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The Pressure of Getting It Right

“Few delights can equal the mere presence of one whom we trust utterly.”-George MacDonald

I like being right. There’s a pride in it...it feels good...but I also like being right when I help people. I like when I correctly diagnose a problem, offer the right solution and watch someone get better because of it (I say this as if it’s happened when in reality it’s probably more accurate to say that I like the idea of this happening…)

This creates an interesting dynamic in a field like counseling. I can enter a session with the best intentions and leave having pigeon-holed someone into my idea of what should work for them. Our desire to help often overshadows the need to connect.

I have had a few experiences this year in the counseling room where, in retrospect, I got in the way. I inserted clever “psychological theories” to explain someone’s pain...I got scared about silence that sat between me and a client and filled it with a question that took them far away from their emotions...I stared at the clock wondering how I was going to last an entire session without at some point admitting “I don’t know what to do with what you just said…”

In all of this, the focus is clearly on me. But what’s more difficult to realize in these moments is how much pressure I put on myself to get it right. Granted, I am studying in a masters program so there are things that are important to learn...but one of the biggest factors that leads to change in people is not receiving the right information, it’s the connection that comes from the realization of not being alone as you struggle. Therapist who are good at what they do are ultimately better at giving someone the gift of their total and absolute presence. It is not something we normally experience from friends. It is a little more difficult to foster in relationships where we have a different investment, a different perspective…

This can also be made more difficult by a common expectation that therapy is about getting expert advice about your condition. While there are some things that are made better by an understanding of complex psychological schemas...again, the piece of therapy that brings the most change is the relationship.

Recently I went into a session and told myself “You don’t have to have answers to every problem.” Simple, I know...but it gave me a freedom I have been searching for. A freedom to just be in a room with people who are struggling. To not feel the weight of having to solve anything in the moment, but to be in the room with them and let them know that that’s precisely where I will be for the next 50 minutes. Don’t get me wrong, there is hopefully some kind of movement toward goals...health...symptom relief...but these things won’t happen if I’m not connected with the person, or people, across from me.

After giving myself permission to not have all the answers I noticed something happen in the sessions after - I noticed clients wanting to give more...I noticed a willingness to be more honest and face the really difficult stuff that sits below the surface of our awareness. There was a willingness to take me somewhere that we had not been before. Clients realized I was going with them...that I wasn’t going to leave them somewhere to figure it out on their own...but like them, I did not necessarily know why or how things have happened, but I’m committed to doing the work to get there with them.

The pressure we place on relationships can be crippling. Maybe you aren’t the person in a relationship that is constantly giving advice or seeking to help - but the pressure we place on trying to ‘get it right’ can be more subtle than that. We can focus more on the relationship fitting into a box rather than allowing the connection to build into something authentic and less linear. Even as I write that it feels kind of vague and ambiguous...I want it to be more than just flowery talk about ‘being real’...I want us to tell ourselves and each other “you don’t have to get this right in order to be here.” I want us to practice giving up the need to get it right and focus on finding each other in the midst of our sorrow and joy.

How can you give up ‘getting it right’ in your relationships this week and connect differently?