What counseling others reveals about yourself

One of the things I learned through reflecting on and getting feedback to pastoral encounters through verbatims is that many times I am counseling myself without knowing it. It’s only in reflection, sometimes long after the fact, that you start to hear yourself talk to yourself. I decided not to go the whole CPE verbatim route, buyt I like this format for reading.

For an example I included part of a dialogue I had with one of my regular patients, an older woman on hospice. She typically has a lot of pain but rarely tells anyone about it. She puts on a pleasant front but typically doesn’t let much out. I decided one day to press her a bit.

C8: So how’s you’re back been? Better or worse or about the same.
P8: No, about the same.
C9: About the same? Just not a good day today.
P9: eh..
C10: eh…
P10: (pause) I’m not complaining too much. Stick around though.
C11: You’re not too much of a complainer though.
P11: Seems like I’m always complaining.
C12: Really? I’ve never seen you as much of a complainer.

“Mavis” (not her real name) will often joke or say that she doesn’t want to complain. I hear this a lot. Complaining is generally perceived as a negative thing, something that either doesn’t get you anywhere because nobody’s listening anyway or something you just can’t do. On the one hand, Mavis says she doesn’t complain, and then turns around and says that she feels she is always complaining. I wanted to see what she meant by complaining though, and what this means about her self. There’s a difference between “complaining” and being “a complainer”. One is something you do, the other is something you are.

P12: Well just to myself.
C13: To yourself, ok. So how do you complain to yourself?
P13: I get in a mood and get down..
C14: Oh, so it kinda hurts more inside…
P14: Yeah
C15: You’re not one to show off when you’re hurting I think. I’ve never, I would never say that you’re a complainer.
P15: Why thank you. Thank you very much.
C16: You can actually complain a bit more – (laughing) – you never heard that before have you?

So Mavis doesn’t complain outwardly, she complains inwardly. Therefore she feels like she’s always complaining. She feels that she has things to let out, but doesn’t want to. I want to give her that freedom. James Dittes notes in his book Pastoral Counseling that we can create a world for the counselee where the normal rules of interaction, give-and-take and so on, don’t apply. Honesty, not the “right” answer or “right” behavior, is what’s most valuable in the pastoral encounter. By creating an environment of unconditional positive regard, the other is freed to be themselves rather than what they are expected to be.

P17: I feel like I’m always complaining.
C18: mm…
P18: But nobody wants to listen to you
C19: Well-
P19: They can’t help you so what’s the point?

A bit deeper – I have a problem, that’s worthy of complaining about, but I can’t be helped. I’m helpless. Why bother. Helplessness, depression.

C20: Well what do you see as complaining? If someone’s complaining to you what does that sound like or what are they doing?

This turns the client outward to look at what the problem is as a spectator rather than a participant. It’s similar to the “empty chair” used in counseling.

P20: Well they’re in pain or not happy…and I try to be sympathetic or help if I can but…
C21: Ok (pause) well I wouldn’t even necessarily call that complaining. I would just say that’s saying something’s wrong. And I think you’re always allowed to say when something’s wrong.
P21: Well that’s complaining

Initially I was focused on taking her where I wanted her to go: that her idea of “complaining” wasn’t helping her and that she needed to value herself enough to speak up without feeling like a bad person. However I see now that she was looking at that “empty chair” and seeing someone that she sympathized with but couldn’t help. I decided to try to correct her thinking.

C22: When I think of complaining I think of someone just moaning and groaning and trying to get attention for themselves. (pause) And I’ve never seen you as someone trying to get attention for themselves.
P22: Well that’s different
C23: …I know it’s rough sometimes when someone has a problem and you can’t do anything about it…
P23: it’s frustrating
C24: yeah it’s frustrating
P24: (pause) so what can you do about it?
C25: well I can sit here and listen…
P25: …I got nothing to say…
C26: Nothing to say? (laughing)
P26: No, I’m fairly relaxed right now…
C27: Ok good
P27: yeah, and I don’t want to complain…I don’t like to complain anyway ’cause it makes you feel worse than you are, and it makes the other person feel bad. Nothing is accomplished.
C28: So you don’t want the other person to feel bad, like it’s not going to help anything
P28: right
C29: Ok, I get you
P29: Thank you for listening!

I felt like I heard her and she seems like this is the first time in a long time that someone has heard her. Here, though, is where the counselor becomes the counselee.

C30: Yeah that is a pain in the neck when you do have someone that just kinda talks about their problems and there’s nothing you can do about them.
P30: yeah, you wish you could help them but you can’t
C31: M-hm (long pause)
P31: It’s like going to the doctor, you have someone who has all these problems and you try to help them and they come back a week or so later still with the same problems
C32: yeah
P32: and you start all over again

Suddenly I’ve gone quiet and Mavis is doing the listening. And I honestly felt dragged down and heavy at this point. “Yes, there are people that you can’t help no matter how much you try or want to. And even when you do, those problems always seem to be there.” I felt like sometimes this job is all about problems. And now it wasn’t their problems, it was my problems dragging me down.

C33: Sometimes in a situation like that you can feel good when you can help someone
P33: good point
C34: But then when you have someone that you can’t fix it or do what they need to do to get better you get frustrated and angry

I start to hear myself and realize that this is suddenly becoming about me. Looking back I don’t know if this would fall within the category of transference/countertransference, but I’d be interested to hear feedback regarding what is going on. I choose to be honest, but turn the focus back around.

P34: right
C35: right…that is hard…I’ve been there too where you see someone where they really are complaining about things and you try to help them out and it seems like nothing helps…do you know people like that?
P35: are you looking at me?
C36: no! I already said it’s not you…
P36: yeah, but there’s very little you can do. You can listen with a sympathetic ear…
C37: But sometimes that’s all people need. Sometimes like you say it’s frustrating because you can’t fix something, but sometimes you just have to say “I can’t fix this!” but you can still be there for someone
P37: right, and that’s helping

We’ve moved from conversing about complaining to helping – good job Chaplain! But in looking back I recognize that so often I am that person who doesn’t complain either because I don’t want the other person to feel bad, and besides that it won’t help either. It might actually make things worse.

Sound familiar?

This interaction happened months ago and this fact only hit me recently. I’d been in a bit of a mood myself, probably the same one as Mavis. When I read this dialogue again, I was surprised to say the least. I’d just seen a bit more of myself in my client than I expected. So what happens from here? Here’s the end of the visit.

C48: Well thank you dear, God bless you. So good to see you again.
P48: Thank you
C49: (kiss on forehead) Take care of yourself. Find someone to be nice to.
P49: Do I have to?
C50: Yes that’s your assignment.
P50: Well I’ll look in the mirror
C51: There you go – you look in the mirror
P51: and I’ll be nice to the person in the mirror
C52: and you’ll be nice to the person in the mirror. That sounds like a good plan.

That does sound like a good plan. Thanks Mavis.



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