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.

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