During a phone call with the mother of a prospective client I ask her why, if he needs help, her adult son isn’t calling me himself?
No more than half an hour after the conversation I received an angry email from her complaining that I had made her feel that she was the one with the problem, rather than her son.
It’s amazing how adept we are at finding insight but, instead of realising its value, concentrating instead on the bit which hurts us and blaming somebody else for that.
There are countless times we push people we care for towards help without recognising the help we might be in need of ourselves. The devastating impact of this blindness to our own requirements results in people showing up for therapy who aren’t ready to be there.
A wise therapist friend of mine once reminded me that to finish an hour more tired than our client is the mark of an unsuccessful session. If I’m working harder on your recovery than you are, there is something wrong.
Through most of the early years of my own therapy, I gravitated towards one of two similarly unhelpful ends of the same spectrum. At one extreme was an abdication of responsibility and control, where I felt that life had dealt me a bad hand and where there was little point in trying to address it. At the other, I would take all responsibility on myself and self-flagellate to the point that I may as well be dust angrily kicked into the air.
When all of our choices are disempowering nobody and nothing can help us.
Recovery requires us to feel valuable enough to actively seek and engage with help, but not so entitled that we can’t see the damaging impact of our own actions.
On reflection, often when I have been sat in front of a new adult client sent to me by parents, we have emerged eventually to a place where their struggle to establish an independent life with personal responsibility is actually being undermined by the people who sent them to me in the first place.
However hard it is to accept, it is not our place in life to tell someone else how to live. Harder still is the realisation we cannot save even those closest to us from the folly of their own action.
If anything, taking too much control of someone else’s perilous situation makes it more dangerous still, because by forcing their hand from the tiller we set a course they did not intend and cannot control. This takes them away from recovery and not towards it. There is a difference between emotional control and emotional holding.
“I can’t stop you from falling but I promise I’ll be here to help you stand up again when you feel ready to do so.”
After the email from the angry mother, I felt bruised for a while. Sad that she should take my genuine attempts to find a comfortable fit for her son as a criticism. But I should really have been rejoicing because, if nothing else, our conversation had highlighted that she had a part to play in the problem she sought to fix.
Sometimes the truth hurts. But if we can tolerate that pain and act on it we are much less likely to end up with a therapist talking to someone who doesn’t really want to be there and hasn’t yet got to the point where they care enough about their own happiness to take control of the change they require.