What’s RIGHT with you? In my experience as a counselor, that is one of the most important and powerful questions we can ask our clients and ourselves. How many of us have heard in our childhoods and even adult lives from various people, “What’s wrong with you?” Bullies and even well-meaning people in our lives often point out all that is weak or not quite right.
When I was still in graduate school, I co-facilitated a group for female college students. I could write a novel on all that this group taught me, but one particular moment turned on a huge flashing neon light-bulb in my mind. I listened to a young woman talk about herself in nothing but negative terms. All her psychological diagnoses, her family’s problems, etc. She had no problem letting all of her ugly be known. She was rude, excessively sarcastic, and nasty to the other people in the group. She clearly felt repulsive and wanted to preemptively push others away. No one needed a degree to see that. I could have become all caught up in trying to diagnose her and figure out interventions to directly confront all of the ugly behaviors and thoughts. But, instead, I thought, “she does this all day long, what she does in her mind is focus on the ugly and the brokenness and push people away. I won’t become complicit in that.” So, I said to her, “What is right about you? I have a feeling you don’t spend much time thinking about those things by the way I am hearing you describe yourself in nothing but negatives, but there has to be something good or strong about you.” She got really quiet and I could see tears in her eyes. I could tell I had taken the right approach because it got underneath her “I’m just ugly and broken” defenses. She would have LOVED for me to “confront” her issues, hold her “accountable”, tell her just how nasty she was, etc. but I just refused to go along with that. That wouldn’t have been therapeutic for her. I wonder now, years later if she’s still embracing the ugly or if she has grown into her strengths.
I once heard an analogy that goes like this: within each person is a seed that naturally wants to grow. All of the problems, shame, weaknesses, and diagnoses are piled so high on top of that poor little seed that someone needs to gently pull back the 6 feet of dirt a bit so the seed can sense that there is light to push toward and then do its work of pushing up toward the light. As a counselor, I don’t make the client grow, they do that themselves. I just pull back the excessive dirt (we all need some dirt aka challenges and resistance in order to grow after all), I’ll add some water and fertilizer (encouragement) and remind them that they still have the capacity to grow, that there is still light up there somewhere to reach towards.
Most (although not all) clients are well aware that they are all kinds of jacked up. Isn’t brokenness and imperfection the hallmark of the human experience after all? Who among us is perfect? Thank goodness we don’t have to be perfect to thrive. All around the world there are people who are thriving and happy in spite and even because of their brokenness and limitations. In my experience thus far, the problem is that many people get stuck in negative feedback loops to the point that they aren’t even sure anymore if they are something other than just depression, addiction, crippling anxiety, self-destruction, shame, chronic illness, unending grief, stress, the traumatic thing that happened to them, a failure at relationships, someone who has given up on life, etc.
I believe most people who come to counseling willingly (not court-mandated or DFCS-mandated clients, because that is a whole different animal right there) need to be reacquainted with their strengths. They can leverage these strengths to overcome their dysfunctions and thrive in spite of their diagnoses.
How does a counselor help a client identify what is right about them? It is important to start with communicating verbally and non-verbally to clients the desire to truly understand them and their lives as well as the desire to help them heal and create the life they want to live. I cannot identify a clients strengths or even true problems if I don’t first take the time to understand and empathize with that client(s). It can take weeks for someone to fully tell their story. I just keep asking questions. I pay attention to the way they tell their story, talk about themselves and others, the patterns, the themes, the major players, etc. I watch my tone of voice and my body language. I never want to communicate harshness, judgment, sarcasm, or frustration. I cannot help someone at all if I do not attempt to understand them and care about them as a fellow human being just trying to do the best they currently know how to do.
In listening to someone’s story, sometimes I realize that the client has hyper-focused on weaknesses to the point of forgetting they have strengths at all. But the fact is, everyone has strengths. Every single person on the planet. It doesn’t matter if you can’t read or write, if you are homeless, a drug addict, or if you have a disability that makes life extremely challenging. You still have strengths somewhere in there. You still have abilities even amidst the disabilities. Even when we feel like “I can’t do this”, we can look back and realize we have been doing life thus far and must at least have some level of courage to keep going.
Perhaps you might think this focus on strength and what is “right” with someone is naive or simplistic. I can only tell you that I have seen from experience the power in being intentional about modeling for clients the ability to practice self-compassion and compassion for others, trying to understand themselves, and focusing on their strengths rather than just getting stuck on pathology or limitations. I couldn’t be a counselor if I didn’t believe that within each person exists the possibility for healing, change, and empowerment. So I ask, what is right with you? Let’s keep asking that of ourselves and of others and we wing it together.