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.