What I Really Think About My Clients
“You must think I’m crazy.”
“I don’t even want to know what you really think of me.”
I hear these sorts of comments all the time. When my clients are sharing their most raw, vulnerable selves, possibly exposing the most shameful areas of their lives, they wonder what I think of them. Let’s face it – who wouldn’t wonder that?
But sometimes I do not share with them what I am thinking because if they knew how brave and courageous and amazing they were in my eyes, then they would think that I’m just one big sap and would probably want to find a different counselor.
You see, I love my clients. I do. I genuinely admire, respect, and enjoy them as people. They are courageous, genuine, smart, and honestly just really likeable people. Yet most of my clients have a hard time seeing that in themselves.
Every week, I have the privilege of spending an hour looking deep into my clients’ lives, and seeing their hearts and souls. These people are dealing with a variety of issues: consuming depression, debilitating anxiety, controlling eating disorders, stressed relationships…yet through that I get to still see them. I see who they really are, rather than their most recent difficulty. And I’m in awe of them.
I am reminded that they are made in the image of God. These people, who come in to my office every day to talk about life’s difficulties, are a reflection of God. No wonder they are amazing. God is reflected in them. And the reason it’s so easy for me to see this is because, from the very first session, we are connecting. We are engaging in a unique, therapeutic relationship where there’s very little small talk. It’s mostly heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul kind of talk. It’s almost always very deep. And it’s hard work. Yet in the midst of that, there exists a sweet vulnerability. Which is why I think it’s easy for me to love my clients.
You see, vulnerability is a game changer. When it shows up, relational connection occurs. So many people resist being vulnerable because it feels too risky. Things like rejection, and fear, and shame creep in and make us withdraw. Yet when we witness other people being vulnerable, we think they are courageous and genuine. My hero, Brené Brown, writes about the great vulnerability paradox: vulnerability is the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I want you to see in me. People are not eager to be vulnerable, because it’s scary.
My clients bring their whole selves (the good stuff and the bad stuff) to the therapeutic relationship. They conquer the fear of vulnerability for the sake of health. I get to see them for who they are: a courageous, imperfect, vulnerable person – and that’s simply just easy to love.
For the first time ever in my career, I’m nearing session 100 with a client. This feels like a milestone, because it also means that we have been meeting together for years. I feel very proud of this particular client, and the work that she has done – and will continue to do. Getting to 100 sessions is highly unusual at my practice. Most clients get to session 10 or 15 and feel like they are nearing their goals. But in some circumstances, my clients want to continue meeting for a long time. I really enjoy this.
As we approach session #100 with this particular client, I started reflecting and thinking about what every single one of my clients should know by the time they get to session 100. Meaning, what would I want to cover with every single person, no matter their presenting concern, if I had the time?
So here are my top 5 things that I hope every client knows by the time they get to session 100:
I hope you know how you screw with the relationships around you. Or, to put it nicely, you must know how your past wounds affect your current behavior. We all have had negative experiences in our pasts that have had a lasting negative impact. Many people operate with subconscious drives that create difficulties in their present day relationships. For example, a woman who fears being abandoned (because of experiences as a child) may continually try to sabotage a romantic relationship, just to test him and make sure he’s never going to leave.
I hope you know who you are. Once you stop trying to be someone you are not and be who you truly are, your relationships are freed up. You also must own the fact that you need other people. Knowing what your needs are in relationships can also give you the power to recognize whether or not it is reasonable to get those needs met.
I hope you know your shame triggers. These are the moments when you just want to run and hide, or moments when you feel like you aren’t good enough. Everyone has shame triggers, and when shame rears its ugly head, people go into survival mode. Shame is often referred to as the master emotion. You cannot thrive in life when you are controlled by shame.
I hope you know how to take care of yourself. You must know what kinds of things bring you comfort, joy, health, and peace. And you must regularly practice doing those things.
I hope you are building resiliency, so you can experience real love. What I mean by “real” love is love that is unconditional, nonjudgmental, and accepting. This requires vulnerability. Allowing yourself to love others and to be loved by others means you need to be open. And being open and vulnerable means you could get hurt. So building resiliency really is a crucial component to loving well.
After 100 sessions with a counselor, these are things I hope you would know. Actually…after 20 (or even fewer) sessions with a counselor, these are things I hope you would know, because I believe everyone could benefit from more insight in these areas. But the fact of the matter is, these 5 things listed here require a lot of time to explore, unpack, and understand. You cannot rush this process.
Work-Life Balance & Unicorns
I recently read an article posted on The Atlantic that explored the difficulties of balancing your professional and family life. There was one quote in particular that resonated with me: “"For the foreseeable future, balancing my family with my career would be the defining challenge of my life."
The defining challenge of my LIFE. Whoa. That’s big.
But that’s exactly the truth.
I often feel like finding the perfect balance between my family life and career would be like finding a unicorn. It’d be like one magical, mysterious moment, and just when you’d laid your eyes on it, it’d disappear.
There’s a lot of talk about unicorns in my house these days. I have a 4 year old daughter, and most art projects consist of unicorns and rainbows. (Either that or she’s dressing up like a bald eagle and watching Wheel of Fortune. Did I mention she’s a complicated woman?) My daughter is passionate about unicorns, even though she understands that they aren’t real, and she will never actually see one. Her cousin once told her that unicorns poop rainbows, so I understand the allure.
However, I can’t help but feel a little sad for her, because I know that this one thing that would make her so happy, she’ll never get. She will never get to see a real live unicorn.
And I have a similar feeling about this thing that would make me so happy. Can you imagine a day (all you working moms and dads) when you feel like you are killing it at work, and also being a fun, energetic, playful, creative, loving parent?
My heart just might implode.
So I often wonder if this quest for “work-life balance” is even attainable. Maybe it truly is like an imaginary unicorn, and therefore not even worth the chase?
What I know so far is that the key to feeling like things are somewhat in balance is listening. I’m trying to listen to myself, listen to my kids, listen to my husband and friends, and listen to God. That’s a lot of listening. And the problem with the all the hustling in my career and in my parenting is that it leaves little time for listening. How can I listen and pay attention if I don’t even carve out the time to do so? Listening doesn’t happen when life is lived at full throttle.
My work-life balance unicorn is un-seeable without listening. I must rely on my very real, external world (husband, friends, kids, etc.) and my very real internal world (my feelings, my relationship with God, etc.) to give me cues on how to get things back on track.
This week, my unicorn/bald eagle/Wheel of Fortune-loving daughter said to me, “Mom, you’re always wookin’ at your phone.” (L’s are a bit tough for her still.) And she was right. So for now, putting things more in balance means putting away my phone for extended periods of time. I’m trying to listen. I’m not perfect at it, but I’m trying. And I’d like to think that showing her a mom who is responsive, present, and focused will be better than showing her a unicorn.
Biography vs. Pathology
I often wish I didn’t have to diagnose my clients. It’s seems so non-therapeutic to label someone with anything. I once heard another clinician say, “Well is just like when you go to the doctor and get diagnosed with strep throat. It’s good you know that it’s strep throat so that you can treat it with the appropriate medication.” But I do not believe mental health is always the same.
You see, the mind is an intricately complicated thing, and it does not work like the body. In the medical world, you can use microscopes and x-rays to see where the infections or abnormalities are, but it’s just not that simple with mental health. In order to understand the mind and how things are going wrong, or right, we need to know someone’s story. So this business of diagnosing and labeling people makes me uncomfortable because everyone is different. Every story is different. My clients do not easily fit into the boxes created by the DSM V task force.
I believe that the key to health is not through diagnosing pathology, but it is through exploring biography. Rather than asking “What’s wrong with you?” we need to be asking “What happened to you?” I believe that knowing more about a person’s story will tell me what needs to happen in order to bring health. Labeling my client with a diagnosis may help him or her find the right medication, but I do not believe it will help find a path to the change many people want to see. Viewing things through this lens enables me to see that many people who would be labeled as mentally ill actually had a very sane reaction to insane circumstances. Our minds do amazing things to protect us. And sometimes this means creating coping mechanisms in our inner worlds that others might think is strange. When we start labeling and pathologizing these reactions, it takes away a person’s dignity and separates them even more from the “normal” or healthy population. It can be quite isolating, and in fact, amplify the problems.
So the best thing clinicians can do is to diagnose when we must (and often this is because insurance companies require it) but not let the diagnosis define our view of the clients. People are more than their pathology. They have stories that shaped them in good ways and bad. Gathering these stories and getting the context for a person’s behavior may be one of the best tools for finding the path to lasting, effective change.
Whether you are a counselor or a client, my hope is that the biography always rules over the pathology.
Finding Your Balance
I have a quote on the wall in my office by Albert Einstein:
“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”
People come see me for a variety of reasons: depression, anxiety, relationship troubles, career counseling, etc. Yet, they seem to all have something in common: Things are not in balance.
Many of these clients want to get back to the way things were, or to a balance or harmony they previously felt. The problem with that thinking is that when you lose your balance in life, it’s because things have happened or things have changed.
You have changed.
We are basically a summation of our experiences in life. The more experiences we have, the more our mind is stretched. We cannot expect this dynamic, developing brain to go back to its old dimensions. So we must learn to adapt.
This is what makes finding that balance so elusive. It is ever changing. So what can we do about it?
I have a few things I try to practice myself (and I recommend to all my clients) to be in constant check with my gut, to see what needs to be changed or pruned from my life, so I can continue to keep things in balance.
Regular quiet time spent in solitude helps the small, gentle, helpful voice find its way to the front of your mind. This quiet time might include prayer, meditation, music, journaling, creative activities, or walking outside. I also find that it is helpful to do things like yoga, stretching, or a more focused exercises like progressive muscle relaxation. One thing I know for sure is that this quiet time does not include social media or technology. The phone should be put away or it hijacks the quiet.
Many of us find a greater level of insight or depth of understanding when we are in conversations with other trusted people. This person might be a spouse, a close friend, a pastor, or a counselor. It absolutely must be a safe person; someone with whom you do not feel judged. There is something about talking with a trusted friend that helps remind us who we are, and what matters to us.
Maintaining a vision for my future, short term and long term, helps me know when things are where I want them to be. This means that I must keep my goals simple and clear, or I lose them. It also means that sometimes, during my quiet time, I am thinking about what I want and who I want to be. This helps me know what things might need to be cut out of my life, or added in to my schedule. This kind of pruning process is essential to living a balanced life.
The goal here is not to get all your ducks in a row and then sit back and relax. The goal is to be in touch with your ever changing mind, body, and spirit, so that you can be mindful of when and where you need to adjust.
Where do you think you need to do some work today to regain balance?
If you are unsure, I encourage to start with the quiet.