Sometimes it’s hard to know what clients want from me. Actually, it’s not hard to know what they want – it’s just sometimes absolutely impossible to give it to them. I think they want a magic wand. They want to feel better so desperately that they want me to be able to sprinkle some pixie dust and help them right now.
It really stinks to know that it’s not possible.
To know that building a life worth living is just that, a building project. It’s hard and slow and you’re going to bang your thumb with the hammer several times before it’s done. I know this because I feel like I’m constantly nursing a bruised and battered self during my own building process.
But it’s still hard to tell clients this when their eyes beg me for the answer. To not want to believe that I have the answer. To not offer advice. I can offer feedback and education about the ways that clients might start to think about feeling better but to actually tell them what they should do? Nope. And that’s hard. Because clients often desperately want to be told what to do.
Don’t we all from time to time?
When I do homework with my kids they sometimes get frustrated and shout “can’t you just tell me the answer??” usually this happens around the third time we’re trying to work through a problem. I want to. I always want to. But, as my daughter reminded me just yesterday when I was tempted to give her a hint as I quized her on the 50 states and their capitals (a test I would certainly fail, by the way), [I] won’t be there when she takes the test.
This is true for clients too. I won’t be there when they have to actually do the thing. More important is to learn how to think in terms of long term goals and ambitions. To think about what you need and want and then to put in place the many smaller goals needed to meet those ambitions. If I’m telling you how to do it, you’ll need someone guiding the way.
I think about it in terms of parenting (not that I feel like my clients’ parent, I don’t), the techniques and structures of parenting apply to the counseling relationship as well. Scaffolding is a parenting concept described by Lev Vygotsky. The idea is that you build up a supporting structure (a scaffold) to the level at which the child (or client’s) development allows them to stand. I think about it in terms of kids at the playground. When they’re tiny babies, moms sit them next to each other and physically move them to interact. When they’re toddlers, they want them over and encourage them verbally. A little older and it’s a suggestion that they go play with that boy with the truck and a suggestion to the boy with the truck that he show his truck to his friend. A little older and it’s a nudge in the direction of the kids playing and an instruction to go find someone to play with. Older still, it’s a walk to the park and a seat on the park bench. Until they’ve outgrown both your company and the park.
As the walls become more secure and the kid is more and more able to stand on their own, the scaffold structure supporting it is removed piece by piece.
So it is with clients. With some, the ones most struggling to care for themselves and to manage their daily lives, the feedback is more specific. “What can you do to exercise each day?” “What would you have to do to take a gym bag to work each day?” With others its more “what would help you in this situation?” Leaving the direction that exercise might be the answer out of the question.
But it’s hard because sometimes I so want to have the answer. To believe that I even know the answer. When the truth is, I’m just a desperate to find the answer as the next person. I’m just out here banging away at the building project that is self esteem the same as a the next person.