I recently graduated in December and am now the proud owner of a Master of Counseling. In addition to many classes, tests, and papers, I was required to complete a practicum and two internships before receiving my degree. The main goal of my practicum and internships were to provide me with experience actually working with clients, instead of merely reading about theories and techniques from textbooks. Needless to say, my experience as a counselor, albeit limited thus far, has truly opened my eyes to the quality of relationships that our culture has today.
Before I begin my discussion about relationships, allow me to provide a brief overview of the theoretical approach that I take in counseling. The counseling program that I graduated from strongly emphasized the client-centered approach. Instead of spending all of my words discussing what this approach entails, allow me to leave you with this link while I attempt to sum the major aspects up into convenient bullet points below. These factors can often times lead to growth in a client during their time spent in therapy:
* Clients are able to solve their own difficulties with increased insight
* Clients strive to reach and fulfill their own potential
* Clients are inherently good
* The therapist should not provide answers or solutions, but instead display congruency (genuineness), unconditional positive regard, and empathic understanding to assist their client in finding their own solutions
I feel that a major reason this theory stood out to me above the others I studied was because I could see the impact of its major beliefs in our cultures day to day relationships. For example, refer back to the first bullet point. Think of a time when you’ve been pissed off, hurt, or devastated with grief. I wouldn’t be shocked if during this time of distress you recalled you had a friend or family member tell you how to ‘fix’ your problem. Speaking from my personal experience in similar situations, I know how aggravating this can be.
I don’t keep a tally of the most spoken phrases from my clients, but if I had to guess, “You’re the first person who hasn’t tried to fix this for me” would probably be near the top of this list. It seems that somewhere along the lines, our society has stopped being present with each other and instead shifted our focus to ‘fixing’ each other. Instead of meeting our loved ones where they need us to meet them, we often times put our comfort in the situation first. We try to ‘solve’ the problem as fast as possible instead of taking the time to see what the other person needs from us in that moment. Maybe they know what they need to do to get over their anger, but for now they need to vent. Maybe they’re in the process of grieving and for the night they need someone to sit with them and provide a shoulder to cry on.
I hope as you’re reading this you aren’t thinking that I view constructive feedback and advice from friends and family as evil, because that is not the point I am trying to make. Rather, I am suggesting that our society approaches ‘negative’ emotions with an avoidant approach. I believe that this ties into another bullet point mentioned earlier. In order for growth to be seen in clients, a therapist must display congruence, unconditional positive regard, and empathic understanding. I think that these traits are often times missing in our daily relationships (which is why people come to see me).
Congruency, otherwise known as genuineness, shows that we are truly invested in the other person in the relationship. We are being real with the other person. We are allowing ourselves to be vulnerable with the other person. This is where it can get tricky. I would venture to say that most of us can say that our close relationships probably consist of individuals we know are invested in our wellbeing, but allowing ourselves to be vulnerable has become difficult. It seems that when we let our guard down and become real with each other, we often fear being looked at as weak. “What if this person can no longer look at me in the same way they did before I let them into the dark place of my reality?”
This is where the problem of unconditional positive regard comes in. As human beings, I find it essentially impossible for us to show this trait to one another. I think we are a very reactionary species, and while we can have the best intention for one another, there is likely to be at least a hint of judgment in our reactions. Could it be this potential fear of judgment that prohibits us from being vulnerable with each other? The lingering thought of “How will they react when they hear this?” is a heavy burden for us to carry.
Which leads to the last trait of a client-centered therapist mentioned earlier; empathic understanding. This is, in my opinion, the hardest trait to display in relationships. It feels like the normal thing to do when someone discusses a troublesome time in their life is to immediately attempt to relate it back to an experience you’ve had before, if not trying to top the experience. This reaction does nothing to further empathic understanding, and instead invalidates the experience just shared with you.
I think it’s important to remember that everything discussed above are skills. Skills that can be improved through self-awareness and practice. I would encourage you to consider some of these skills the next time a loved one approaches you with a problematic situation. Instead of trying to fix a problem right off the bat, listen to the person in front of you. Try to actually hear the feelings they are experiencing, rather than a few key words here and there. Better yet, ask them if they want advice or help finding a solution instead of assuming that they do. Instead of waiting for your turn to talk, put your effort and attention in to their story. The impact will be much more powerful than you could have imagined.