It’s a common experience. The client tells us their story, their life situation, the challenges they face. We, the big experts, are supposed to help them see that the situation is truly manageable, and assist them toward a solution.
Implicitly, we are supposed to be more capable than they are.
But instead we develop the uncomfortable sense that the client is doing better than we would. “If I was in the same situation, I don’t think I’d be holding up as well as she is; it’s amazing she’s still standing.”
There are several fears associated with expressing this admiration:
- The client is coming to see me because I’m the big expert, the genius who could cope with anything. If I express my admiration I will reveal that I don’t have all the answers.
- The client is already feeling fearful and overwhelmed by the situation. If I express admiration, I will implicitly suggest that the situation really is dire, and that perhaps it’s even worse than the client realizes.
- I will reinforce the client’s suspicion that perhaps they really can’t handle the situation, and their existing coping will fall apart like a house of cards.
These are all reasonable ideas. But they have flaws.
Therapists are not, in fact, all-powerful geniuses, and a part of the therapeutic task is to help people overcome their belief in and need for such beings. Revealing ourselves as merely human is actually helpful, not harmful. Further, clients LIVE in their difficult circumstances – they are already abundantly aware of the daunting nature of their problems. And expressing our admiration for their existing coping points out a strength that the client may not be conscious of having.
So in most circumstances it is entirely appropriate to express full admiration for the client’s ability to handle the events of their lives, despite the difficulties that may have led them into treatment.
By doing so we redirect their attention from their sense of incapacity and weakness to their actual strength. We also break through the all-or-nothing presumption inherent in the idea that “I can’t cope!”, pointing out that, in fact, “I am already coping, and perhaps I can learn to cope even more effectively.”
“Joan, I have to tell you that what you’ve been through sounds utterly overwhelming. And you’re still at work, still getting out of bed each morning, still holding it together. You don’t need to learn how to cope, you need to teach it to others! But maybe working together we can think how to fine-tune it so that your sleep is better, your social life keeps going, and you bring about the changes you need to make so this doesn’t happen again.”