Frequently, I hear of apparently impossible situations which are making people upset or depressed. I’m a logical person, and I like to try to find solutions if they exist. The practical part of life can be a bit like a puzzle: elegant solutions are available, if we can just focus enough to identify them and see them through.
But there is a particular kind of interaction which feels, initially, like wading through mud. I am reminded of the book Knots by R.D. Laing (see this link). Also of the book Games People Play by Eric Berne (see this link). A key message in both books is this: behind a relational context, is a dysfunctional tangle of motivations, so that a situation may not be what it seems.
When we encounter such a knot or game, we are initially flummoxed. What is going on? Usually we can disentangle things reasonably quickly, get a handle on things, establish a straightforward relationship with a common understanding. But here, we feel, we are faced with something else. The feeling in the head is that a cloud descends. We know something is wrong, but we can’t easily define what.
We can get angry. Some therapists describe this as a ‘countertransference’ (see this link). Countertransference is the un-useful expression of a therapist’s reactive emotions. Any helper can experience feelings of anger, though, if faced with a ‘tangly’ relationship with a help-ee. We want to help, but there seems to be some kind of battle going on preventing things from being neat or easy.
What if, in the course of therapy, a therapist is trying to seem like someone who can keep a client calm, but the client appears to be unable to keep calm? What if a therapist is trying to seem like someone who can share wisdom, but the client appears to be acting unwisely? What if a therapist is trying to seem like a problem-solver, but the client seems to be stuck in the problem?
When I am in such situations, I focus on my own behaviour. I try to remain present, calm, respectful, thoughtful and truthful. It’s really hard. The temptation to try and explain the client’s distress away can be enormous. The temptation to try to blame the client for being self-sabotaging can also be enormous. It is hard to sit uncertainly with difficulty, without blaming.
Often, it takes days, weeks, months, years to learn enough to be able to help. Sometimes I have to learn a completely new way of talking. My relational repertoire improves greatly from such times. I’m being invited to enter a new world, with new rules, and until I learn those rules I am of no use. I can fight, but really I will only be fighting myself.
So when we hear someone say ‘I’m stuck’ for the thousandth time… it’s time, yet again, to remain present, calm, respectful, thoughtful and truthful. To sit uncertainly with difficulty, without blaming. It may take years, but we can take the long view. We have all of our lives.