I’ve hesitated to write this post for some years now. I hesitate because I don’t want to sound…cranky, I guess, and for several reasons. One obvious reason is that I want clients to come to me for counseling, and they’ll be less inclined to do that if they think I’m a snot. Another reason is that I’m a friendly, conscientious guy who wants to help you. (Truly.) But I need to post this. It’s time.
Every once in a while a client will seem to be working less hard than me on his/her (or their) problems. Most often this reveals itself when we’re scheduling appointments: everyone has busy schedules, and I don’t think I have one client who’s not very busy with something, but sometimes I’ll sense that they’re cancelling sessions or scheduling appointments sporadically not because of busy-ness, but because they’re not putting counseling (or their relationship, or their health) very high on their priority list. I once had a personal trainer at a gym who said to me, “The people who succeed at this are the ones who put exercise right up there in the top two or three priorities of their life.” You don’t have to set counseling itself as a top priority—that wasn’t what my trainer meant: he really didn’t care how often I saw him, just how often I exercised—but if you’re not setting whatever we’re working on in our sessions as a top priority, you won’t see a lot of improvement.
Another way to say it: whatever we water will grow.
That’s why I’m reaching a point where I recommend to new clients that they schedule three sessions, not one. They can cancel the second and third one if they feel it’s not a good fit, but it’s smart to initially plan on three sessions to get into some serious work. And we should plan them to be at a regular day and time: therapy goes best if it’s regularly scheduled. It builds momentum and rhythm.
Having said that, I also know that some clients will come to sessions regularly, but won’t do much within or between them. This is natural, and understandable: when we’re resisting something, there’s usually a good reason for it. Relationship improvement can be hard, and painful. Working on lifelong issues around mood, behavior patterns, and attitudes can be hard, and painful. It’s easy to feel discouraged and even hopeless.
When I sense this is happening, I try to name it in some way. On a few occasions I’ve had to say it bluntly: “I don’t want to work harder than you, and it kind of feels like that’s happening right now.” What we need to do at that point is this: I need to show you that I understand your resistance and discouragement; I then need to back off a bit and give you time to sort through your feelings; and then you need to decide if you want to take this (whatever it is) on right now. You might not. On some level you may never truly want to change. But you may decide, okay, I’m serious now. I need to change now. I’m ready to do one of the hardest things in my life.
When you do, I’ll be working just as hard as you, and we will make progress.