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.
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