boyfriend a name, but he wasn’t there so oh well) and asked her what she needed from me. Turns out, she didn’t need anything. She’s already decided how to handle it and the way she’s going about it is reasonable. And, unlike clients, I can give her a hug almost any time. Which is what she really wanted. Along with some validation that her emotional response was accurate and reasonable.
Probably the same thing that most clients need.