The problem of seeing the answer

This dynamic (see last post) is familiar enough in the context of bereavement but the same unhelpful dynamics can be at work in all kinds of circumstances. It comes into play whenever we are foolish enough to think that we can see the right solution for our client more clearly than they can. This in a way becomes more of an issue the more experienced, knowledgeable and perceptive we become – we are increasingly likely to see ‘the right answer’ for our clients and be more frustrated when they can’t see what is so obvious to us. Janet Mattinson at the Institute of Marital Studies used to say that she was fortunate to be a slow thinker – meaning that this reduced the tendency for her to get ahead of her clients and so put her answers in the way of them finding their own answers. It may also be why I have heard it said that student social workers are the most effective social workers – they in a way expect to be bewildered  with their clients, ‘in a mess’ with them without answers and with only enthusiasm and hope to offer.

Finding the way out

Being ‘in the mess’ with the client can take all kinds of forms and certainly should not be considered just as a kind of intellectual ‘puzzle’. Being stuck intellectually can be one form – an inability to think can be reflecting just that experience for the client as can an ability only to think of one option that keeps being attempted and keeps failing. Being in a mess can however be a whole range of different experiences, each of which will have something to reveal about the client and something to say about oneself as a worker. It can mean, as in an example above, having illicit sexual feelings about a client, or being judgmental or just upset or despairing. The emotional content of the ‘mess’ is always as important as the intellectual or rational elements.

At this point the helper has to remember that their job is not to find the way out of the mess so that they can tell the client how to find the way out. As I have said, our job is not to be ‘right’ but to be helpful. We should therefore be concerned with how best to help the client find their own way forward. When dealing with such a normal process such as bereavement, the first task can be not to get in the way of a natural healing process.

It is easy to see well meaning efforts to help in practice becoming such a barrier. It is rarely helpful for a bereaved person to be given medication to dull their distress, unless there are specific conditions where symptoms need to be managed to allow any sort of reasonable life. Distress undulled by medication is hard to face, but important to help us come to terms with the unchangeable reality of loss. It is often unhelpful for friends and family to be trying to persuade a bereaved person that it is time for them to ‘move on’, start new relationships, stop setting the table for the lost person etc. One of the most common problems faced by bereaved people derives from such well meaning advice. For some, it leads to a ‘pretend’ recovery where a false life is led for the sake of those recommending ‘moving on’. For others, it can intensify a fear that they are in some way abnormal or going mad. For others still, they may just fear that they are a terrible burden to their friends and family.

Getting in a mess

Defensiveness in working with people in trouble is therefore to be welcomed as a sign of getting close to some powerful emotional drivers in their lives. Learning to ‘make friends’ with the defensive patterns that characterise our own lives provides us with access to new route ways to helpfulness. If we can do this, we then have to admit times when we are lost, mystified, frightened, incompetent, angry etc – or to sum this up, when we are in a mess.

I have consistently found that it is good workers who get in messes with their clients – all too often ineffectual workers stay further away, safe, perhaps clear in mind but not much use. This pointed me to some of the meaning in Jung’s famous comment that ‘only the wounded physician can heal’.

Of course I am not saying that defensiveness is not a problem. It is most of all a problem when the helper cannot bear to acknowledge and share their own defensiveness. This is dangerous in that it can lead to more isolated practice, can mean that important diagnostic information is missed and can involve a breakdown in the interpersonal boundaries that provide protection to the client.

It is also a problem if what I have said leads the reader to imagine that ‘getting into the mess’ that characterises the clients’ experience, is sufficient. In the Bereavement group, one of the volunteers, most apparently confident and feeling least in need of training and advice, when starting to visit bereaved people would quickly herself become tearful. Clients soon began to question who was helping whom, and we had to ask the volunteer to wait until her own experience of loss was more manageable before offering help to others. One of the problems faced by self help groups arises if the group members find they are all stuck with the same problems and no one is sufficiently not ‘in the mess’ to help them move forward – find different options in their lives.

Making friends with our defences

All these ways of making sense of the experience of working with clients in distress are just that – a response to the pressure and strain of the helper’s closeness to distress. The experience is of a nature to require defences. The function of the defences is to create enough distance from the disordered or chaotic emotions that characterise a mental health crisis, drug or alcohol dependence, offending, bereavement, family breakdown etc., to allow the helper to think and to listen without being incapacitated by the distress. We should not be apologetic about our defensiveness therefore, but need to ‘become friends’ with the personal, individual forms that each of our defensive systems takes.

This is a hard position to take. We are so used to thinking that openness = good and defensiveness = bad, that we are misled with unfortunate consequences. It leads us to want to deny or hide our defensiveness, often both from other people and ourselves; awareness of defensiveness becomes a source of guilt. As a consequence, we can enter a world of mutual pretence in which important experiences are not explored or understood.

I am not talking about especially dramatic or intense moments but about some of the everyday realities of working experience. For example, as a young probation officer working with separating couples, my interviews would often overrun – instead of being about 45 minutes, they would go on for an hour and a half. I felt somehow that this was not right, a failing on my part, getting drawn into a fantasy that I could save their relationship if we pursued an issue a little longer to get to a point of understanding. I would as a result, hide the fact that the interviews over-ran and as a consequence of this defensive anxiety, I denied my supervisor access to all kinds of rich material that had the potential to be useful to the couple, and certainly would have offered me opportunities for learning. Or with a 15 year old boy, I might not think of anything to discuss or feel hopeless about being able to make any difference. I would therefore have a very short and functional or superficial ‘chat’ in which I really felt no work was taking place. Again, by avoiding raising such a case with my supervisor, I denied myself access to what might be generating this sense of futility or emptiness of mind.

Defensive options for the helper

There are all kinds of defensive options for people in the helping professions and if I think of some early colleagues, some illustrations come to mind:

  • The sentimental option. Here the worker believes they can overcome the pain of their clients by the strength of their warmth and affection. The destructiveness of clients’ behaviour is either excused or not really faced. The worker interprets their growing importance to the client as evidence of the clients’ progress. These are the colleagues who always seem to get the flowers or other tokens of appreciation from their clients. They can be judgmental when clients don’t show the appropriate devotion to them! The emergence of judgmental attitudes points to the way in which these defensive positions have what might be termed ‘shadows’ – instead of being sentimentally positive about the clients, being sentimentally hostile. This alternative sentimentality is frequently found in the criminal justice world, where offenders can be written off as evil and amenable only to the crudest forms of punishment. This kind of sentimentality allows a faith in the deterrent power of prisons to survive repeated and overwhelming evidence that such a deterrent effect does not exist for most offenders.
  • The common sense option. This colleague never really understands the destructive or distressing sides of the clients and in any event thinks all that ‘clever stuff’, the psychological insight and interpretation of relationships, is really of marginal value. For this worker, the job is to do the simple common sense things – to advise about jobs, to find money to reconnect the electricity etc. They tend to be bewildered when the client fails to respond to this sensible approach.
  • The radical option. This worker is angry about the patronising and diminishing aspects of helping and believes the client, if properly understood and ‘empowered’, will become part of a movement of social change. Destructive behaviour is seen as more the responsibility of the oppressive environment than as rightly understood in terms of individual morality. Help tends to focus on collective action to address material need, on welfare rights, on entitlements. Failure to respond simply reinforces the belief in the power of the oppressing society.
  • The rational intellect option. Here the belief is that if only the worker can analyse the client’s problems and behaviour with enough acumen and clarity, targeted inputs can prompt the client to learn how to behave differently. This can be equally apparent in those who favour psychodynamic approaches where the belief is in the power of the well aimed interpretation, as in those with more cognitive behavioural interests where change is seen as deriving from learned skills. This option underlines the worker as the expert and the client as the learner or immature child. Failure to respond prompts renewed efforts to deepen the expertise that is applied or to develop the complexity of analysis.

Getting defensive

Before the last post takes my story in a new direction, I should say a bit more about the importance of ‘getting in a mess’. The fact of the matter is that in entering the helping professions, we are choosing to work with painful aspects of life. This naturally enough will prompt a tendency to defend ourselves from being hurt by getting too close to the pain. When I have spoken of such a proposition, I find people often feel uncomfortable and inclined to deny it, but there is surely nothing to be ashamed of in finding defensiveness in ourselves. Defences are part of our humanity; they are the cracks in our smooth public presentation that open us up to love, compassion and companionship. They perform a necessary function and so the need is not to pretend that we could do without them by being ‘professional’ but to use them to help us understand and empathise, and to manage them so that they do not become a barrier to others.

Being helpful – not ‘right’

This is part of active listening; it is about being helpful rather than being ‘right’. It had struck me early in my career that sessions with my clients that seemed to go particularly well, in which the client had perhaps shown insight into their problem and possible means of tackling it, were often followed by no discernable change in their lives. On the other hand, sessions that seemed awful, muddled, painful or hopeless could often be followed by some kind of shift or development. I became aware of how often we described a discussion with a client as a good one because we felt good, and how little this had to do with what the client had taken from the meeting.

There seemed to be a need, if change were to be achieved, for the worker to experience the sense of life’s impossibility that was the clients’ feeling of impossibility; to go through times of not being able to make sense of anything. This meant that the approach I took to my work was intense and emotionally demanding. With a caseload of 50 offenders as a young probation officer, it was not possible to become so emotionally engaged with them all. I was aware of clients where I lacked the energy to engage with them beyond a practical level. I also later observed the same fatigue in my team when a couple of them ran a group for people with alcohol problems. As I recall it now, whilst my team were getting exhausted by their alcohol group to the point that they could not face starting a new group without a few months’ rest, another team in the city was able to run regular alcohol groups on a less intensive model – ‘alcohol education groups’ they were called.