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. 

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