Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Pastoral Counselor Needs Both Strength and Weakness

The Self Compass growth tool edifies a pastoral counselor’s life and personality as effectively as it does a counselee’s.

After becoming a psychologist, I unknowingly developed a glitch in my personality. I was so self-confident (Strength compass point) that I lacked humility and empathy toward my counselees (Weakness compass point). In other words, I had plenty of clinical skills as a therapist, but lacked the ability to identify with a counselee’s vulnerabilities. I wasn’t about to feel vulnerable, especially because I had spent too much time there in my growing up years. 

The Narcissistic Boaster

Looking back on that early part of my counseling career, I recognize that God was trying to wake me up, trying to give me clues that being too strong had become my greatest weakness, but I didn’t want to hear the message. Though I utilized healthy strength in accomplishing goals, a residue of the narcissistic Boaster pattern kept me self-absorbed and one step removed from other people’s pain—too success-oriented to empathize with others.

Several things happened that brought a compass awakening. There was an extended period of illness, a devastating financial reversal, and the death of my father. After taking off several months from counseling in order to put my life back together, the first few counselees I saw said they especially appreciated my empathy.

What? Empathy? From the Rock of Gibraltar who felt superior to almost everyone? Yet as I reflected on this new input, I had to agree that it was true. Somehow in the crucible of my suffering, God had balanced out my over-reliance upon Strength, helping me to develop a more authentic integration of healthy Weakness.

The Rhythm of Weakness and Strength

In terms of the Weakness and Strength polarity within your personality, there is a profound wisdom conveyed through Scripture but often lost in culture at large. The entry point for following Christ comes through weakness, not strength. Compass Therapy purposely uses the term “Weakness” to highlight the universality of human fallibility—conjoined with the truth that acknowledging one’s weaknesses leads to humility and empathy for others.

If you think about it, no one in the biblical narrative called upon God or followed Christ out of sheer human strength. Such strength creates the sense that one is fully capable of living one’s life without God’s help. But biblical characters, to the degree that they developed intimacy with God, uniformly confessed their weaknesses and acknowledged their sin and need.

As a pastoral counselor, you build upon this willingness to acknowledge your humanness and resist appearing infallible. In your personal and professional life, you maintain an ongoing dialogue with the Lord, based on your need for him to impart to you some of his own qualities as the Mighty Counselor. Yet even Christ lives out this polarity of Weakness and Strength. As the author of Hebrews points out, he makes perfect intercession for his brother and sister humans, since he himself has suffered and knows what it’s like to be human.

There are going to be times when you leave a particular counseling session feeling quite furious at the counselee for dumping anger on you, or for ignoring your advice and worsening their situation. You’ll want to tell God, “Sam is a total idiot! Why did you send him to me?”

It’s okay to have these feelings. Counselees can exasperate even the best of counselors. And some of their behaviors can really grate you. But at the end of the day you surrender this load to the Lord by “casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you” (1 Pet 5:7). He will use this healthy Weakness to comfort you during the night and move in mysterious ways that help you the next day.

When it comes to the Strength compass point, most of us need some help because we don’t automatically enjoy a self-image as a competent and capable counselor. We develop this image over time as a consequence of receiving positive feedback from counselees, and from seeing our professional reputation grow in our church and community.
To increase your confidence in your pastoral counseling identity, say to yourself often enough for it to really register: “I appreciate my strengths, capabilities, and developing talents as a pastoral counselor.” This isn’t aimed at making you cocky, but at strengthening your enjoyment of this vocation and bolstering your spirits when the occasional session falls flat, or when an encounter with a hostile or judgmental counselee takes a piece out of you. 

Likewise the Weakness compass point lets you say to yourself, “I am a human being with clay feet, and I am not afraid to ask for help, make an appropriate apology, or experience my need for strengthening through prayer, relationships, and community.”

And when you get into the thick of a counseling session in which you have no earthly idea what to do next, just say, as Peter did when walking on water in the presence of high waves, “Help!” The Lord loves responding to his shepherds who are giving their lives to care for his sheep. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Modulating Feelings: The Core of Pastoral Counseling

When it comes to feelings, there are three types of counselees you’ll likely meet. 

  1. The more cognitive and emotionally guarded person holds back feelings, like a squirrel stuffing its pouches with acorns. 
  2. The opposite occurs with the histrionic counselee who wears the heart on the sleeve, blurting out so many feelings that you can hardly keep up with them. 
  3. Persons who have already struck a healthy balance between thinking and feeling will use your help to clarify emotions, but then articulate them in their own words.

Here’s a key principle in applying Compass Therapy to pastoral counseling: keep it simple. Follow the psychology of the obvious. Help counselees name, understand, and utilize their emotions so that they are well served by them. 

For the cognitive-oriented counselee, you place less emphasis on an exchange of ideas or verbal discussions that bypass personal feelings. This counselee will at first tend to defend against displaying emotion through a mechanism called intellectualization. What you want to do is slow down the process of this person’s communication so that the inner palette of emotional nuance is discovered and gradually actualized.

You can say at some point: “You know, it strikes me that some of the deeper things inside you hold clues about what you really want and need. Might I have your permission now and then to reflect what seems like a feeling, to bring into our dialogue some of the emotional undertones of what you’re saying?”

Or, to someone who masks the flow of inner emotion through the habitual use of indiscriminate phrases like, “I feel weird,” “It doesn’t really matter,” and “That doesn’t really bother me,” you might say, “How about we try to flesh out more clearly some of what’s going on inside you, so that you can use these inner feelings as part of your decision-making process?”

You don’t need to overdo this by stereotypically asking, “How do you feel about that?” It’s more that, among other things, you know the value of raising the counselee’s emotional IQ, encouraging them to trust, discern, and integrate the emotions they experience.

For counselees who ooze feelings but are not in the habit of examining and sorting them out, you take the opposite tack. You intervene in the cascading waves of emotion by asking thoughtful questions or making summary statements. You literally play the role of a cognitive neocortex for them until they learn to think about their own feelings.

A man strings together a flood of negative feelings about his ex-wife. You summarize: “So from your view, Ellen had nothing going for her except her constant demands for emotional intimacy from you.” 

This in itself is provocative, for it causes the man to shift into a cognitive mindset from which he says, “Well, it’s not like she didn’t contribute anything. She did raise our three kids because I was traveling so much. And she took care of the monthly budget, since that isn’t my forte.” 

Now you’ve got him integrating thinking and feeling, and though it may take some doing before he can cultivate this new habit, at least he is gaining experience in slowing down his emotional flow enough to think about what he is experiencing.

To another such counselee you periodically say things like: “Let’s slow down a moment and see which one of your feelings is the most important right now.” “Can you elaborate on that for a moment?” Or, “What is your theory about why you always get so mad when you are dealing with a salesperson?”

By helping your counselees learn how to understand and modulate their feelings, you are giving them the versatility a pianist shows when integrating the loud, soft, and mute pedals in playing a piece of music. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

First Contact with Counselee in Pastoral Counseling

Let’s speculate a little, for the purpose of enhancing empathy with counselees, about what goes on within a person before making a first contact with a pastoral counselor. 

It’s awful when individuals feel bound up with a knotty life problem that won’t go away and doesn’t get better, no matter what efforts they make, no matter what advice they receive from trusted friends, the problem even defying heartfelt prayer, a sense of helplessness accruing alongside inner anxiety.

It may be that a third child, unlike the first two who were calm and sociable, climbs the walls day and night, paying no attention to parental pleas or reprimands. Or it may be that sexual issues have come to haunt the marriage bed. Or what about a person who has recurring anxiety attacks and doesn’t know why?

Every counselee feels anguish. They would not contact you if pain and perplexity didn’t compel them. And once they are resolved to reach out, there is the added uncertainty about how you will respond to them.

Treatment fearfulness is commonly underestimated by counselors, but nevertheless acts as a genuine obstacle in seeking help. Further, men especially may have some culturally determined resistance to counseling because of the intimate sharing it requires. 

Take heart, though. Research shows that counselees have a greater probability of experiencing healing in their area of need than do patients who seek a physician’s care. And, generally speaking, the more anxious and distressed people are when they enter counseling, the more likely they will continue with it and the more benefit they are apt to derive. Keep in mind, too, that many people prefer seeing a counselor who is sensitive to spiritual values over one who is secular-minded.

Fears and all, then, many hurting persons reach a point where they decide to pursue pastoral counseling, mustering the courage to make a first contact. They may know you from church, hear of your work from someone you’ve counseled, or find your site on the Internet. In their moment of reaching out, a touch of hope stirs within them, a warranted hope, since God is encouraging them to make a counseling connection with you.

Now, for our part, what goes on inside us to prepare for a first session with a new counselee? As a Christian counselor, I am helped by an open-ended prayer conversation that says to Jesus, “Please send me only those individuals that in your providence you want me to see, and please guide us from beginning to end.” This steadies my confidence in God’s superintendence of my counseling practice, helping my unconscious to accept that Jesus Christ is guiding people long before they see me, and will continue to help them long after our counseling is over. 

I want, as I'm sure you do, God’s multifaceted involvement in my pastoral counseling practice. After all, Christ is the one who originally called me to this profession!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Counselees as Heroes in Therapy

Human beings have an existential need for visibility; that is, recognition and validation that they are special and their lives matter. When counselees feel stuck in problems they can’t find their way through, it takes a toll on self-esteem. Compass Therapy seeks to strengthen their self-image, promoting redemptive hope by viewing them as uniquely heroic in their efforts to overcome difficulty.

Miguel was seeing me for help in solving a relationship problem. He had been dating the same woman for five years, yet she was still holding him at arms length whenever he mentioned marriage. In the first two sessions I had learned that Miguel had experienced a fairly tempestuous adolescence, including a good amount of fighting, cussing, and delinquency. He and Monica attended the same church, but this didn’t stop his old behaviors from sabotaging his efforts at emotional intimacy

Now in the third session, Miguel says, “I just don’t get it. Monica knows I love her. Why won’t she marry me?”
“I wonder if it has something to do with the way you respond to her in conversations?”

“Well, she does say that I cut her off and don’t understand her feelings. But it’s boring when she gets emotionally worked up. I really don’t want to hear about it.” 

So from your view she's always asking for more emotion that you're willing to give?” (This is an emotional reflection designed to make sure Miguel feels that I empathize with his frustration, before expanding this thought to help mend his mind). 

“Exactly. She drives me crazy that way!”

“I think I have a hypothesis about what’s going on. Would you like to hear it?”

(I’m now signaling to Miguel that we are changing to another part of his human nature—his mind—and I’m doing so respectfully by asking his permission).


“Well, from what you told me in our first session about the pretty aggressive crowd you grew up with, and from your identifying with the Arguer and Boaster personality patterns when you read the Self Compass book, I think we can say that you might be showing hostility and rudeness to her a lot more than you’ve realized.”

Miguel laughs. “She’d agree with that. But verbal sparring comes naturally to me. That’s how I make my living in sales. I always have an answer before someone asks the question, and I totally control the conversation. Isn’t that a good thing?”

“It’s a communication style that may work in business, but not if your goal is man/woman love.”


“How about putting on your thinking cap and telling me?”

Miguel offers a sheepish grin. “Because I don’t pay attention to what she’s saying?”

“And even more significantly, perhaps because you’re not emotionally connected to her while she’s speaking.”

Miguel sits back and sighs. “But I pride myself on being a good communicator. All my friends say I can talk my way out of anything.”

“I think this is the crux of the difficulty. In that fast crowd you grew up around, was it considered a strength to outsmart people with comebacks and put-downs?”

“Yeah. I always came out on top, too.”

(Now I administer more truth serum, knowing that if he receives it, I can move toward framing him as a hero of his life’s narrative).

“So as long as the conversations were focused on verbal sparring and had a competitive edge, you were the best of the best. But when you developed a man/woman relationship headed for marriage, everything stalled. Is that right?”

Miguel takes another deep breath, his eyes glazing over in thought. “I never thought of it like that before. I’ve always thought this whole problem was Monica’s fault for not being tough enough to handle how I talk to her.”

“I wonder if you’re on the verge of seeing that perhaps your aggressive speech has inflicted her with a lot of emotional wounds; that maybe she’s tried to tell you this but you turned a deaf ear.”

Miguel tears up. “She’s used that exact word—wounded. I never knew what she meant.”

“What are you feeling right now?”

Miguel wipes away a tear. “I feel sorry for being hard on her. Sorry, too, for never understanding her.”

(I wait for a few moments as he stares into space, sensing that his mind is assimilating a new theory about his past behavior, and perhaps finding fresh resolve to make attitudinal changes).

“I’m experiencing admiration for you, Miguel, because many individuals who have dished out harsh treatment to a partner aren’t willing to acknowledge it. But here you’re not only admitting your aggressive communication style, but also feeling empathy for how it’s impacted Monica.”

“I love her, Dr. Dan. I really do.” (His voice quavers with the emotion behind his declaration).

“I feel the sincerity of your love. But it seems like your aggression has the potential to destroy that love, at least on Monica’s part. Would you give me permission to point out when I observe traces of this aggressive trend in sessions, so you can become more aware of it?”

“Absolutely. It’s so second nature I don’t know how to change it. But I don’t want to hurt Monica any more.”


“Because I want her to love and trust me.”

(I want to deepen the cognitive memory trace of his statement and all it conveys).

“Please say this again, even firmer.”

His eyes tear slightly once more. “I want Monica to trust me because I start listening to her feelings.”

(Now I can place a new frame around Miguel’s life narrative, a frame that encompasses the growth he seeks).

“So may we describe you as a man who has finally come to face his combative ways? Who wants to transform his history as a tough-talking teenager into an adult capable of love and respect for the woman he hopes to marry?”

“That’s exactly right.”

“How would you say this to Monica?

“I guess I would say, ‘Hey Babe, I’m really sorry for bad-mouthing you so much. I know it’s not right. I want to treat you a lot better.”

“That’s a solid beginning, Miguel. That’s how an aggressive guy can become a hero of love.”

It is very worthwhile to build a warm human bond where curiosity and fascination enliven the counseling process, inviting counselees to join in the adventure of human growth.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Helping People Experience God's Love

I have helped many people yield to God's love. It isn't nearly as complicated as you might think. The two factors that have to be overcome include fear of the unknown and lack of knowledge about how much God desires to manifest himself in our lives.

I remember as a young boy I went to bed at night feeling deeply frightened after turning out the lights. I would see creepy shadows on the wall formed by streetlights, and imagine all types of weird monsters in the closet or under my bed. Finally my mother suggested a solution. She brought a black Bible into my room and laid it on my nightstand. "Here Dan," she said. "Now you know that God will be here with you in your room." Her technique and confidence, along with my new feeling of God's assurance won the day.

As a pastoral counselor you have countless opportunities to assure people of God's love for them. You can say, "God is going to help you through this current crisis because we are trusting in Him." Or, "I wonder what creative way the Lord will use to help you out this week."

When people express fear at the prospect of feeling God's presence, it is often because they connect it with ghost stories or the loss of control to an invisible force. Here is where people need to realize that in Jesus we see the face and hear the voice of Almighty God. From a child born in a manger, we hear the Lord of Creation speaking to us, usually gently through the voice of the Holy Spirit, about how we are to live and what we are to believe. Understanding that Christ is resurrected and that it's perfectly normal to hear his voice really helps people relax and recognize the Good Shepherd when He guides them.

If a person still doesn't feel comfortable with God, you may need to probe for areas of willful sin, where they are not really surrendering their lives to him, or where they are disobeying what Scripture teaches. A woman revealed to me in pastoral counseling something she had never told anyone: that a local physician had her visit his home each month to handle his sexual needs. For this he helped her out with her monthly condo payment. She had been benefiting from this arrangement for a year, and at first seemed shocked when I reframed it as prostitution. This went against her self-image as a very moral person in other regards. It took her a couple of months to part ways with the doctor, but a new peace of Christ came into her heart when she made the break.
Once you have helped a person deal with their reservations about growing in Jesus Christ, this opens up many opportunities for a closer walk with God. Since the Holy Spirit now lives within them, they can talk to God as they would a best friend, any time day or night. They can approach God boldly, as His much loved sons and daughters. "Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need" (Heb 4:16).

One day when President John Kennedy was in the Oval Office, a White House photographer caught little Jon-Jon, his three year old son, peeking out from under the desk, where he had been happily playing during a high level meeting.

But Kennedy acted like our Heavenly Father acts, making room for Jon-Jon in  his affairs of state. God loves us even more intensely. The Lord is never too busy to comfort us or give us a spiritual hug in the middle of the day.

Here are Scriptures that work well in pastoral counseling to drive this reality home:

"No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:39).

"May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God" (Ephesians 3:19).

"For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline" (2 Timothy 1:7).

Most of all, persons in pastoral counseling learn from you, the pastoral counselor, that God is really there, and that He loves them as you love them.