Monday, January 21, 2013

The Pastoral Counselor and the Avoidant Worrier

I can identify with the avoidant Worrier pattern because in my seminary years I was haunted by it. I cared a great deal about Christ, and had even left medical school in response to God’s call on my life. I read through the entire Bible several times, attended church weekly, and went to Campus Missions Fellowship on Friday nights. Yet I was still aware of a distance between me and other people. 

Why did I feel so alone? The depression felt like a gunnysack of concrete on my chest, the hopelessness like a fist gripping my stomach. I finally resolved to see a pastoral counselor at a nearby church, a very human man who seemed warm enough to entrust with my heart-wrenching worries.

He responded empathetically and astutely. After asking a number of open-ended questions, he said, “Dan, I really feel for your pain. It seems to me that somewhere along your development you found human emotions too painful to handle, and that you created a rift between your mind and your heart. So your mind kept developing, and that’s why you’re so academically gifted, but your heart got left behind, and that’s why you feel so excluded from human community.”

I felt my whole body relax. At last someone had found words for my deep dilemma, and that meant there might be a way out. It wasn’t easy but I did outgrow the trap of my former Weakness-stuck life. 

Yet I didn’t leave the Weakness compass point behind, because in the course of building Compass theory, I came to discover that it houses the root source of humility, a quality that Jesus ascribed to himself when he said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mt 11:29).

Jesus: Gentle and Humble of Heart
When you are counseling someone who manifests worry, you can discern rather quickly whether this worry is transitory, which usually responds well to brief situational coaching, or chronic and pervasive worry, which calls for insight and support through short-term counseling, or personality reconstruction in long-term pastoral psychotherapy. 

When you encounter a chronic Worrier pattern, here are some insights you might offer:
  1. Worry is a choice, not a necessity, although it often feels necessary to worry.
  2. Worry actively distrusts God’s involvement in life (most people never think of worry this way, but rather “sanctify” their worry as though it is a virtue).
  3. Worry translated into action steps has redemptive value, but worry for worry’s sake creates meaningless misery.
  4. Counselees can transfer the energy it takes to worry into prayer for guidance and positive steps for change.
At a physiological level, chronic worry may reflect the biochemical condition of major depression, a genetic disorder arising from the body’s inability to produce enough catecholamine molecules in neuronal synapses. So it is a good idea to meet with a psychiatrist or family doctor who is acquainted with major depression, and who can act as a medical referral for counselees whose symptoms seem unabated by psychological and spiritual counseling strategies.

In this case, you can say to your counselee: “I have a hunch that a portion of your pattern of worry and withdrawal is biological. I suggest that you see Dr. _________ and explain your symptoms, because taking an appropriate antidepressant is like receiving a prescription for eyeglasses: it helps the world come into better focus so that you can feel more confident in facing life.”

If the counselee follows through and receives a prescription, you continue right along with the pastoral counseling and coaching, helping them integrate the effects of the meds with their personality and relationship development.

By way of an overall counseling strategy, keep before you the Compass Model, so that at times you can guide the counselee’s attention to growth steps in Assertion, and other times developing Strength or Love. By the same token, you don’t push too hard, because you respect the secret security these counselees draw from the Weakness compass point, since as long as they stay there they don’t have to take risks or assume responsibility. 

Worrier Self Compass
So you relax, even when they express uncertainty, self-doubt, and fear, and in so doing, you create an interpersonal atmosphere that de-catastrophizes their worry, offering your calmness to counter their anxiety (Strength), your practical suggestions to counter their learned helplessness (Assertion), and your faithful caring to counter their depersonalization (Love).

You don’t take on the unrealistic project of turning them into industrious and confident persons, but rather assist them through either an extended course of counseling, or occasional meetings, to construct a developmental bridge that helps them move from fear-filled existence to a more abundant life

In a pastoral context, you can pray that they receive the spiritual empowerment of fortitude. At the end of a session, will courage to them by affirming their gradual progress and conveying warm encouragement.

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