Tag Archives: self-discovery

The messy reality of perfectionism

By Lindsey Phillips February 26, 2019

Philip Gnilka, an associate professor of counseling and the coordinator of the counselor education doctoral program at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), has heard of severe cases of perfectionism at college counseling centers in which a student refuses to submit any work out of fear of being evaluated. As long as the student does not turn in work, his or her sense of self remains intact, he explains.

This raises a question: Is perfectionism a bad thing? Within the mental health professions, healthy debate is taking place on this very topic. Some therapists view all forms of perfectionism — whether self-oriented, others-oriented or socially prescribed — as negative, whereas others believe there is an adaptive component to perfectionism.

Gnilka, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and the director of the Personality, Stress and Coping Lab at VCU, is in the latter camp. He notes that, historically, perfectionism has been considered a negative quality, so the goal was to reduce clients’ perfectionistic tendencies to make them “better.” However, he says, this black-and-white thinking — a quality of perfectionism itself — does not fully capture perfectionism.

Instead, Gnilka, a member of the American Counseling Association, argues that perfectionism is a multidimensional construct that consists of perfectionistic strivings (i.e., Do you hold high personal expectations for yourself and others?) and perfectionistic concerns, or one’s internal critic, (i.e., If you don’t meet these standards, how self-critical are you?). He says these two dimensions can help counselors determine who they are working with: an individual with adaptive, or healthy, perfectionism (someone with high standards but low self-criticism) or an individual with maladaptive, or unhealthy, perfectionism (someone with high standards and high self-criticism).

In his research, Gnilka has found that one’s perfectionistic concerns, not one’s strivings, are what correlate with negative mental health aspects. “What’s really correlating with depression, stress and negative life satisfaction is this self-critical perfectionism dimension. It’s not holding high standards itself per se,” he explains.

In fact, Gnilka argues that lowering clients’ perfectionist standards or instructing them to do things less perfectly is the wrong approach. Anecdotally, he’s found suggesting that clients lower their standards is a nonstarter and often doesn’t work. Instead, Gnilka advises counselors to focus their interventions on the self-critical voice. “Focusing on that internal critic … is where you’re going to get your most malleability because that’s the one [dimension] that’s connected with all the [negative aspects of mental health],” he says.

Healthy striving

Beth Fier, the clinical director of SEED Services: Partners for Counseling and Wellness in New Jersey, finds perfectionism to be problematic. “It’s rigid and it’s interfering in some way, and it’s pretty unforgiving in terms of its high standards so that it actually is creating difficulty either for [people] and their experience of themselves or maybe in their relationship to others or how they’re interacting in the world.” However, she also acknowledges that many people want to be high achieving.

Because perfectionism can be limiting with its focus on being “perfect,” Fier, an LPC and an ACA member, likes the concept of excellentism. As an excellentist, people still want to do their best, but the term allows them to think more flexibly about how to do that, she explains. The focus is more on the process, which allows people to appreciate and enjoy the effort, the learning curve and their growth along the way. Perfectionism becomes problematic when people focus solely on the outcomes — on if they meet a certain goal, Fier adds.

Emily Kircher-Morris, the clinical director and counselor at Unlimited Potential Counseling and Education Center in Missouri, offers a similar perspective. Rather than using the term adaptive perfectionism, she prefers the phrase striving for excellence. Perfectionism, she explains, often implies there is no room for error, which becomes self-defeating. “All of these [perfectionistic] characteristics can be strengths,” she notes. “It’s when they go too far that they start causing disruptions to our lives.”

Despite their differences in terminology or mindset about perfectionism, Gnilka, Fier and Kircher-Morris all agree on the importance of healthy strivings and the need to intervene on the critical voice.

Kircher-Morris does this in part by having clients create realistic reframes, which is a way of changing a negative thought into something more optimistic. Counselors can draw thought bubbles and ask clients to fill in one of the bubbles with the negative thought and the other bubble with a realistic reframe. For example, the negative thought “I got an answer wrong when the teacher called on me. Now everyone thinks I’m dumb” could be rewritten as “I am allowed to make mistakes just like everyone else.” This exercise helps clients figure out a way forward without ignoring the uncomfortable emotions, Kircher-Morris adds.

However, too much reframing may cause clients to feel like counselors are imposing a “right” way to think about the situation, says Kircher-Morris, an LPC and a member of ACA. She finds that using dialectical thinking to look at and validate both sides is empowering for clients. For example, one technique she finds helpful is moving clients from either/or statements to both/and statements such as “I’m doing the best I can and I know I can also do better” and “This is going to be really hard and I know I can get through this situation.” By shifting their thinking, clients realize that two opposite statements can both be true; they are not necessarily exclusive to each other, she explains.

Much of Fier’s work involves softening the critical voice. She often poses the following scenario to her clients to illustrate the potential danger of this voice: “Imagine you are put in charge of selecting a child’s kindergarten teacher. Would you want a teacher who is strict and will tell the children they are horrible as a means of motivating them to learn and grow? Would you want a teacher who lets children do whatever they want and not worry about the quality of their work? Or would you want a teacher who has high expectations but works with and supports children to help them figure out opportunities for growth and learning?”

Although the answer seems obvious in that context, it is often difficult for people to apply that same balance of high expectations and support to themselves, Fier says.

Valuing progress, not outcomes

It is common for people who possess perfectionistic tendencies to assume they can achieve something quickly and easily, Fier points out. That’s why breaking down activities into smaller step-by-step pieces that clients can build on is important, she says. This process provides opportunities for positive reinforcement; allows clients flexibility in achieving their overarching aim; and allows clients to focus on what they have accomplished rather than on the ultimate outcome, she explains. 

Fier, the past president of the New Jersey Association for Multicultural Counseling, redirects clients from working toward goals to working toward values and aims, which allows them greater flexibility in how they address the situation. This includes asking clients the reasons they set a particular goal and why that goal matters. Shifting the focus to values and aims helps clients feel good about what they accomplish rather than beating themselves up for what they fall short of achieving, she adds.

Fier recently worked with a client who had a goal of balancing care for her mental and physical self. The client focused on outcome-based goals of diet, exercise and weight loss. By focusing on the outcome, she would berate herself whenever she didn’t make it to the gym. Fier helped the client broaden her perspective on how to achieve her aim or value of having a healthy lifestyle, which can include exercising, eating well, getting adequate sleep and pursuing good mental health.

“Some days that might be going to the gym. Some days that might be taking a quick walk outside because [she has] all of these other competing priorities,” Fier says. “It’s that intention and motivation that keeps [the client] focused on the care piece as opposed to the ‘I didn’t make it’ piece — ‘I screwed up and did it again.’”

Kircher-Morris also warns counselors to watch out for “goal vaulting.” This is when people set a goal and, as they close in on reaching that goal, they instead raise the bar. In the process, she explains, they forget about all the steps they completed to get to that point, which makes them feel like they aren’t making progress or haven’t accomplished anything.

One technique Kircher-Morris uses to address this counterproductive thinking is to have clients write down the steps they have accomplished to reach a certain goal on a graphic organizer, such as a visual symbol of stairsteps or a ladder reaching an end goal.

Kircher-Morris worked with a gymnast who was frustrated because she couldn’t seem to master a back handspring. Kircher-Morris helped the client break down all the skills she had accomplished in pursuit of that goal, such as learning how to do a cartwheel and roundoff. “You have to recognize those successes along the way because, otherwise, you’ll always feel like you’re falling short,” Kircher-Morris says. “A lot of times it’s easier to work backward — starting with the end goal but then thinking back to what were all of the things you had to do to get to that point. That, sometimes, is a little bit easier to conceptualize.”

Understriving

Most people equate perfectionism with overstriving and overachieving. But this isn’t always the case. Perfectionism manifests in different ways, Kircher-Morris points out.

“When clients come in … I hear anxiety, I hear stress [and] I hear being overwhelmed,” she says. “When we get into what is causing that level of distress, I find that it’s often coming from a place of perfectionism, whether that’s manifesting as procrastination or risk avoidance or just really trying to control situations.”

Avoidance, Gnilka says, “seems to be a big coping difference between adaptive perfectionists and maladaptive perfectionists. They use the same amount of task-based coping and emotion-based coping, but the avoidance-based coping seems to be very, very high for maladaptive perfectionists compared to an adaptive one.” Thus, counselors might ask clients why they are avoiding certain things and what they are afraid of, he says.

Kircher-Morris agrees that counselors should help clients understand what they are avoiding. People often assume that avoidance is based on a fear of failure, but what they don’t realize is that avoidance can also result from a fear of success, she argues. For example, imagine a student who avoids going to medical school based on a fear of doing well at school only to discover that he or she hates being a doctor and is unhappy.

“They fear the success that then might lead to something negative in the future,” Kircher-Morris explains. “It’s not something you would typically think of when you’re thinking of perfectionism, but it can have a negative outcome in the future and lead to procrastination or avoidance of decision-making.”

The challenges children and parents face

Socially prescribed perfectionism extends beyond the microcosm of the nuclear family, Kircher-Morris says. Thanks in part to the influence of social media, children and parents alike often start to think that others have a “perfect” life and then feel the pressure to measure up to that impossible standard.

Kircher-Morris recalls a client who chose a college degree program based on the respect he thought it would garner from others rather than based on his own interests. The client had struggled in high school, so he wanted to prove to others that he was capable.

To offset these societal pressures, counselors can help clients become aware of their own personal goals and ways to measure success for themselves, Kircher-Morris suggests. This might include guiding clients to figure out what is at the root of their motivation to get into a particular school or to achieve a certain ACT score, she says.

Kircher-Morris has also noticed a connection between perfectionism and people who are gifted or of high ability. “Part of the reason why you see [perfectionism] so commonly with people who are gifted and … with talented athletes is because things come so naturally to them, so then they don’t know how to handle it when something is difficult,” she says. People who are gifted are often told that they are smart, so they internalize this quality as a part of their identity, she continues. Then, when they face something difficult or challenging, they don’t know how to handle it because it doesn’t fit with who they think they are.

Kircher-Morris builds on these clients’ strengths by using analogies about times in the past when they got through something difficult or handled a situation differently. Then she points out how they could apply those same skills to their current situation. Counselors might also encourage clients to find their own comparisons, which facilitates independence, she adds.

Many parents also feel the pressure to be perfect. Seeing other people’s children getting accepted to elite schools or competitive athletic teams (things that often get trumpeted on social media posts) can cause parents to worry about not being good enough, Kircher-Morris points out. “When they see their child fail, it feels like a reflection on them,” she says. Or there’s the “fear that if [they] don’t handle this correctly, it’s going to change the trajectory of [their] child’s life.”

Counselors can help parents reframe this negative line of thinking. One method is to have them consider how allowing children to make mistakes is actually a sign of good parenting because it helps children learn, grow and become independent, Kircher-Morris says. “You don’t have to be the parent who always has all of the answers and who always manages your emotions,” she reminds parents. “It’s OK to show that vulnerability and process through that.” In fact, she often advises parents to be vulnerable within the parent-child relationship. Rather than hide their vulnerability, parents can talk through their feelings and model how to handle the stress.

For example, if a parent is anxious about a phone call or a meeting, the parent can share that feeling with the child and show the child how he or she would handle the situation. “You’re teaching the kids that it’s OK not to be perfect,” Kircher-Morris says. “It’s OK to have worries and stresses, but also you can still work through them.”

Kircher-Morris also finds that parents sometimes unintentionally facilitate perfectionism in their children. For instance, when a child brings home a school assignment, parents might focus on the errors and have the child correct them. Parents might also offer praise whenever the child scores 100 percent but question the child otherwise (e.g., “What happened? Why wasn’t this a better grade?”).

Another common example is when a parent unloads the dishwasher after the child loads it because it was not done to the parent’s standards, Kircher-Morris says. This behavior undermines the child’s level of independence and feeling of self-efficacy, she explains. In constantly critiquing and correcting their children in such ways, parents are teaching them that there is no room for error and that they aren’t “good enough” unless perfection is attained, she says.

Instead, counselors can help parents learn to focus on the process, not the outcome, Kircher-Morris advises. For instance, rather than fixating on individual test grades, parents can ask, “What did you learn on this paper? What did you get out of the assignment? What was the area of struggle?”

In an episode last year on Kircher-Morris’ Mind Matters podcast (mindmatterspodcast.com), Lisa Van Gemert, an expert on perfectionism and gifted individuals, discussed how teachers and schools also inadvertently engage in behaviors that increase perfectionism in students. She cited two examples of ways the educational system isn’t set up to recognize effort, persistence and diligence. First, teachers often give out stickers to reward “perfect” work. Second, having a perfect attendance award causes some children to come to school even when they are sick just to get the award. These types of rewards set up an unreasonable standard, Gemert said

“When we focus on the outcomes — the grades — then that’s going to lead to that perfectionism,” Kircher-Morris says. “When we focus on the process and the learning, then we’re going to move away from that and really focus on that striving for excellence.”

Imperfect experiments

To ease clients’ expectations of doing things perfectly, Fier often uses the word experiment: “We’re going to experiment this week with trying this [practice] and see how it goes. … This is simply a process that we’re going to test out and troubleshoot and come back to.”

The emphasis on experimenting is also a way of modeling flexibility, Fier stresses. “It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, I succeeded or I failed,” she says. “You’ve succeeded in the process of attempting.”

Rather than asking clients who expect to do mindfulness or meditation practices “perfectly” to engage in that practice every day, Fier may ask them to experiment with practicing their soothing rhythm breathing (slowing the exhale and inhale down to a rhythmical rate) twice during the week for 30 seconds. Then, the next week she may ask them to engage in this practice for five minutes every day or every other day. Again, counselors should emphasize that they are experimenting and exploring what works for the client, she says.

Kircher-Morris also finds it helpful to frame counseling activities as experiments. She often instructs her younger clients to be “scientists” with her. She tells them that together, they will come up with a hypothesis and test it out.

She has a middle school client who was deliberately not submitting work unless it was “perfect” (i.e., a completed assignment that lived up to her standards). In this situation, Kircher-Morris and the client crafted the following hypothesis: “If I turn in a math assignment and I have missed two problems, nothing will happen.” To test this hypothesis, the client intentionally missed two problems on an assignment that wasn’t worth a lot of points. In doing this, the client realized that the world didn’t fall apart when she got an 80 (instead of a 100) on this one assignment because it didn’t affect her overall A in the class. Kircher-Morris adds that this technique is similar to prescribing the symptom or systematic desensitization (a method that gradually exposes a person to an anxiety-producing stimulus and substitutes a relaxation response for the anxious one).

As scientists, clients also collect data. Kircher-Morris asks clients to document every time that they procrastinate on an assignment, think they are going to mess up or believe they have to do something perfectly. They can track these data with a phone app, in a notebook they carry with them or on an index card placed on the corner of their desk, she says.

Counselors should avoid framing this activity so that it unintentionally becomes a reward system for clients — an assignment they can “win” or “lose,” she warns. Instead, the point of the experiment is to have clients gain awareness, establish a baseline and test whether their beliefs associated with perfectionism are based on emotions or facts, she explains.

The shame of ‘falling short’

Fier doesn’t think she has ever worked with a client with perfectionistic tendencies who wasn’t also experiencing a sense of shame. She finds that perfectionism, depression and anxiety often cluster together, and the underlying thread is “this proneness toward self-conscious emotions, particularly shame, and that tendency to then get caught in a feedback loop in the brain that leads us down this road of self-criticism.”

Because clients who have perfectionistic tendencies often mask their struggles, building rapport and a trusting and open relationship with them as counselors is crucial, Kircher-Morris emphasizes. “They know that they’re in distress. They know that they’re struggling, but they don’t want it to be perceived that they can’t handle it on their own,” she says.

Perfectionism reinforces the idea that we are not enough to reach the standards we set for ourselves — the ones that are unrelenting and too high to be achieved, Fier says. “We start to have this sense of self that is based on this global sense of failure,” she explains. “It’s not that my behavior failed or that one part of me hasn’t been able to accomplish something. It’s that I’m the failure.”

In addition, shame makes people feel like they don’t belong, so they want to hide or disappear, Fier adds. In fact, some clients experience such a sense of unworthiness — to the point of self-loathing — that they often don’t feel they deserve compassion, she says. Thus, she finds compassion-focused therapy beneficial. Some compassion-focused techniques that help to regulate the body include soothing rhythm breathing, body posture changes (e.g., making the back and shoulders upright and solid and raising one’s chin to help the body feel confident) and soothing touch (e.g., placing hands on one’s heart).

Fier will also have clients imagine a compassionate image such as a color that has a quality of warmth and caring. She has clients explore their various emotional selves, such as their anxious self or their angry self, and think about how these emotions feel and sound when they speak to the client and to each other (e.g., “What does the angry self say to the anxious self?”).

Fier acknowledges that these practices and techniques do not get rid of the self-critical thoughts or difficult emotions entirely. However, over time, clients learn to pull up a compassionate self to sit alongside the difficulty, she says. “The compassionate self is the hub of the wheel that holds all these other parts of [the individual together],” she adds.

Kircher-Morris also identifies another point of emphasis. “One of the main components of perfectionism is a discomfort with vulnerability,” she says. “So, when [counselors] can facilitate that and give permission for that vulnerability, that’s where the change happens.” She recommends that counselors look for opportunities to use appropriate self-disclosures with these clients. She believes this gives clients permission to be vulnerable and reduces the power differential between client and counselor.

Being vulnerable and compassionate takes strength, Fier points out. She helps clients redefine strength — which in the United States is often viewed in terms of competition and domination — to realize that it is about being open to care and vulnerability.

Fier has also learned an important lesson: When working with clients, she doesn’t begin discussing compassion as something warm and caring. When counselors begin a session discussing compassion as a caring aspect, some clients think this emotion is too scary or difficult for them to relate to, she explains.

Instead, Fier begins by talking about accessing courage and eventually transitions into the courage it takes to be open, vulnerable and compassionate. She finds that some clients have experiences of feeling courageous or strong, but they have a difficult time connecting to experiences in which they have offered themselves any sort of care or comfort. “So, if [counselors] can start with where the client is and build up that courage, [they] can use that to help access the vulnerability and begin to redefine the strength aspects of being vulnerable,” she says.

Living with imperfection

For some counselors, perfectionism hits close to home. Counseling is a profession in which people often feel like they need to get it “perfect,” Fier says.

Kircher-Morris suggests that counselors follow the advice they often give to clients: Make the best decision based on the information you have at the time. “Our clients give us what they can, and it’s our job to connect with them and facilitate that and help them put those pieces together,” she says. “But we’re also working with what we have at the time, whether that’s our training and our professional development … [or the client] relationship and what we know about that particular client.”

Kircher-Morris says she often looks back at herself from five years ago and sees a counselor who thought she had everything figured out and knew what she was doing. Now, she says, she
realizes she was just doing what was best in the moment.

Counselors have to remember that they will not always get it “right,” and they have to learn to tolerate imperfection, Fier says. Every morning, Fier glances at the misaligned shower shelf in her bathroom, which serves as a gentle reminder that it’s OK to live with imperfection. Counselors can guide clients to find similar reminders to help them feel less threatened by imperfection, she suggests.

Perfectionism always goes back to one central issue — the self-critical voice, Gnilka asserts. “The idea that human beings are going to be able to walk around in life and not have any self-critical talk is just not possible. It’s not that healthy perfectionists are just walking around with no self-critical piece to them. It’s just that they’re walking around with no more, or maybe slightly less, than the average person of the population,” he says. “What [counselors] are trying to do is alleviate [the critical voice] so it’s not so critically depressing and keeping people from enjoying life.”

At the end of the podcast episode on perfectionism, Kircher-Morris acknowledges that if we don’t allow ourselves to admit we have flaws, then we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. “Perfectionism is the refusal to show any vulnerability,” she says. “It’s vulnerability that allows us to be authentic, who we really are, and establish those strong relationships with those around us. Giving ourselves permission to make mistakes allows us to be perfectly imperfect.”

 

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Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist living in Northern Virginia. Contact her at consulting@lindseynphillips.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.

 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

 

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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.

The therapeutic triad of disability

By Susan Stuntzner, Jacquelyn Dalton and Angela MacDonald July 9, 2018

For many counseling professionals, the exploration of forgiveness, self-compassion or resilience can seem daunting, particularly when determining ways to apply these concepts to people with disabilities and their specific needs. When approaching this task, counselors may ask themselves several questions, including: Where do I start? Which concept is most important? Is one of them more relevant for this population? How can I best help people explore one or all of these concepts? Good questions indeed but not always easy ones to answer.

To help counselors understand each of these concepts, the three authors of this article developed a model called the therapeutic triad of disability. The therapeutic triad provides counselors a means with which to consider one or all of these approaches as a gateway to healing and a pathway to hope for clients.

A personal search for therapeutic approaches

Susan Stuntzner’s experience: I am the director of disability services at Southwestern Oregon Community College and a lecturer for the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. I have lived with a visible disability for more than 30 years.

In the summer of 1985, I broke my back and found myself paralyzed from the waist down. I was life-flighted to Sacred Heart Hospital in Eugene, Oregon, to undergo emergency surgery. Prior to the surgery, the attending physician told me that I would never walk again. Putting his pronouncement aside, I thought to myself, “Hmmm, maybe, maybe not. Time will tell.”

Following surgery, I was in Sacred Heart for two months while I underwent physical therapy and learned to walk with the assistance of below-the-knee ankle-foot orthotics. Over those two months, I had a lot of time to think about my predicament, how the course of my life had changed and the road ahead of me. I remember having an innate sense that my life would never be the same, that I could not go back to my “old life.”

At the same time, I found myself feeling a sense of hope. I was already anticipating that my life would be filled with new adventures, personal growth, challenges and possibilities. I can’t explain why I felt this way, but I distinctly remember seeing myself at a vital fork in the road, and now my life purpose was to take the “left road” instead of the one on the right. Perhaps this was the start of resilience and the very beginning of great things to come.

Over the next several years, I was faced with a number of experiences that I wasn’t prepared for, nor did I understand them at the time. Most of these experiences could be filed under what we know of today as negative societal attitudes toward people with disabilities: inaccurate beliefs, low expectations, bias, discrimination, oppression and a lack of equitable access to the opportunities and resources enjoyed by people without disabilities. This was a time when no one really discussed the experience of disability or the impact of society and barriers on people with disabilities. As a result, the process of figuring out what I was experiencing or what I should do was ambiguous at best.

That may not be easy for some readers to hear, but I share it because all of these experiences set the stage for what was to come. I just didn’t know it yet. It wasn’t until about a decade later, while I was a master’s student in Portland State University’s counseling program, that I formally learned about the realities and impacts of societal attitudes toward people with disabilities, the coping and adaptation issues that people with disabilities often experience and the changes in relationships and expectations that this population frequently faces. It was at this point that my personal experiences finally “had a face.” I could look at my personal experiences and better understand why life was now very different from a societal perspective.

Jacquelyn Dalton’s experience: I am a rehabilitation counseling educator, and I have had my own experience of living with a disability. However, my story is one of progressive hearing loss and the challenges and difficulties that come with that. I grew up in the “hearing world” but became profoundly deaf in my mid to late 20s. When I was in my late 30s, I pursued and received bilateral cochlear implants. Because of these implants, I am able to hear and to re-enter the world of the hearing person. However, this was not the end of my experience with disability.

Throughout this time, I worked hard to figure out where I fit in the world. My situation was one in which I wasn’t accepted by the culturally or functionally Deaf population, nor did I fit neatly into the hearing world. As time passed, I sought out other means of coping and adapting to changes brought on by my hearing or my lack thereof. I too witnessed the face of societal bias, inaccurate perceptions and the overstepping of personal boundaries.

Some of these issues were readily noticeable the moment I acquired a service hearing dog named Ainsley. Although providing a vital service and need, Ainsley suddenly made my hearing loss “visible” to the outsider and onlooker. With this experience came the presence of well-known issues that most people with disabilities encounter: strangers staring or gawking at them, invasive personal questions, unkind remarks and social intimidation tactics. To cope with these unexpected and difficult experiences, I began my own journey of exploration, which led to the discovery of mindfulness, meditation practices and Buddhist teachings.

What is the therapeutic triad?

The therapeutic triad of disability is a model and an approach to counseling that comprises three specific components: forgiveness, self-compassion, and resilience. Those who have embraced it have described it as a lifesaving strategy. People have told us that the therapeutic triad helped them move from a place of despair, darkness, anxiety and uncertainty to one of strength, hope and self-confidence. Through the therapeutic triad, these individuals discovered the power of forgiveness, self-compassion and resilience — and the interconnectedness of each component — on a journey of self-growth and personal healing.

So, how did the therapeutic triad come about? In 2012, Susan was looking for a way to expand the use of forgiveness among people with disabilities. This led her to the exploration of forgiveness as a potential component of resilience. Not seeing a lot available on either component in relation to people with disabilities or as part of an integrated approach, she started to work on it.

One outcome of this exploration and research process led to the development of Susan’s second book, Reflections From the Past: Life Lessons for Better Living. The book looks at a number of specific resilience-based strategies that people can use in everyday life. Each skill is categorized and housed within a specific resilience domain to help readers better understand the connection. Some of the skills presented focus on spiritual practices and forgiveness.

From there, an opportunity presented itself to Susan to explore the applicability of self-compassion to the field of rehabilitation counseling and to the process of counseling people with disabilities. Soon thereafter, she participated in one of Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer’s intensive trainings for individuals wishing to delve deeper into the therapeutic value and vitality of self-compassion. Neff and Germer are co-founders of the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion.

Occurring simultaneously, yet unknowingly, with Susan’s experience, Jacquelyn was undertaking her own personal exploration of mindfulness, meditation, compassion and self-compassion. Her life experiences led her to consider Buddhist practices, with some of her initial work being influenced by scholars such as Sharon Salzberg, Ron Siegel, and Pema Chodron. As part of these studies, she became mindful of the importance of compassion, acceptance and forgiveness in people’s lives. Later, she added to this understanding by familiarizing herself with Neff’s work and attending one of her workshops on self-compassion. Each of these pieces helped Jacquelyn better understand the interconnectedness between mindfulness, compassion, forgiveness and resilience, which she later started to apply to disability, trauma and other life challenges.

Angela MacDonald, a licensed mental health specialist and clinician at Frontier Behavioral Health, journeyed through her own experiences and exposure to forgiveness, self-compassion and resilience as part of her education and counselor training.

Throughout our individualized paths, we started to see the interconnectivity between these three therapeutic skills and approaches and, thus, the therapeutic triad of disability was developed. Each component of the therapeutic triad — forgiveness, self-compassion, resilience — is a portal or gateway to therapeutic healing and serves as a pathway to the other components. This is because people often begin therapeutic work in one area, only to discover that they could benefit from looking at other issues that are better addressed by one of the other two components.

For example, as part of their collaborative resilience intervention research, Angela and Susan have exposed people with various disabilities to a 10-week resilience-based skills intervention, “Stuntzner and Hartley’s Life Enhancement Intervention: Developing Resiliency Skills Following Disability” (developed by Susan in collaboration with Michael Hartley of the University of Arizona). Over the course of 10 weeks and 10 different modules, these individuals learned and applied specific resilience-based skills to their lives. Modules six and seven focused on forgiveness and self-compassion, respectively. While learning about these skills, many individuals became acutely aware of their need to work on forgiveness and self-compassion as key components to their healing, making them willing to explore one or both at a later date.

Angela regularly works with numerous people, individually and in a group context, on resilience and forgiveness. She witnesses people become more open to forgiveness after doing some initial work on resilience or sees people recognize the need for self-compassion after they have started learning how to forgive. It is amazing to watch people grow and draw from all three components as part of the therapeutic experience.

The benefits

People who practice forgiveness, self-compassion or resilience will experience a number of benefits, some of which are unique to that particular component and some of which overlap with the other components. To give counselors an idea of the benefits that these three components offer, let’s first consider some of the similarities.

The therapeutic triad, regardless of where people begin, affords clients the opportunity to increase their self-insight into the thoughts, feelings and choices that they have and make. As a result, clients may come to recognize that they engage in thoughts, feelings and behaviors that are not helping them heal or move forward. When this happens, people can decide what they are going to do instead.

An example of this was evident in the resilience intervention work that Susan and Angela conducted. By the third week of the intervention on resilience-based skills, participants had covered the meaning of resilience, the role of attitudes and beliefs, and the role of locus of control. It was during this time that a group member said, “You know? These exercises are really helping me see how I think and feel. I had no idea that I harbored this much negativity and that I talked to myself this way.” When the group member shared this insight, we asked him to be “kind and accepting” of his personal discovery and to realize that he also now had an opportunity to do something different.

Forgiveness, self-compassion and resilience can be used to help people reduce negative thoughts (e.g., mental rumination, self-judgment, critical thinking) and feelings (e.g., anger, anxiety, depression, hostility), diminish fears and decrease negative psychological reactions to the disability. They can also help people heal emotional hurt, feel less socially isolated and more connected to others, improve social relationships (including the relationship that people have with themselves), improve self-esteem, find hope, develop the ability to sit with their pain, and be kinder and more accepting of themselves.

In addition, each of these components may be a portal to another. For instance, when people work on forgiveness, they often realize they are not self-compassionate; thus, it provides a way to start working to change that. If resilience is the starting place, people often discover an accompanying need to work on forgiveness or self-compassion.

Jacquelyn has made similar observations pertaining to the interconnectedness of these skills in her work with military veterans. One veteran with posttraumatic stress disorder who is recovering from alcoholism told her, “The VA [Department of Veterans Affairs] tells you about resilience, but no one really shows you how to do it. It was not until you gave me information on self-compassion that I started to feel better. It was through this exposure to self-compassion that I then realized that some work on forgiveness was in order. I now see that the more I work on self-compassion, the more forgiveness I am able to experience.”

Overcoming barriers

Counselors working with people on the therapeutic triad have some options in the ways they can explore and address the barriers that people encounter as a part of the triad process. Like the benefits that people encounter, some of the barriers may be similar across the therapeutic components, whereas others will likely differ. Thus, counselors may want to consider which approach is best tailored for each person’s needs and situation.

For instance, some may decide to use an educational or more formalized approach in exploring and discussing potential barriers. Such an approach may be particularly useful in psychoeducational settings or as part of group counseling. Others may decide to use the exploration of barriers as a key feature of preparing clients for work on forgiveness, self-compassion or resilience. Still others might address “barrier identification” work on an individualized level and discuss them as they surface in the counseling relationship.

Susan and Angela, as part of their individualized and collaborative work, constantly revisit which approach works best for the situation, the person and the therapeutic context. In their collaborative group work, they have used a combined educational and self-assessment identification process. In the group setting, they typically educate group members about some of the barriers that people experience when working on a skill such as forgiveness, self-compassion or resilience. This is followed by the opportunity for group members to self-assess and explore their own personal barriers.

Susan and Angela have found that this combined educational and self-assessment identification process helps people realize that it is OK to encounter some kind of barrier. People learn that barriers are part of the human condition and their presence does not warrant adding additional layers of shame, guilt or self-criticism to a person’s self-concept. In the end, people are empowered to make a choice to do something different. To help counselors better understand the plethora of barriers people may experience as part of the therapeutic triad, we will provide some examples.

When exploring forgiveness, it is often difficult for people to ask for help in learning to forgive. Forgiveness is difficult because it is a personal process in which people are asked to face and address deep hurt and painful experiences. This process is compounded by the fact that some people believe that forgiveness is for the “weak” or that it is too hard to achieve. Others mistakenly believe that forgiveness is only for people who are religious or spiritual. Still others find it hard to forgive because they cannot “let go” of the pain or because they harbor feelings of blame toward themselves, others or God.

People commonly experience barriers in the cultivation of self-compassion when they hold on to negative thoughts and feelings, have difficulty letting go of the past or engage in critical or judgmental thinking about themselves. Some people cannot find their way to a self-compassionate way of life because they spend most of their time thinking only of themselves, feeling sorry for themselves or believing they do not deserve self-compassion.

Because of the nature of resilience and the reasons that people find themselves attracted to it, the barriers encountered may be different than those encountered for forgiveness or self-compassion. Part of this is because people tend to work on resilience following a life-changing or traumatic event, not when life is going well. Some common barriers include:

  • Believing a situation or event is unfair and that the choices you make will not result in a difference
  • Blaming other people for your situation
  • Feeling that you do not deserve what is happening to you, especially when you have done all of the “right” things
  • Continually asking “why” something is happening rather than working on potential solutions

Therapeutic strategies for skill cultivation

Counseling professionals interested in pursuing forgiveness, self-compassion or resilience work with clients are encouraged to consider a few initial questions, followed by employing some strategies as part of the therapeutic relationship.

  • Which of these — forgiveness, self-compassion or resilience — is most relevant to the person’s situation?
  • How do these skills relate to the person’s experience of living with a disability and its associated life changes?
  • Does the person seem more receptive to one of these approaches than the others?
  • What beliefs or practices does the person have or follow that can aid in this exploration?
  • In the given situation, which of the skills is most important for positive coping and adaptation to disability?
  • How can I help the person start on one area and use it as a portal for healing in another?
  • Do I cover each of these skills separately or as an integrated part of an intervention?

Professionals who are counseling clients with disabilities can choose from a number of strategies, especially given the multiple paths for cultivating forgiveness, self-compassion and resilience. The key is to find those that work for the person and that are relevant to the individual’s experiences. As previously mentioned, each of these skills often opens the door to another, so there is no one right place to begin.

Having said that, Susan and Angela have found that it often helps people to consider forgiveness and self-compassion after doing some initial work on resilience. Part of this may be because many of those with whom they have worked were exposed to forgiveness and self-compassion while learning resilience-based skills. As part of the process to build resilience, people often realized their need to work on the other two components.

Counselors may elect to work with people individually, in groups or in a way that accesses some of both. Counselors can approach the therapeutic triad from a psychoeducational approach, an intensive therapeutic approach or a specific counselor theory. They can also infuse techniques such as educational topic sessions, self-assessments/insight-driven exercises, bibliotherapy, specific exercises geared toward skill cultivation, interventions, meditation and spiritual practices, writing and reflection exercises, and therapeutic homework.

 

 

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To learn more, visit The Thoughtful Counselor podcast archives (thethoughtfulcounselor.com/all-episodes/) for a two-part conversation that Mike Shook facilitated with Susan Stuntzner and Angela MacDonald about the intersections of disability and forgiveness, self-compassion and resilience (episode dates: Feb. 17 and Feb. 21).

 

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Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

Susan Stuntzner is the director of disability services at Southwestern Oregon Community College and a lecturer for the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. She is a licensed professional counselor (LPC), licensed mental health practitioner, certified rehabilitation counselor (CRC), national certified counselor (NCC) and board certified telemental health provider. Contact her at susan.stuntzner@socc.edu.

Jacquelyn Dalton is an assistant professor in the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center within the Department of Clinical Counseling and Mental Health. She is a CRC and an NCC.

Angela MacDonald is a licensed mental health specialist and clinician at Frontier Behavioral Health. She is an LPC, CRC and NCC.

 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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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.

 

Canine companions

By Laurie Meyers May 4, 2018

Having kids and young adults train rescue dogs isn’t technically animal assisted therapy, but for the kids—and dogs—involved in the Teacher’s Pet program, the result has definitely been therapeutic.

The youth —with the help of professional animal trainers— use positive reward-based training to increase local rescue dogs’ chances of being adopted. In return, working with the dogs helps the students develop patience, empathy, perseverance and hope, says Amy Johnson, the creator and executive director of Teacher’s Pet, a Detroit-area non-profit program.

The idea for the program was born when Johnson, a former public school teacher, was working as a dog training instructor at the Michigan Humane Society. Johnson, an American Counseling Association member, wasn’t sure what the training would look like at first — she simply knew

Images courtesy of Teacher’s Pet. Identifying features of (human) participants have been blurred for confidentiality.

she wanted an intervention that would help both kids and dogs. Johnson contacted every group she could find in the United States and Canada that worked with both youth and dogs to learn more about how their programs worked. Her intent was to work with kids who — like their canine counterparts — were behaviorally challenged and often unwanted. So, not only did Johnson contact school counselors and psychologists for their input, she decided to become a professional counselor herself.

The end result was a program that is 10 weeks long and meets twice a week for two hours. Teacher’s Pet currently works with teens from an alternative high school and three detention facilities and young adults, aged 18-24 at a homeless shelter, says Johnson, a licensed professional counselor. At each facility (except for the homeless shelter), the training takes place on site. Participants from the homeless shelter are brought to an animal shelter to complete the program.

The program’s group facilitators are all professional trainers and they choose only dogs with good temperaments to participate, says Johnson, who is also the special projects coordinator and director of the online animal assisted therapy certificate program at Oakland University in southeast Michigan. Before the participants begin working with the dogs, the facilitators give them some safety training.

“We spend the first day going over body language and stress signals,” Johnson says. “They meet the dogs on day two, after one more hour of dog body language education.”

Other safety measures include limiting the number of dogs — five or six per class of 10 students — and keeping the dogs on long tethers placed 10 feet apart so that they can’t interact with each other, she says. There are also always at least four trainers in the room and the dogs are closely monitored. If a dog gets overexcited, is struggling to get off the tether or barking at another dog, a trainer will remove it from the room, Johnson says.

At the beginning of each session, the lead facilitator goes over the goals for the session, such as teaching the commands “sit,” “stay” or “down,” learning to walk on a leash or not jump for the food bowl. The individual trainers explain how to teach the commands and let the teens or young adults do the actual training as they supervise. The dogs are never forced to participate—if an individual dog is nervous or reluctant, the goal for the day is to establish trust and confidence, she says.

Johnson says that sometimes dogs that come off the streets have specific problems like trembling when people walk by. In that case, the students will sit with the dog until it becomes more comfortable and then start with small steps like going for a brief walk outside.

As participants are teaching the dogs new behavior, often their own behavior changes, she says.

In particular, a lot of the teens and young adults who participate have poor communication skills, Johnson says. For instance, some are so shy that they don’t project their voices and the dogs don’t respond to their commands. The participants have to learn to speak firmly and assertively, and to demonstrate a sense of command by standing up straight. One boy told Johnson that he decided to test the tone of voice and body language he used with the dogs on his peers to see what would happen. Imitating the behavior he used with the dogs gave the boy more confidence and he found it easier to interact with his peers, she says.

Johnson describes another boy who was very angry, had little patience and low impulse control. He had a soft heart and would choose dogs that were struggling, which told Johnson that he was projecting his anger.

“Inside he was like the dogs [scared],” she says. So the trainers paired the boy with a dog that was afraid of men. His job was to make the dog like him, Johnson explains. The boy had to be patient and sit with the dog. As the dog got calmer and more confident, the boy would gently encourage it to move closer and closer. By the end of the program, the dog was joyfully playing with boy.

Johnson says that the program facilitators coordinate with the participants’ counselors when possible, so that if they are struggling with particular problems — such as patience or impulse control — training sessions can include activities that help address those difficulties.

The teens and young adults also learn from each other. The first hour of each session is devoted to training and the second to journaling and “debriefing” — talking as a group about what worked and what didn’t.

Johnson believes that even just the oxytocin release that comes from spending time with the dogs is highly beneficial. The program participants are often deprived of loving human touch and the dogs will lick and hug and make them laugh — reducing their anger and anxiety.

As the program draws to end, saying goodbye isn’t easy, but that in itself can be a lesson learned, Johnson says. The students start to detach from the dogs a little bit, and they’ll talk about how that is a normal part of processing grief and loss, she says. The kids also write letters to potential adopters  touting the dogs’ accomplishments.

When the program is over, the teens and young adults say goodbye to the dogs and learn that they can say goodbye and not have it be the end of the world, says Johnson. The participants also get lots of pictures of themselves with the dogs and a certificate for the wall. Many former students have told Johnson that they keep a picture of themselves and the dog they trained on their dressers.

“I had a youth email me seven years later and ask me for another copy of his certificate because his was in a storage unit that was auctioned off,” she says.

Many graduates want to volunteer with Teacher’s Pet for adoption and other events, Johnson says. The organization also remains a resource for the students — they can get letters of recommendation or basic things like clothes for school or school supplies if needed.

Johnson says that Teacher’s Pet is also currently working with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) on a longitudinal study to determine if the program produces behavioral changes in the kids, and if so, for how long.

 

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For more information about Teacher’s Pet, visit the website at teacherspetmi.org or email Amy Johnson at amy.johnson@teacherspetmi.org.

Related reading, on therapeutic power of the human-animal bond, from the Counseling Today archives: “The people whisperers

 

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Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor:ct@counseling.org

 

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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.

 

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.

 

The (misguided) pursuit of happiness

By Laurie Meyers February 1, 2017

Happiness. Most Americans seem to believe that it is something to which we are entitled. After all, happiness — or at least the pursuit of it — is enshrined in our nation’s Declaration of Independence.

As a result, we invest a significant amount of time, money and effort looking for that magical thing/place/person/experience that will ultimately deliver the promise of happiness. We play the lottery, hoping for the big payoff that will make everything better. We buy books that promise us happiness in X number of steps. We go to spas and wellness retreats hoping to meditate, stretch or massage our way to happiness. There is even a whole school of psychological thought — positive psychology — that has devoted much of its time to the study of happiness.

But what is happiness? Is it a state of being? A process? A transient emotion? And whatever it is, can counselors help clients find or achieve it?

“I think our culture defines happiness as a relative emotional state of bliss or euphoria that comes and goes,” says licensed professional counselor Ryan Thomas Neace, the founder of Change Inc., a counseling practice in St. Louis that focuses on holistic practices to help clients achieve biological, psychological, social and spiritual wellness. “The great irony being that we tend to ignore that relative ‘coming and going’ and demand that happiness stick around permanently. It doesn’t end very well that way.”

Reaching for the wrong goal

Perhaps happiness isn’t exactly what most people are looking for after all.

“I think we struggle with the fleeting nature of happiness because our culture is so consumeristic,” says Neace, an American Counseling Association member who also blogs about spirituality and religion on The Huffington Post website. “Happiness, we think, like everything else, ought to be something we can obtain on a permanent basis if we just put together the right combination of life factors — a nice body, a good partner, a strong education, a large salary, etc. If we’re unhappy, we work out more and eat less, end a relationship and/or start a new one, change schools or jobs, etc.”

But none of those things can deliver lasting happiness, Neace asserts. “Even if some of these things are related to happiness, they don’t change its fundamental nature as fleeting and elusive,” he says.

People sometimes seek happiness by avoiding reality, Neace observes. “Anything that helps us to avoid reality on a relatively permanent basis cannot ultimately lead to happiness and is eventually — if not immediately — destructive,” he says. “I’m not talking about the person who has had a rough day and decides to smoke a joint or have a glass of wine to relax a little, and I’m not talking about people who use fantasy playfully in recreation or to spice up their sex lives.

“Instead, I’m talking about the clients I’ve had who plow through their lives doing anything they can to avoid facing up to their mismatched occupations, their wayward teenagers, their sexual identities, etc. I’m talking about the person who avoids looking at his or her failing marriage because they don’t want to be unhappy. It sounds so illogical from an outside, third-party perspective, but it happens all the time. What really happens isn’t that the person doing the avoiding somehow magically becomes happy; [it’s] that their unhappiness shifts locations, usually to someplace outside their conscious awareness. So the person in an unhappy marriage compulsively spends money or works excessively to avoid being at home. It’s like squeezing one end of a balloon — it just makes the other end swell.”

Even some of the most prominent voices in happiness research are rethinking happiness as a goal. For instance, Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology and author of the 2002 book Authentic Happiness, eventually rejected happiness as the ultimate goal. In his 2011 book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, Seligman discussed the limitations of happiness as the key to life satisfaction. This is because happiness is too based on mood, he said, so Seligman redefined positive psychology to focus on “well-being.”

True satisfaction

If happiness is not necessarily to be the stated goal in counseling, what is? “In therapy, I try to contrast that for clients with something that is probably more akin to contentment, which I define as a quality of ‘OK-ness’ that is nonrelative –— present for the most part without regard to circumstance or situation,” Neace says. “Contentment can include moments of happiness, but it doesn’t demand that those feelings, or any others for that matter, stick around. Contentment transcends happiness and allows it to actually be what we already know it is — sometimes fleeting and elusive, prone to slip away when the wind changes direction.”

Maya Georgieva, a national certified counselor whose counseling approach emphasizes wellness and focuses on the effects of emotional strain on the body, prefers to concentrate on helping clients live richer, fuller lives. Rather than helping clients strive for happiness, Georgieva views her goal as helping them to grow — a process that is unique to each individual. Instead of focusing on attaining some ephemeral state of being, she believes it is more important to find out what the client wants to achieve and what he or she wants to change.

Georgieva encourages “self-actualization” for clients. “We’re born with the ability and desire … to grow,” she says. Growth involves removing any barriers that hinder clients from learning and creating new relationships and accomplishments.

When clients show up to counseling looking for “happiness,” Neace emphasizes the importance of telling them that contentment should be the goal instead. “There’s typically a ton of work to be done there simply around insight and helping people recognize the problem underneath the problem,” he says. “In other words, clients typically come in and tell us that some relationship or job or situation is unsatisfactory and must change. [In their eyes], it is the problem. … It is our job to point out to them that perhaps it is their approach — trying to squeeze happiness out of every situation — that actually causes the real trouble and is, in fact, the problem underneath the problem.”

“The key here for counselors is helping clients understand that reality can actually be a decent source upon which to base their existence,” he continues. Reality might not always be happy, but it can serve as the basis for contentment, Neace observes.

The leisure perspective 

ACA member Rodney Dieser believes leisure is very important for overall well-being. As such, he is a proponent of the “serious leisure perspective,” which was developed by sociologist Robert Stebbins.

As explained by Dieser, a professor of leisure, youth and human services at the University of Northern Iowa, the serious leisure perspective has three components.

1) Serious leisure involves spending a large amount of time to master skills as a hobby. An example would be learning to play an instrument over time and participating in the community orchestra.

2) Casual leisure is what most people think of as leisure. Examples include relaxing, going to a restaurant, resting on a hammock or going to the beach.

3) Project-based leisure involves taking on a project that is somewhat complicated but that doesn’t involve more “serious skills.” Examples include planning a family vacation, engaging in fundraising for a local community project or participating in other kinds of volunteer efforts.

In addition to allowing the body to relax, leisure can help clients build and strengthen relationships, achieve a sense of purpose and establish a sense of community, Dieser says. For example, Dieser once worked with a middle-aged man who had stage 4 renal disease that rendered him unable to work. He was home on disability and depressed. Part of his distress involved his identity as a traditional male who viewed himself as the primary provider for the family. Now, because of renal disease, his wife had to work and provide financial support for the family instead.

“One of the things I did was ask him to reflect back on his life. Was there anything he did in his free time that he enjoyed?” Dieser recalls. “He said that he used to fish a lot and was a serious angler and fly fisherman. He still had the rods and tackle box, but all the gear hadn’t been out in 10 years.”

Dieser suggested that because the man now had extra time on his hands and already owned all the gear, he might consider taking up fishing again. The man started going out regularly and even taught his daughter how to fish. The father and daughter bonded over these experiences, which ultimately made their relationship stronger.

“When I first met him in assessment, his role/purpose in life was his family,” Dieser says. “So now he is fishing regularly with his daughter, which is fulfilling his existential purpose. One of the benefits of this terrible development is he gets to do things he wouldn’t have gotten to do [otherwise].”

In another case, Dieser was working with a single father in his 40s who had medical issues, depression and anxiety. His family was struggling financially, and the client felt isolated. During a counseling session, he talked to Dieser about the possibility of buying a Jet Ski. The man felt guilty about even considering the possibility because of the family’s finances, but operating a personal watercraft was something he had loved previously, and he wanted to share this activity with his two daughters.

“I let the guy talk about it and work through it out loud, [evaluating] the pros and cons,” Dieser says. When viewing it from a financial standpoint, the client thought his priority should be to pay some bills that were past due. But Dieser also had him look at it from a relationship perspective: Could he really put a price tag on spending time with his daughters? Was it possible for him to pay most of his bills and still buy the Jet Ski as an act of self-care?

The client decided to buy a used Jet Ski and started taking his daughters out with him as part of their family time. He also developed friendships with other owners of personal watercraft and ended up on a boating committee, which allowed him to contribute and provided a sense of purpose. Dieser says that all of these developments helped ease the client’s depression.

Final thoughts

Unfortunately, Dieser says, many Americans operate under the belief that they can buy happiness. In addition, he thinks that the individual nature of American culture often leads to isolation.

“The U.S. is the most individualist country in the world,” he says. “We are constantly not paying attention to relationships and belongingness. We are so focused on ourselves that we get lonely and there is no one there to provide a safety net when we fall.”

“The leisure-happiness connection is there, but it hasn’t really been defined,” Dieser says. “Leisure creates meaning, belonging, fulfillment and purpose. I think those are the same things that create happiness. Most people think of leisure as just doing nothing but relaxing. They don’t see it as about energy and engagement.”

“The real power of leisure is actually giving meaning in life,” he says. “I really see leisure connected to existential counseling.”

“It’s possible that any number of additional constructs are related to the search for happiness but, ultimately, no source outside ourselves can produce it,” Neace says. “Don’t get me wrong — we need a ton of support, encouragement, guidance, wisdom, friendship, etc., from outside of ourselves. But the ultimate goal isn’t just that we have a bunch of external sources of validation and satisfaction, but that we learn to internalize those sources into a united, inner chorus that helps us know we are enough, that things are OK — even if they aren’t OK right now — and that we’re going to make it. Perhaps that’s the key difference between happiness and contentment — the movement from an external to internal source of strength and resilience.”

 

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Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editorct@counseling.org

 

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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.