Clumsy Solutions

For many years now, I’ve noticed something that I think is pretty interesting.

We all have similar problems.  Problems of love, death, loss, fears, mistakes, power, our bodies, work, school, relationships, resources, abuse, abandonment, depression, addiction, self worth and the like.  In one way or another, most of these touch all of our lives.  Our responses to them too, seem common between us- we all have “bad” feelings and “good” feelings associated with these experiences.

It appears to me, that we also have solutions in common.  But what’s strange about it, are the solutions themselves.  If we just look at the “problems” (for shorthand purposes) we have in our lives, and our response or “reaction” to them (or as I’m calling them here, “solutions”, though we may not see them as such in the moment), the way we deal with them from this perspective is tragically ineffective.

Here’s what I mean, more specifically.  The way I see us (and of course, have done myself in many cases), is that we respond to perceived problems with (in no particular order):

  1. Avoidance, procrastination.
  2. Using our limited human intellect, and our limited human will, coupled together as a salve we cover everything with.
  3. Drugs, alcohol, food, spending, money, property, prestige, gambling, etc. ad nauseum.
  4. “Codependent” behaviors (oversimplifying: doing things for others that they can and should do for themselves, so that we don’t have to feel bad for one reason or another).
  5. Lying (or, in addict nomenclature, “manipulating”… insert tongue-in-cheek emoticon here), often, when telling the truth would be easier.
  6. Perfectionism.
  7. Control.
  8. Enduring untenable circumstances or relationships.
  9. Isolation.
  10. Ruminating.
  11. Reasoning with “unreasonable” people, or in circumstances that may not always be subject to such (there’s a large philosophical question here that can’t be addressed in a blog, hope the spirit of the thing comes through…).
  12. Self obsession.
  13. Being critical.
  14. Thoughts or attempts of suicide or related self harm.
  15. Worrying (the behavior… not to be confused with being afraid- as John Bradshaw once opined, “Worrying is like beating the drums to keep the evil spirits away.”).
  16. Pride or ego.
  17. Lashing out verbally or physically.
  18. Intellectualizing…

Et cetera.  This is clearly a truncated list, but am hoping most of us can see our most frequent responses here.  What I’m hoping to get across (at the risk of reiteration) is that these are our responses to perceived problems, and arguably, when observed, appear to be solutions that we employ to a whole host of life’s difficulties.

More striking to me is what’s absent from the list:

  1. Emotional availability, disclosure, and the like.
  2. Asking for help (having a “responsibility partner”, other similar ideas).
  3. Responsibility.
  4. Having “boundaries”.
  5. Kindness.
  6. Critical thinking skills.
  7. Service focus on others.
  8. Writing (and preferably, sharing that writing with one or more people).
  9. Art (painting, sculpture, music, performances, poetry, etc).
  10. Honesty.
  11. Support groups, 12-step meetings, or other types of community.
  12. Amends.
  13. Mindfulness.
  14. Meditation.
  15. Diet, exercise, natural healthy sleep.
  16. Being self supporting through one’s own contributions mentally, emotionally, physically and “spiritually” (for lack of a better term).
  17. Acceptance.
  18. Therapy, counseling, coaching.
  19. Community, relationships.
  20. Intimacy.
  21. “Non intervention”, being still.
  22. Forgiveness, “letting go”, and other similar solutions.
  23. Gratitude…

Seems I’m laboring the point here (hopefully in a continued effort to be helpful).  Have long looked at my own old behavior (though it still shows up sometimes!), and of course the behavior of others, and as I see “problems” come up, inevitably, I see the first set of responses above.  Often, repeatedly and perpetually for the same problem and/or new ones.  Have also observed that these responses almost inevitably make things worse, or create new problems.

While the second set of ideas don’t always “solve” things (sometimes, when honest, simply in the shadow of our own limited perspective), when practiced, my experience is that we all start to feel better about things, and certainly act better.  Very rarely, do I see the second set of  ideas create or perpetuate more problems.  Making a practice of replacing our first responses in the first section with the ideas in the second section, has been life changing for me, and lots of my clients.  If the theme rings any bells for anyone, would love to hear/see other ideas.

Who’s To Blame?

Much of my time is spent here, and in my therapy/counseling practice, attempting to get folk to honor how they feel.  That’s an oversimplification, but will leave it for brevity’s sake.  This is a daunting task because of the intensity and availability of our distractions, but I keep trying anyway.

One of the things that oft keeps this from happening is that when someone “hurts” us (shames, takes something away, etc), we find ourselves (understandably) making sense out of why they’d do such a thing.  We think more about the person in question “doing their best”, “having had a hard time” etc than we ever do simply saying “Ouch, that hurt…”, or some variation on that theme.  It’s safe to say that many of us, often don’t honor how it affected us at all.  Working on problems of low self esteem, depression, addiction, abuse and more we don’t want to “blame” anyone (nor should we), and oft go so far as to think our therapists are prompting us to “blame” that person, our parents, etc.

As for my sense of this, I think we could safely remove the word from our vocabulary entirely.  Maybe even replace it with considerations of “responsibility”.  In terms of a solution, will offer something I hope is very simple: we’re only blaming someone else for our feelings or problems, if we do nothingwith our feelings about it.

What We Don’t Get Taught

Have been lucky enough to do some clinical supervision with Judy McGehee.  As I’ve mentioned before, she and some interns have been providing free services to their community for some time now.  Some concerns I’ve had with other venues of supervision have come up the last couple of times we’ve met.

Clinical supervision, like therapy, is different things to different people.  Many times it’s the opportunity to “present cases”, problem-solve clinical, legal, ethical issues and etc.  It’s also a place for us to have the opportunity to discuss or work out struggles we have as therapists- something that certainly should go on for our entire careers.

One of the things I like to do in supervision is talk about the issues that are not necessarily explicitly processed when we go to school.  There’s lots of these sorts of concerns…  how to deal with our own feelings as therapists.  Issues of responsibility- where ours are vs. where the clients’ responsibilities are, how much is “enough”, concerns when we’re sometimes working harder than the client is (or not).  Handling boundaries about parents endeavoring to influence issues discussed (or simply perspectives about them), concerns that arise in couples therapy or family therapy like one person in the “group” disclosing something that affects the others outside of the “group” proper.  How to handle when a client isn’t being honest about a problem or circumstance or behavior.  Determining how to handle “terminations”- planned discharges, “therapeutic discharges”, discharges against medical advice… sometimes when a child is “pulled” from treatment by a parent against the better judgment and suggestion of the therapist.  Speaking of, there is little discussion about how to handle referrals to other types of resources or therapists.  Specific methods to avoid (or deal with) “burnout”.  Very “nuts and bolts” concerns like documentation, treatment planning, dealing with insurance companies and such.  Fee setting.  What to do if a therapist runs into a client outside of the office or other milieu.  How to handle when a client is “stonewalling”. Handling clients that are self-medicating.  My personal favorite is specific goals and underlying philosophy of our methods as therapists.  There are many, many more.

It is of course really important to do case conference, have both group and individual forums for processing what is happening with specific clients or groups and the like.  I find it of great import too however, to discuss the above issues.  It is one thing to discuss a specific case, but I think it another to discuss what it is about that case that will come up (or has) repeatedly, in a principled manner.  Would argue too that discussing issues like responsibility, boundaries, terminations, referrals etc often lead to greater resolution with clients “in the room”, as well as provide a way of generalizing our knowledge and methods, thus making it a more organized and effective way of treating folk.

Am not suggesting that these things never occur.  It has definitely been my experience however, that most of the above ideas are not discussed in depth, if at all.  Certainly concerns of symptom ID and management, differential diagnosis, theoretical orientation and etc are of great import, but it is uncomfortable and counterintuitive to run into a circumstance that occurs frequently or that is a fundamental part of operating in our discipline (treatment planning, for example) that is largely omitted from our education.

More than anything else, I think I’m advocating for more of a focus on our underlying philosophy for employing the methods that we do as therapists.  I’m not simply trying to help someone (or their parents) improve failing grades, or get someone in a relationship to be more sensitive or attentive, or even to diminish “depression”.  What I hope to achieve in most (most) circumstances, is to:

1.  Insure safety and stability necessary to do “The Work”.  (absence of suicidality, abstinence from drugs, ETOH, or a behavior, have medical concerns be ruled out by a physician, insure that necessary resources to do the work are in place, etc)

2.  Identify “issues”- the events (relationships, circumstances, etc) or other causes that prompt us to feel mad, sad, afraid, ashamed, and/or hurt and/or “behave” in ways we struggle with.

3.  Process those issues in a way that diminishes, transforms, and/or (almost) eliminates them and subsequently behaviors, choicemaking, or perspectives that might contribute to these issues in an ongoing way.

4.  Provide a “body of material” (patient education, referral sources, resources etc) that enables the client to be able to do these things without the therapist.

5.  Insure that the client has sufficient resources (support groups, family, friends, etc) that support the work and use of that material in an ongoing way.

These are an oversimplification, but I think they go beyond simply “resolving a problem”, eliminating a behavior and etc.  Much of the inner workings of these ideas don’t get processed as much as I’d hope while we’re being educated about our discipline, but again, of course this philosophy likely exists in many of our “theoretical orientations”.  In my sense of things, the presence of such a philosophy doesn’t go far enough- we as individual therapists need to have a grasp of our own sense of these things to make them as effective as possible.

Would say further that none of this is supported unless part of our own supervision is about dealing with our own experience both as a therapist, and a person outside of therapy.  My ability to problem-solve many of the issues “not discussed” above is diminished by not having the opportunity to explore these things as part of our own clinical supervision.  The largest of these things for me are the underlying treatment philosophy, and the effectiveness and grace that I deal with my own life- including my life as a therapist.

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