Have you ever finished a counseling session beset with disappointment, confusion, or fatigue? Confused because the meeting seemed fruitless or counterproductive, disappointed because you were clueless about how to correct the situation or knew you had made mistakes, and fatigued because it seemed like you just emerged from a lost battle? Perhaps you were overwhelmed with the immensity of the issues presented or with the intensity of the interactions experienced or with the intractable personalities involved. In any case you were worn out, with little positive to show for your efforts.
There will be times when even the best people-helpers (maybe more than average) will have extra-difficult meetings with those they are trying to counsel. The more a counselor is personally committed to truth and godly character (especially love), empowered and authorized by the Holy Spirit, and determined to promote the purposes and reputation of Jesus Christ, the greater will be his or her standards for counseling, and the more likely that she or he will encounter spiritual warfare (i.e. personal human and demonic evil fighting the counselor). Even when spiritual warfare is not involved in such sessions, the combined immaturity, ignorance, infirmity, and iniquity of some clients can be oppressive, leaving the counselor with an acute sense of incapacity—even failure.
What You Can Do
You are not helpless, however, and you are not alone with your experiences. Consider these general suggestions and then reflect on the ten questions that follow, listening both to your self and to the Holy Spirit as you consider answers that may empower and encourage you. It might also be wise to consult with a trusted advisor who is skilled in people-helping (Prov. 14:8; 15:14; and 12:15).
First, take a break from the situation by doing something life-affirming (such as spending quality time with family or friends for a few hours). Second, ask the Lord for insight as you prepare to think about the session. Third, think about how you can positively reframe the events of the meeting, considering how God, with your desire and cooperation, may work it to the good (Rom. 8:28). Finally, find a quiet and comfortable place to examine yourself and the session in light of these ten questions, bringing your Bible and a note pad with you. You may want to write down the questions before you begin to think about them, leaving space for notes as you reflect and pray. Be mindful of any Bible passages that come to mind as you ponder these various interrogatories.
1. What comfortable or uncomfortable feelings do I have about the session? List and prioritize them according to their significance to you. An articulated, well-developed feelings vocabulary will help immensely with this question. [You may email the author to request a email@example.com.]
2. Why am I thinking that this was a difficult session? Note how this meeting differs from the typical, both positively and negatively. Note also if you were different than usual going into this session. Record any possible distractions or disablements that may have compromised your abilities to function optimally in this encounter. Realistically, that does happen sometimes.
3. What do I think could have gone better or differently, if anything? Compare what occurred with what you wish had happened or expected to happen. Contrast what happened with your ideal counseling theory/theology process and outcome vision.
4. Do I have any particular, pressing concerns about the client(s) from things I observed this session, such as elevated defenses, strong hostility, excessive emotion, toxic thinking, destructive behavior, questionable mental status? Record your observations and consider why these features might have been so evident in this recent meeting.
5. How do I think the clients were feeling during the session? Again, consult a comprehensive list of comfortable and uncomfortable feelings [available upon request from the author]. Ask yourself what the client(s) may have been feeling that way about? Consider the evidence for and against your speculations.
6. Is there any way that interaction during the session could have been improved? Think about whether you listened well, if your thoughts were adequately expressed, if client questions were properly anticipated and addressed, if any client distress signals were detected and acknowledged by you, if you clearly heard client thoughts and feelings and reflected them back to the client(s). Ask yourself if you were sensitive to timing, tone of voice, body language, and choice of words on your end of the interaction. Note any regrets for things said or done, and why.
7. Did anything not get said or happen that I wish had? Consider what was left unsaid or undone by you or the client(s). Note why those things are important and how they might have made a difference. Think about what you would do differently if you could repeat the session. Consider if you can make amends next session.
8. What were the points of agreement or disagreement among session participants? Note if and why any of these were significant. Consider whether the client(s) would agree or disagree with the various parts of your analysis—and the reasons.
9. If there were more than one client, how did they interact with each other? Think about how their interactions in this past meeting were similar or dissimilar to previous sessions. Consider what factors may account for their interactions, especially if they were problematic or atypical.
10. On what note, or with what mood, did the session end? Reflect on the significance of how things ended, especially any unsatisfied expectations and unresolved uncomfortable feelings. Note if there seemed to be any hidden agendas or veiled messages connected to how the session terminated—by anyone present.
The Christian worldview involves a significant place for both God and people, as should Christian counseling goals and processes. The Bible places a high value on the psychological process of situational reflection and self-examination, crucial to smart people-helping. In fact, God made and expects us to properly use our minds for rational ends, the noetic effects of sin notwithstanding: “Come let us reason together,” He invites the people of Judah in Isaiah 1:18. With equal regard for the cognitive capacities of sufficiently able and willing persons, the apostle Paul urges the saints to “examine” and “test” themselves (2 Cor. 13: 5 NIV), reminiscent of Lamentations 3: 40: “Let us examine our ways and test them” (NIV). The psalmist reports that he has considered his ways, modifying them according to the statutes of God (Psa. 119: 59 NIV), and Paul reminds his readers in 1 Cor. 11:31 that if they judged themselves (a related cognitive exercise to self-examination), they would not come under God’s judgment. Of course, none of the many exhortations in the Wisdom literature for people to desire and pursue knowledge, understanding, discernment, and wisdom (the insight gifts) would make sense if people were not first expected to reflect on their need for these characteristics.
In his first letter, Peter urges Christians to prepare their minds for action (1:13). That is one major purpose of self-reflection. Christian people-helpers can apply this good biblical psychology after difficult counseling encounters by considering the questions and applying the general suggestions provided above. Additionally, take time to think about what you did well in a difficult session. Be fair and gracious with yourself. After all, the encouragement of Philippians 4:8 to think about things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy surely includes your counseling efforts.
Rick Sholette, MDiv, ThM
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