Monday, January 14, 2013

Pastoral Counselors Need Both Love and Assertion

Most people I’ve met who have gone into counseling as a vocation say they did so because they cared about others. They wanted to help heal persons who were hurting. Yet there is a paradox in counseling, in that counselees can resist a counselor’s assistance as much as they receive it. This means you can’t maintain a naïve belief that loving counselees is enough to make them whole

In fact, loving care can get you in a lot of trouble if you cross certain boundaries with the counselee, developing too much interpersonal intimacy. Many counselors undergo the inglorious experience of falling in love with one of their counselees. This doesn’t mean that the counselor acts on this sentiment, because it is equally feasible that the counselor will recognize the inappropriateness of deepening a misguided love bond, and will confide in a supervisor or else do the inner work of intercepting the subjective side of love, transmuting it back into objective caring by not giving it room to grow.

It is wise to understand that the counseling platform allows for such profound communion of souls that transparency can succumb to infatuation, where professional caring takes a headlong fall into the ditch of a love affair. In the years before having sex with counselees became public knowledge as a glaring legal and professional breach of ethics, counselors sometimes took such liberties. Now, however, it is at the top of everyone’s list—counselors and counselees alike—to channel caring into facilitating the growth and coping skills of the counselee without becoming enmeshed in a romantic/erotic mess.

It is erroneous to think that pastoral counselors, because of their consecration to God and assimilation of Christian doctrine, are immune from such temptations, for they certainly are not. Yet that immunity is available, and it comes through the awareness that the Love compass point needs effective balancing with the Assertion compass point in the pastoral counselor’s life and practice.

What the Love compass point of the Self Compass enables you to do is forgive counselees for the mistakes, broken resolutions, and sometimes glaringly immature attitudes they will reveal to you, while nurturing them with a long-term sustenance much akin to Christ’s love for his disciples.

The Assertion compass point, on the other hand, lets you stand apart from the counselee, holding your own as a person in your own right, so as not to become drawn into the counselee’s habitual way of relating to people. For if a counselee can draw you into their normal interpersonal style and get you to agree with their perspective, then you will completely lose your power to effect constructive change in their life. Put differently, you give up the need for your counselee’s approval and gain the ability to tell them the actual effects of their distorted personality patterns, truncated human nature, and self-defeating communication style.

Assertion lets you express yourself in ways that include professional knowledge you’ve acquired from study, training, and experience. Assertion lets you make tentative hypotheses about a counselee’s unconscious dynamics, even though such information is often startling at first, or runs counter to their conscious self-image. Of course, you don’t allow your assertion to become headstrong or brash, because the balance of the Love compass point is there to reign you in, reminding you that love is patient, kind, and not rude or arrogant.

Think about this polarity for a moment. Picture the ways you show the Love compass point in your personal and professional life: caring, forgiving, nurturing, supporting. Now move to the opposite compass point and picture the ways you manifest Assertion: expressing, diplomatically confronting, negotiating, and challenging. Now let the two polarities move into a dynamic rhythm that encompasses many shades and nuances of Love and Assertion, working synergistically to give your personality and interpersonal communication a balance of loving assertion and assertive loving

It is reassuring to know that if you become too loving, sliding into subjective caring that becomes inappropriate, you can recover quickly by moving into assertion and making choices that restore balance. Or if you stay too long in Assertion to the point of getting argumentative, contrary, or unforgiving, you can recover your balance by moving into Love.

The key to this attitudinal and behavioral flexibility lies in existential openness to God’s guidance. Just as the disciples needed open minds and flexible personalities in order to keep hearing and benefiting from Jesus’ interactions with them, so the Holy Spirit can spontaneously move within your personality and behavior, both in counseling sessions and in your private life. And your ability to guide counselees toward Christlike wholeness radiates from your own continued growth in Christ.

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