Counseling Today, Online Exclusives

When help isn’t helpful: Overfunctioning for clients

By Kathleen Smith March 19, 2018

“Erin” came to counseling with all the signs of depression. She was unhappy with her career, her health and her family. Her mother was distressed, her father was distant and her disabled brother was sick.

Erin spent a lot of energy calming and directing her family, and she complained about how little her family supported her in return. She increasingly relied on sugar to calm herself down, and she struggled to end this dependence.

Erin’s anxiety was high, and as a newbie counselor, I struggled to operate outside of it. She cried through many of our meetings, and she grew increasingly critical of our work together.

She said she wanted to stop focusing on her family dynamics, so I switched topics.

She wanted to focus more on her eating habits, so I focused on that.

Then she said I wasn’t giving her enough tools, so I gave her more tools.

I dreaded meeting with her every week, knowing that she’d find some reason to be unhappy with me. I’ll admit that I was relieved when she decided to switch to a different counselor.

It would be very easy for me to look back on my work with Erin and label her as a difficult or resistant client — someone who simply wasn’t ready to change. But now I know better.

You see, I’m a student of Bowen family systems theory. One of the big ideas in Bowen theory is that relationships are reciprocal. Each person plays a part, and these parts are complementary. When you look at the individual and not the relationship, then you miss seeing this reciprocity. The therapeutic relationship is no exception.

Murray Bowen wrote, “When the therapist allows himself to become a ‘healer’ or ‘repairman,’ the family goes into dysfunction to wait for the therapist to accomplish his work.”

Erin was looking for someone to take responsibility for her problems, and I quickly dove in and volunteered as a way to calm down the room and avoid her anger. Looking back, I think about how our relationship might have been different if I hadn’t begun to overfunction for Erin and had refrained from “teaching” her how to fix her depression. I decided that Erin wasn’t willing to change, and I never stopped to think about how my actions were supporting her ambivalence and helplessness.

Have you ever heard an interview with a successful person who grew up in an intense family situation? These individuals always have at least one variable in common. Someone took an interest in them. Often, it was a teacher, a coach, a grandparent or a clergyperson. Someone was curious about their capabilities, and they thrived from this interest.

I truly believe that the opposite of anxiety is curiosity. If I can stay curious about counseling clients who are challenging, they will often do better. When I jump in and try to fix, I am communicating to those clients that they aren’t capable of solving a problem — that their thinking isn’t useful and that they should borrow mine instead. In such instances, I am more concerned with calming everything down than letting clients take responsibility for themselves.

I am very fortunate to have a curious counseling mentor who does not prop up my own incapacity to direct my life. Even though we have been meeting for years, I could probably count the number of times she has made a suggestion to me on one hand. I can see how by simply asking good questions and helping me develop my thinking, she has allowed me to take responsibility for my own functioning.

My job as a counselor is to help people see the reciprocity in their relationships. Like when a client wonders why his mother is financially irresponsible when he’s spent years bailing her out of debt. Or when someone wonders why her partner doesn’t share more when she’s constantly asking him to manage her own distress. When we focus on the other person in a relationship, we’re missing 50 percent of the picture. In fact, we’re missing the 50 percent that we can actually control. By focusing on Erin and what I thought was her “fault,” I missed seeing my part in our relationship.

When anxiety is high in the counseling room, it’s incredibly difficult to shift the focus back on yourself. Difficult, but not impossible. So when a person is distressed, instead of fixing or reassuring, I try to relax my posture, take some deep breaths and access my best thinking. I try to pay attention to when I’m slipping into my default mode of overfunctioning. When a person asks me how I think they’re doing, I challenge them to trust their own ability to evaluate themselves. I try to do this for any relationship, whether it’s with a counseling client or with a friend.

I think I’m getting a little bit better each day with noticing the reciprocity in my relationships. By seeing my part, I’m taking responsibility for myself and allowing others to do the same. In exchange, these relationships bring so much more joy into my life. If I can stay focused on myself around my most anxious clients, then, often, they end up being some of the most rewarding ones I see.

It’s funny how when we treat people as though they can take responsibility for themselves, they are likely to rise to the occasion. I hope that Erin found a counselor who saw her as the capable young woman she was.

 

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Kathleen Smith is a licensed professional counselor and writer in Washington, D.C. Read more of her writing at kathleensmith.net.

 

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Related reading by Kathleen Smith, from the CT archives: Facing the fear of incompetence

Self-doubt often nags at the minds of counselors, but the practice of vulnerability might offer both a powerful antidote against unrealistic expectations and a prescription for forming stronger connections with clients. https://wp.me/p2BxKN-4EK

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

 

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