When a child falls down near us, we instinctively rush to help. This is a reflex. Built in. There are many of these reflexes in cats, babies, and especially adult humans. Ever wonder why a cat lands on her feet? Why, when you stroke a baby’s cheek, his mouth opens? These instincts are meant to protect, nourish us and keep us safe. And, some instincts like these can hamper our ability to help in the counseling room. This is true especially of the “righting instinct”, which causes us to lean forward, sometimes over-reacting in order to help our clients. I sometimes think of it as a “lifeguard” instinct. I served as one for many years on ocean beaches across the country. Fun times. And looking back, it occurs to me that I learned some lessons in survival that may not be serving me as a therapist. Think of it this way: In order for a lifeguard to be useful, there must be swimmers in danger. If we see someone in trouble, we are trained to rush to help. But rushing in to help therapy clients can be counter-productive. Fixing people is a bad idea. It hampers our listening. It makes clients feel that we aren’t really ‘with’ them during vulnerable self disclosures. And most importantly, it perpetuates a myth we all ought leave behind. Therapist, deeply trained, extensively read and eager to help is ever more knowing than the person sitting across from them. Not true. Or better, even if true, doesn’t matter.
Listen. As passionately as we can. Help sparingly. Inquire gently and often. Try to avoid fixing.