All the above is on its own a misleading account of professional survival in that it does not highlight the charged emotional context in which helping professionals operate. There is a world of difference between seeking help for a technical problem – a benefits mix up, a legal question (although even in these there is a significant emotional context that if understood can enable help to be effectively provided) – and seeking help with a personal trouble, though clients will often seek to disguise the latter behind the former. Sometimes, I would find workers colluding with their clients in a kind of pretence that some relatively technical problem was being tackled and would dismiss suggestions that something else was going on as unnecessary complication. Readers will recall the pattern of anxious attachment discussed earlier which was characterised by a lack of emotional expression and a preoccupation with material objects. Workers who bought into this defensive structure would rarely sustain relationships of any depth and significance with their clients. These relationships all too often ended in a mutual sense of pointlessness.
‘Professional survival’ as I am defining it, involved therefore some kind of emotional engagement, a taking part in the ‘argument’ that is a meaningful relationship. Even when the worker is in touch with the need for this, ‘survival’ is sometimes extremely difficult. For some clients, their very existence can seem to depend on maintaining superficiality in relation ships, on keeping everyone including themselves, away from inner turmoil, need and intimacy. There are few of us that have not found ourselves using a similar defence mechanism in the face of emotional distress. If you doubt this, just consider how universal is the pressure parents feel to hide their depression from their children.
‘Professional’ survival’ does not however mean throwing yourself into the ’emotional maelstrom’ that is the clients’ inner world. The turmoil the client is avoiding may be objectively frightening – murderous impulses, fantasies of sexual violence, psychotic episodes etc. In many such cases, the danger to professional survival may be failure to survive a feeling of pointlessness about the working relationship and to agree with the client that there is no point in continuing. The work may feel boring, it may feel a waste of time, but one of the most demanding requirements on workers is to wait, to hang on until a shift occurs that allows the worker to enter a more meaningful argument with the client. The difficulty of this ‘waiting’ can be considerable – the worker may well be feeling that their contact with the client is genuinely pointless and going nowhere whilst other cases are clamouring for attention. The worker’s problem is to remain active in their listening – in other words ‘waiting’ in this context if not a passive state. The workers must remain alive to what the client is communicating in words, in mood, in body language, in behaviour and constantly demonstrating to the client that they are paying attention and thinking actively about their experience and problems. Where breakdowns of the clients defensive framework are revealed – a moment of sadness, or self doubt for example – the worker must resist the urge to leap into the opening like an angler’s strike. To do that may be to risk losing the client altogether.