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.