know that the problem is never the problem; the real problem is how we are
I will discuss each of these points in turn.
The Moment-to-Moment Unfolding of the Process
We often talk about the here and now as though it was a
static event, but it is not. It moves from moment to moment and reveals (to a
trained eye) all that we need to know to help a client. Dr. Walter Kempler, my
mentor, used to tell me that in the first five minutes of a session the client
will tell you what is wrong and what she needs to do to function better. This historical
approach to counseling is grounded in the notion that it is what we do or don’t
do right now that will determine our wellbeing.
I’d like to use a case study to make my point. This past
weekend I was doing a demonstration of this approach to counseling with a young
man who was working with one of the students in my training group. This young
man was quite shy and presented himself with a forced smile and a quiet voice.
I asked him to be aware of the volume of his voice and the smile on his face,
but I didn’t dwell on it because it would have made him even more
self-conscious than he already felt sitting in front of a group of therapists.
When I asked him what he would like to get from this time
together he identified his lack of self-confidence as the most important issue
for him to address. I typically invite a client to be more specific than this
but he couldn’t – he froze and couldn’t think of any specific incident where he
felt a lack of self-confidence. He was overwhelmed with his anxiety and he shut
down. I said to him that we didn’t need another example because it was
happening for him right now. Because I was able to identify the process in the
here and now I was able to help him unpack how he undermined his confidence.
I had him externalize the conflict he was experiencing. He
was torn between a part of himself that was telling him how he should behave by
criticizing and chastising the other part of himself that just agreed with the
bully that he should be different than who he was. This was the process that
was causing his lack of self-confidence. We cannot be confident if we are
putting ourselves down. Self-confidence is the result of learning to stand with
oneself rather than act against oneself.
I noticed at one point in the dialogue, when he was being
the top dog part of himself, that he looked sad. I asked him to speak to his
sadness. He said that he felt bad because he had nothing to offer himself other
than criticism. He didn’t know how to be supportive and stand with himself. After
declaring this reality he started to cry, a really deep sadness surfaced
because he had nothing to offer himself. When he switched and became the underdog,
he immediately reached out with compassion to that part of himself and then,
unexpectedly, a huge, authentic smile appeared on his face. He spontaneously
stated that he realized that what he thought was the stronger part of him
wasn’t as together as he thought it was and that this part of himself that he
was ashamed of was actually something he, at that moment, felt very proud of.
His voice changed and he immediately felt more self-confident than ever before.
Everything I needed to help this young man better organize
himself was present in the process that unfolded in the here and now.
Listen to What a Client Isn’t Saying or Ask Yourself What
What a client isn’t saying helps me understand the next
developmental step that a client needs to take to become more mature,
integrated, and self-supporting. In the case example above, the client didn’t know
how to stand for himself against the top dog. All he could do was to try to
control the top dog by being the underdog. This futile self-improvement game
kept him stuck and unable to develop any true self-confidence.
Another concept that helps me identify what a client isn’t
saying is to ask myself what was missing. When I think back to the session I
described above, what was missing was the client’s ability to stand for himself
and own his shyness without the other part of him making him feel bad for who
he was. He falsely believed he needed to be someone other than himself to be OK,
when in truth he needed to own who he was and stand with himself to be OK.
The Problem is Never the Problem
Virginia Satir reminded us that the problem was never the
problem; the problem was how we were coping. In order to identify how a client
is coping we need to understand the client’s process. It is what a client is
doing and how they are doing it that will help us identify what is missing.
Using the tools that I described above can help you see
where the real problem lies – which is to say that the real problem is
discovered in the client’s process, not in the problem they are facing
regardless of how painful or traumatic that problem may be.