I believe that our reason for being is to help each other. Period. Sometimes, though, the most helpful thing we can do for a person is to simply let go and get out of the way, step back and let them do the work. This may feel counterintuitive, but if there’s one thing I am reminded of time and time again in my practice as a Marriage and Family Therapist, and more recently in my work as a Reiki practitioner, it’s that everyone seems to have their own ‘project’ in life. A nice side-effect of stepping back and virtually unhooking from my own project of taking care of, ‘fixing,’ or solving others’ problems for them is that ‘burnout’ becomes a thing of the past. (In fact, I often tell my clients that if there are two of us in the room, for example, they can count on me to do 50% of the work. You may find this a valuable perspective, no matter the relationship.)
But what if, like moths to a flame, your client seems hell-bent on returning to old patterns or toxic situations, in spite of your efforts? Consider the possibility that she came into this world with specific projects for her life and with lessons to learn along the way – and that some lessons are messier than others. This can be disconcerting and may result in your feeling anxious, but ask yourself: is it better that she be herself or merely a reflection of you? This sounds like a simple question but the implications can be huge.
We helpers are only human. Perhaps, when you take that step back, you’ll discover that you’re eager for her to do things a certain way because it would affirm the choices you’ve made – or wish you had – in your own life. (I constantly marvel that those whom we serve, who sometimes frustrate and confound us, are sometimes our own best teachers.) Or maybe you don’t think she is progressing quickly enough. If she is making any progress at all, maybe it’s only in baby-steps and perhaps that frustrates you. But consider the possibility that baby steps can be enough, and, in fact, may be exactly what’s required for her to learn what she needs to in this life. Maybe there’s no apparent movement at all, though, only a plateau. But what are plateaus, really? They’re pit-stops that encourage rest, healing and re-fueling, enabling us to rally the resources that will empower us to continue the climb. Interesting. So plateaus can actually be healthy and important ‘steps’ that allow one to pause and integrate what’s been learned, before any new learning can be taken in and digested.
Though you may realize the value of making space for another’s plateau (or even perceived misstep, if that’s the direction she chooses), it’s not necessary that you withhold expressions of care and concern during this time – only that you stop beating her about the head with your agenda or ‘project’ for her, as this can actually can bear the unintended consequence of prompting her to dig her heels in even further. If she does happen to follow your guidance before she’s really sold on it at a gut level, chances are great that this apparent ‘progress’ won’t stick.
At any time, the answer to the question “How can I help?” can be a good barometer for where the therapeutic relationship needs to go. This simple but powerful query can have such a disarming effect on the hearer, and may prompt you both to ponder and better discern what’s needed, if anything, from future encounters.
Sometimes what’s needed, however, goes beyond the scope of your abilities and resources. It’s very important that you know your own limits, recognize when you’ve reached them and have information handy that will enable you to step back and refer your client to others who may be able to help her further.
Whatever your reason for taking a step back, the nifty thing about doing so is that your client may choose to step in, if it’s part of her project for her life, and continue working from where you together left off. But what if she doesn’t? Well then, it’s quite possible she’s just not ready or is simply content with where she is. And that’s okay. Remember, no matter how trying her circumstances, she may be in exactly the right situation to learn just what it is she’s here to learn. Be gentle and accepting in your response to this choice or perceived misstep, for this is her project – to be wrought in her own time and in her own way.
I don’t believe I’ve ever before quoted scripture, but the following passage occurred to me as I finished writing this post so it seems apropos that I share it with you:
“To everything there is a season,
a time for every purpose under the sun.” ~ Ecclesiastes
Jennifer DuBose, M.S., C.A.S. is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Reiki Master practicing in Batavia. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (630) 945-0240.
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