The following short essay is more a message to myself. Writing helps me to release my own inner demons, and often presents new and interesting examples to help me meet personal goals. The intended audience is anyone who wants to see a brief glimpse into my life, and anyone who is interested in developing a healthy dialogue about what constitutes good therapy. I claim no expertise here in that I am a beginning therapist, just learning the ropes of my craft. Sometimes I feel totally competent and I walk away with a sense of accomplishment, others I walk away more confused. I try to maintain a sense of beginners mind in each situation, but sometimes fall prey to personal struggles. This is one such struggle. On reflection it may be quite minimal, but it blew up in my head and sapped my energy, so I here present that internal battle.
“Shoo, go away”- it was the voice of a client trying to get me out of his life. We had been talking about his desire to not have to participate in therapy, and I was trying to elicit his strategies for getting me out of his life. I was hoping for him to do more with the question than just tell me to go away. I wanted to see him truly think about his challenges. I wanted in all honesty, for him to be the man with the solution. But that did not happen and here I sit feeling a little embarrassed by the behavior that followed.
For those who are not therapists, let me first explain that each and every session and child or family has it’s own dynamics. I may pre-plan a great deal before going in, but my plans can easily fail and very often I am left in an improvisational moment in which I am trying to generate healthy dialogue about how to meet the goals of the family or referring agent (DFCS, or DJJ etc.). This means that if I become uncertain of my place in the relationship, I will falter, I will struggle, and on some occasions I will fall prey to my own emotions. In this session I did.
I explained to the client that the therapy would continue until his parents were satisfied. I asked him what he thought his parents wanted, he began a string of very obvious lies about professionals he had spoken to that told him he did not need therapy including his parents. So I called in his mother and explained to her that her son did not think there was a problem, would she please explain why I was needed here. The result was an argument between the client and his mother. She pointed out all her worries about her son, and he seemed to get more and more escalated. Knowing that I needed some time alone with mom, I asked him if he wouldn’t like it better if he were not having to hang out for this, and he seemed relieved to get out of the room. However, he listened just out of earshot, and I caught myself purposely saying things for his benefit. In some instances I sided with mom that he was placing himself in danger on a regular basis due to his behaviors, and on the other I tried to get mom to better see that some of his behaviors were generated as a result of family dynamics. Mom seemed eager to listen to my thoughts and suggestions.
One of the suggestions was that instead of the client just being given the opportunity to have the things he wanted, he should have to earn these things with his behaviors. I explained to mom that if the client did not have consistent boundaries and a clear understanding of how his changing would benefit him, he would not be able to make the necessary changes for mom to feel that he is safe. Mom liked the idea of putting together a behavior chart and agreed to meet with myself and her child later to construct this chart. This was when things went awry.
The client walked into the room, and mom took his mp3 player away from him explaining he had to earn it. Client began to argue with his mom, and gave me a glaring look that said to me “you did this didn’t you”. I did not give him a chance to say anything. I said, “I am just trying to be the evil enemy you expected me to be- I wanted to live up to your expectations of a villain in your life”- this does have context in that we had just earlier been talking about the differences in villains and superheroes. At that moment, I realized this cuff of the moment response was not the most therapeutic choice. I had basically sided with his mother against him and I was not going to be building any rapport with this move. The argument between he and his mother seemed to be escalating and I was feeling less than perfect having engaged the more spiteful part of my personality. I decided it was time to exit, and I left them in what I assume was a massive power struggle.
It is amazing to me, that one little wrong move would cause me to react so strongly. Normally if we follow an incredibly erroneous lead in a conversation with someone, we can back track, say we are sorry, or explain that this was a matter of autopilot thinking that even we as well practiced conversationalists fall prey to now and again. But for me, it felt like a fight or flight situation and I chose to fly. I reviewed in my mind over and over again how this thing had gone wrong. I had a moment of weakness that may well corrupt my rapport building with this child. It is not so much that I should not side with mom, or that I should not speak my heart- many times these tactics are fair game in a therapy session, but in this case I became a block to this clients personal goals and as such I did not use the tried and true unconditional positive regard I have come to put so much faith in. So now I am left seeking the recovery moment.
Although this particular mistake had me feeling weak, I have been plotting my next move. How do I repair this relationship in a way that will build rapport and strengthen the client? Regardless of his wish to have me out of his life, and his barrage of lies for meeting this goal, I still want to ally with him and help him meet his goals. That’s what I do, I try to help others help themselves. So I have spent the last day trying to identify the best means of recovery. My solution, a straight up apology, “I fucked up, I apologize, can we start over again”. I mean it was a very human mistake right? We all fall flat in our pursuits some times and the trick is to get back up, dust ourselves off, and move forward again. My hope is that if I present myself as human, flawed, and vulnerable, that I provide a good example of how to take responsibility for my mistakes, and model for the child that there are better ways to deal with conflict than to light the fuse and get away, as I seem to have unwittingly done.
What I really want to do is help this guy better recognize his strengths so that he can capitalize on them rather than focus on all of the deficits he experiences. The trick is to get him to believe that he has the solutions, and for him to access his solutions when he is in trouble or feels pulled to do something he is not allowed to. I try to use a mixture of self disclosure and reflection to help a child do this. However, for this client, that recipe was not so helpful.
Too often the kids I serve are told by significant people in their life that they are powerless, or “bad kids”, or damaged goods. What I am trying to do, is retell the story so that others can see that the child is wrestling with the same demons we all would in his or her predicament, and help the child identify the currents in his story that he would like to alter. Sometimes it is just a matter of changing the questions we ask of the story, the text of someones life, to help them see it anew. Where once there was a villain, now there is a secret master pushing our hero to succeed.
Think about it, would the heroes we have be so amazing if they did not have to rise to some occasion? The villain provides the perfect catalyst for causing the hero to rise above his pettiness and become the great man or woman. Without the villain, there is never the hero worship we long for and parade. The goal then is to help the child identify the villain that he must rise against. That could be a personal demon or some outside storyline that pits him against the world. The challenge for the therapist is to be more of the sidekick, not the villain. This can be challenging because the child is already coming with a story of loss, or weakness. Like Yoda, the therapist must help the child elicit the strength to fight the villains. In the end, Luke still made the choice to go and help his friends when Yoda said don’t go, but he at least had enough of Yoda’s teaching that he was able to confront his own weakness, a power that his father was not able to use. So the best I can do, is somehow instill in each child I work with, the personal faith within themselves that will motivate them to fight and achieve success.
I welcome your comments and suggestions and thanks for reading.