As therapists, we have (and are expected to have) a bias in favor of growth and healing. After all, why else are clients seeking us out? And yet, this bias can get in the way of appropriately joining with the client’s conflict about change, leading us to push them faster or further than they were hoping to go.
In order to change, clients need, at the very least: (1) A desire for better in their lives; (2) Compassionate engagement with “negative” elements in themselves and life; (3) Enough agitation with their current situation to motivate #1 and #2. As their therapist, I can engage with each of those elements, but I need to respect the client if/when they’re not looking to do that kind of work. I can encourage their desire for better; I can teach theory and methods for engaging with the negative; I can amplify ambivalence in order to heighten agitation-- but I can only do these things with the client’s consent, only if I'm aligned with the client’s current therapeutic agenda.
If the client doesn’t share that agenda, what do I do? Recently I’ve been trying on this phrase, which can feel a bit shocking coming from a therapist: “You don’t have to grow.” I’ve said this most recently to my emerging-adult clients who are struggling with parental expectations in contrast with their current lack of motivation. I’ve said: “As long as you can pay your bills, no one can really tell you what to do.”
With this move, I’m not trying to suppress obligation and ambition, but rather trying to (in that moment, at least) remove external pressure on the topic. Sometimes I’ve said it, and the client has responded with a feeling of relief. They might even terminate therapy soon after, with the promise “I’ll be back if/when I’m more agitated about this.” Others respond saying “Yes, but I want to grow.” Great! Now they’ve named and owned their own growth agenda, regardless of outside authority figures.
“You don’t have to grow.” Can this be true? I say yes, because I believe “What do we owe our potential?” is an open question. We can harness our potential, turn towards our possibilities, and choose any number of adventures in growth-- or not. Others can tell us what we’re missing out on, but if we’re already satisfied, then their opinions have limited impact. We are only free to pursue growth when the need or desire is ours.
These thoughts may not be that radical. We all know it takes just one therapist to change a lightbulb “but only if the lightbulb wants to change.” What may be radical, however, is being more explicit about this with the client-- “I’m here to help if you’re looking to grow, but you don’t have to grow.”