I was leaving a meeting consisting of narrative therapists and those interested in that approach when a woman who had been in the meeting stopped me.
“It must have felt terrible to have had that counselor being so unsupportive,” she said, her face pulled into a sympathetic smile.
She was referring to what I’d shared with the group when asked about the extent of experience that I’d had with narrative therapy or related techniques. I’d related to the group that I’d had a counselor who, after having worked with me for awhile and after having heard my (affectionately termed) “boo-hoo poor me” story several times, would smile gently at me and say, “Well, Kate–if you say so.”
Hearing this statement then would have me respond, “What do you mean, ‘if I say so’?” Then I’d tell him about five other things that had gone so horribly wrong and were so horribly stuck and there was no way out, and–well, then he just did the same thing. With love, and with care, he’d say, “Well, Kate–if you say so.”
In essence, he had simply been unwilling–loving, caring, gentle, but unwilling–to collude with my Story of defeat and victimization. (This is not straight “narrative therapy technique,” but it was, as requested, my share on the extent of my experience with anything related to narrative therapy).
I had shared this with the group and said that it had been “one of the most powerful and transformative experiences of my life” because what had happened when he refused to collude with my story was this–I got really good and pissed. I began lashing out at him. I made him the problem and started off in my head about how he wasn’t doing what he was supposed to do and supporting me and…
…and suddenly I saw myself, quite clearly, defending the very Story that I was claiming I wanted freedom from, and instead finding more “evidence” to support the Story. Once again, I was casting myself in this narrative as the victim, only this time I was a victim of the person I’d gone to seeking help.
–and it was all bullshit. My Story was bullshit.
But despite sharing the power of that experience, at this narrative therapy meeting something was lost in translation for that woman, who thought that I’d been the victim of a shitty practitioner who had been unsympathetic towards his clients.
And that got me to thinking about patterns, and Stories, and how hard we’ll work to defend them, and why I believe this controversial statement:
A good coach, counselor, or therapist will piss you off just a bit.
This statement is controversial because there’s a generally accepted idea that whether it’s therapy, counseling, or coaching, you’re going to get “support.” People have different ideas about what “support” looks like, but almost no one thinks that “support” looks like the person you’re working with smiling at you and saying, “Well, Kate–if you say so,” when you’re in the middle of sobbing (again) over your life experience.
A good counselor, coach, or therapist will piss you off a bit, and here’s why: because those patterns and Stories that we run are not around for nothing. They’re there to shield us from pain, hide things, help us function around something that feels dysfunctional. The patterns or Stories aren’t particularly helpful or useful, but they feel better (for the time being) than seeing whatever is underneath them.
When someone starts poking around at those patterns or Stories–which is what it takes to actually shift something, for cryin’ out loud--the claws will come out to defend that position.
Generally, when someone like a counselor, coach, or therapist starts prodding at those patterns or Stories, the first thing that will come up is for a client is rationalization.
“Well, yes, I didn’t do that thing I said I was going to do [that was really important, that the client had put a lot of time into deciding she wanted],” someone will explain with complete calm in her voice, “but the thing was, I decided that I needed to give myself a break–why, if I had done that [the thing that the client had spent a lot of time saying was really important], I would have been acting like a perfectionist!”
See how that works? See how neatly packaged that looks? And a counselor, coach, or therapist might hear that and go, “Oh, yes. Good for my client. She didn’t want to be a perfectionist.”
I hear that and think, “Possible fear. Let’s check it out.” It’s something I teach the trainees in my life coach training program to consider, too.
When a client who just put a ton of time and effort into deciding what she wanted and clarifying and establishing bails on that plan, it’s time to start asking about fear. I start asking about feelings. I start asking about what perfectionism looks like.
Owning the fear and the feelings? That’s the powerful next step.
But justifying? Rationalizing? Red flag. And–getting a little irritated with me for asking further questions?
Well, then. Something’s up.
The next question becomes: Will I be the coach that simply holds up a mirror for what I see–with love and with care–even if this client gets a little pissed at me? Or will I be the coach that is afraid of my clients not liking me, and then backs down?
That experience that I had years ago with my own coach taught me that the greatest act of love we can give a client in those situations is to not collude with their Story–their Story of lack, of weakness, of “can’t do it,” of being a victim, of “nothing ever goes right,” of “why me?”, of “it’s my husband’s fault.” In no way am I saying to pretend as if the hurts don’t really hurt (they do; that’s an accurate Story) or to disagree with their Story outright (I believe in accepting that they have legitimate reasons for believing what they believe and I won’t tell them they don’t “really think” what they clearly really think) or to take a hard line with clients and treat them with “tough love” (real love isn’t tough; it melts hearts right open).
We will defend out Stories with our lives (literally and figuratively) and that this process is not always pretty. These Stories are tricky, and that if we go into a coaching, counseling, or therapeutic situation and just have our Stories validated, we’ll never get anywhere.
I am saying that at some point, someone has to be willing to step up to the firing squad and say, “I will not pretend as if you are weaker than I know you really are, or less beautiful than I know you really are, or less capable, or less intelligent, or less willing, or lesser in any form. I have too much love and care for you to collude with those Stories.”
The world is one big mirror, after all–it’s just reflecting back to us our narrative, our Story, about how things work. We get to choose.