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“I’m Still Working on That Myself”

“We are all horrible and wonderful and figuring it out.” - Harris Wittels, 5/20/14

In several posts so far I’ve promoted the wise use of the therapist’s humanity (authenticity, vulnerability, fallibility) in sessions-- joining the client by sharing in their cluelessness, and normalizing when we can relate. This post is about the tactful use of the therapist’s struggles and progress, without turning focus away from the client.

I’m writing about this because I keep finding myself saying the following things in sessions: “Ooh, that’s a good one-- I’m still working on that myself….” “What have you figured out so far?.... Here’s what I’ve got so far.”

Why do I keep doing this? It’s another way of joining the client, of validating, of reassuring them that “The struggle is real!” By letting the client know that I’ve got my own personal investment in the project, I become a fellow journeyer, ideally one whose experience and reflection might serve as a leg-up to their own reflective work. I can model courage and competence in the face of confusion, challenge, and feeling like a mess. I can welcome them to join me in the very human task of problem-solving the riddles of living life well. We’re all figuring this out, so let’s compare notes!

I feel very good and convinced of the power of this therapeutic move, so let’s spend the rest of this post highlighting its risks and limits.

I have to relate without making it about myself. One way of doing that is not sharing personal stories nor explaining specifically how/why I share this struggle. This should be a short intervention, explicitly focused on our understanding of the challenge, not our experience of it. Even after sharing my findings (interpretations and strategies), I can turn the focus back to the client by saying things like “Is that true for you?” and “But my way might not fit your style, so let’s workshop what it would look like for you.”

Overall, I need to appreciate that this approach is always limited by my experiences, what I’ve learned, been taught, and figured out so far. My personal opinions, biases, and skills regarding how to live life will always constrain the kind of help I can offer. Even my training, a seemingly objective resource, is still limited by who taught me what, what further learning I sought, and how I translated it for myself. And yet, if I can hold our own position and progress humbly, I can offer it as a springboard for the client’s own work.

Even this post is a reflection of my biases and limitations-- this idea that I can only take the client as far as I’ve learned and figured out. Likely there are other ways of doing therapy that don't rely as much on my own experiences and wisdom… but I haven’t figured that part out yet! I’ll let you know when I get there.

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