From My Chair
Often I am asked the question, “How do you listen to the painful stories of so many people and not feel overwhelmed and sad, bringing their sadness home with you?”
There are many days when I do return home physically, mentally, spiritually exhausted. Truly, I empathize with the grief and challenges of every client I see. However, I have learned through years of training and experience, that for my own survival as a human being and as a therapist, I cannot own the pain of others. Each person is on his or her journey and the best I can do is bring hope, encouragement, understanding, or sometimes reality.
This is what I know to be true. Our challenges are an integral part of our human experience. I tell my clients, “We are all human and need to accept the challenge of being human.” In turn, I must accept that each of my clients is exactly where they need to be and the current challenge is an important component of their journey.
Also, I understand that at a particular junction in time, a particular client’s pathway crosses with mine. Typically, at a time of difficulty. We partner together to work through a troublesome period. Some clients come to me ready to go to work–get things “fixed,” change repeated dysfunctional patterns. Others are seeking relief from a present pain. And yet others arrive in my office because a partner or court judge insists; they have no personal desire for therapy. But even in those cases, usually, something positive happens. I have learned to trust the timing of the Universe. Clients may terminate therapy only to return months, or even years later, ready to go back to work.
Del, my former supervisor used to say, “You can’t help everyone. Some are window shoppers who may someday be ready to buy the process of therapy.” I accept, knowing that my most effective sessions are those when the client is open to the process, pulling to the forefront my knowledge and expertise.
Why am I sharing this with you? Because I know how difficult it is for all of us–as partners, parents, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, and friends–not to “help” those for whom we care to the point where we attempt to remove their suffering. Take it on as our own. I hear it in my practice daily. I teach my clients that allowing loved ones to experience pain can lead to wonderful life lessons and growth. Just as I don’t “fix” my clients, cheating them out of the process of discovery and learning, we must allow loved ones the same opportunity. We can support and love while releasing control of the process and outcomes.
Just as I do with my clients, it is healthy for all of us to invest in the farming metaphor in reference to helping others. We may provide encouragement and truth (as we perceive it) along the way, releasing control of the “harvest.” We may:
- Till the soil
- Plant the seed
- Cultivate and weed
- And when the time is right, celebrate the harvest
So, when people ask me how I can listen to, and care about, my clients and not adopt their problems, I must answer:
- By not attempting to own their problems or take away their intended life lesson.
- Practicing what I preach by living a balanced life.
Is this easy for any of us? No!
“In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.” ~Tom Bodett