When I was in my late teens I began seeing a counselor because I was depressed. I was taking a full load of undergrad classes at OSU and working 40 hours a week and living by myself without roommates or family for the first time ever. My weekly visits to Barbara (my therapist) quickly became the center of my schedule. I’d drag myself to work and school, grind my way through my day, all the while focused on that bright spot, once a week, when I would sit in her office and feel safe.
I loved Barbara even when I didn’t love therapy, which was hard and often painful. I didn’t always leave her office feeling better. There were days I left feeling raw and fragile, my face swollen with tears. I started scheduling my work so I had the day off on therapy days so I could come home, curl up in bed and sleep away my emotional exhaustion. I could feel myself growing stronger and straighter but it was hard going.
I think I saw Barbara for about a year, maybe a little more, maybe a little less. I saw her weekly and then I saw her every other week and then we agreed I didn’t need to see her anymore at all. But for the time I was in her care, I felt very dependent on her and I wondered how it was for her because she may have been the person I centered my weeks around but I was just a client on her schedule.
I wanted her to call me up to have coffee. I wanted her to like me best of all of her clients. I wanted her to lean in one day and whisper, “My sessions with you are my favorite!” And I was free to want that as much as I liked because I knew it would never happen. It was a little like Lisa Simpson’s copies of Non-Threatening Boys Magazine; a celebrity crush, all safe and worry-free. I knew I could tell her anything and she’d have to like me — or at least pretend to like me — because it was her job.
But I always wondered if she cared about me for myself and not just as a name in her appointment book.
Now I know because I have my own appointment book (well, iCal calendar — same difference) and I can tell you that yes indeed, Barbara cared about me and your therapist cares about you. But we care within the boundaries our profession sets for us and those boundaries are what allow us to serve you. It’s not like caring for a friend or family member because it has specific limits and in other ways it is limitless. The space we hold together in the counseling relationship is full of unconditional positive regard (loving acceptance of all you are), which is harder to maintain in real life relationships. In that way the counseling relationship is boundless. On the other hand, I would never call a client up and say, “I’ve been thinking of you; let’s have coffee on Thursday.”
I remember when my son was very small and I heard about a preschool teacher who made space in her evenings to think about every single one of her students for a moment, hold the thought of each child close and then let it go. This is a little bit like how it is with clients. Before work, I review my schedule and mentally and emotionally prepare for the specific clients I will see that day. Each night, before I leave my office, I review them (usually as I write up case notes) and then on the way home, I give myself permission to stop thinking about them by the time I arrive home. This is because it’s easy to worry about a client going through a particularly tough time and worrying does neither of us any good. When I do catch myself feeling anxious about a specific client, I take a page from the preschool teacher and give myself permission to sit with my thoughts for a discrete time. This helps me come to my sessions fresh and focused instead of wrung out and worried.
So this love and caring I have for my clients — and that Barbara had for me — is not the love and caring I fantasized about when I was in therapy (there are no intimate coffees, there were no confessions of favoritism from Barbara) but it is good and solid and dependable.
The good news is one of the best things you can do as a parent is really simple: Listen.
The bad news is that it’s also really hard because listening doesn’t mean:
- Giving unasked for advice
- Sharing unasked for parental wisdom
- “At leasting“
Parenting is pretty goal oriented. We spend a lot of time trying to help these kids grow up by teaching them, directing them and moving them forward. But sometimes when we do that, we’re stepping on their own trajectory. Sometimes we need to leave them alone to figure things out themselves.
That doesn’t mean we have to sit there doing nothing; it means sometimes we have to sit there and listen.
No advice. No fixing. No rushing to judgment. Instead say, “Uh-huh.” Or, “Really?” Or, “Tell me more.”
Use your words to join with them. Say, “That sounds hard.” Or, “How frustrating!” Or, “No wonder you came home so excited!”
If they try to get you to fix it for them, try handing it back. “I don’t know, what do you think?” Or, “It reminds me of that time you had that other thing happen. What did you do then?”
You may have to sit on your hands or do your Yoga breathing to keep yourself from jumping in. You may need to run a mantra through your head, “Don’t Talk Don’t Talk Don’t Talk Don’t Talk.” If you’re used to being a more active participant in the conversations, it’ll take some getting used to (for both of you).
I’m not saying that you should never ever ever give your child advice or help them more directly, but if you feel like you’re in the habit of leaping in during conversations, try hanging back and see what happens. It’s a simple (if hard) way to say, “I love you” without saying a word.
People can’t learn to be brave unless they’re scared first; courage doesn’t exist without fear. It can be frustrating to be faced with a fearful child, especially when the fears seem so small or petty or easily overcome. Think of the child who won’t go outside because he’s afraid of bees (even though he’s never been stung). We can’t make him push past the fear; we can only support him while he considers the risk of bees versus the lure of the swing set. It’s frustrating to be sure, especially if we spent the whole weekend laboriously putting the climber together, all the while anticipating his excitement. But he needs to learn how to live in a world where there are bees so that he can learn how to live in a world where there are bigger fears — earthquakes and lay-offs and all of the rest. It’s not bees he needs to learn to manage; it’s his own fear.
We can be reassuring without dismissing their fears. We can let them know we understand — bees can be scary — and that we trust they will be able to overcome their fear. We can help them problem-solve and give them the information that we have like that bees are less likely to sting you if you don’t swat at them. We can be patient while they step out cautiously only to run right back in. (Or at least pretend that we’re patient. Excusing yourself to go scream into a pillow in frustration is a perfectly acceptable coping mechanism!)
And, importantly, we can sympathize with them as they lament that oh-so-out-of-reach swingset instead of giving into any temptation to say, “Well, if you weren’t so scared to go out there you could be having fun like your little sister. She isn’t letting bees stop her!” Because if there’s one thing your child already knows it’s how much more fun it would be to NOT be scared of bees or the dark or the puppet at the library story time or that part in The Little Mermaid where the sea witch goes crawling across the boat deck on her elbows with her tentacles waving wildly behind her. So you can be the one who has the confidence he doesn’t quite have for himself yet. You can promise him that the swing set will be there tomorrow and that you’ll make sure his sister gives him a turn on the swing when he’s ready. You can tell him your own stories — how you were afraid to put your face in the water until one day you weren’t. Or how you were afraid you’d go down the drain in the bathtub, too, but then you got bigger and you weren’t as scared anymore.
“You are getting bigger,” you could say. “And you are getting braver.”
Meanwhile, you can tell him that you will sit with him awhile before you go to push his sister on the swing for a bit. And then you will come back to hug him.
He might surprise you. Because sometimes the very best antidote to fear is someone who understands and loves you anyway.
We show people we love them by being there for them when they need us. We show up for big events. We drop off casseroles for sad ones. We meet them for coffee and listen. We can also show them that we love them by being vulnerable enough to let them do the same for us.
Many of us have grown up believing that we should do unto others but we don’t always get the message that we should also let them do unto us. Receiving help is hard. Asking for it is even harder. To be helped is to give up power. To be the one who is needy means we are the one who can be hurt.
We all know how good it can feel to be the one who is offering a hand to someone who needs it. To get to be that person — the helping person — is a privilege. That’s why in Judaism, accepting help is a mitzvah — a good deed with the ability to heal the world.
Perhaps then being vulnerable with others is one of the greatest acts of love we can offer.
I heard this story on NPR on the drive home from work on Friday. It’s the story of a mom and her son who lost a child, Jesse, in the Sandy Hook shooting. I was particularly struck by the story told by JT, Jesse’s now 13-year old brother. He found healing by connecting to child survivors of the Rwandan genocide via Skype. Meeting them, hearing their stories and being witness to their own healing inspired him to work towards forgiveness of Adam Lanza.
“It wasn’t hard to forgive when I was never really mad,” he says. “I was just sad.”
It was a reminder to me of how important it is to find other people who will grieve with us and who understand our experiences. Grief can be so isolating and so lonely. Connecting with others who will listen and love us through it is the most healing thing we can do.
You can listen to the whole story (and read the transcript) by clicking here.