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It’s not helpful to be helpful

One of the lessons I learnt from working as a therapist is that it isn’t always helpful to be helpful. It’s a lesson I have taken into other areas of my work life also. And before you say “Huh?” let me explain.

When a client demands my attention – be that a reasonable or an unreasonable demand I have to ask myself the question – who’s pressure is this? and “what is the request contained in the demand?” Sometimes a client can’t tolerate an unbearable pressure emanating from without and will seek ways to alleviate that pressure by passing it on to me. I’ve seen this quite a bit in my coaching practice. The request contained within a demand for a shorter/longer/revised meeting is generally “make what is intolerable go away”. Now there are times when it may be appropriate to step in and take action. But more often than not “helping” in this instance isn’t helping my client address his or her need to acquiesce to their pressure. If I jump and say “yes of course” then the pressure is just passed down the line and learning leaves with it.

It’s really important to hold a boundary when a client is pushing against it. This isn’t the same as saying “no” but it’s more to do with hovering on the edge of the boundary and trying to use it as a learning experience. Here’s what I’ve learned about being helpful:

  1. Any request for help from a client that comes with a hidden tinge of pressure should be questioned. The chances are they may be unable to tolerate their own pressure and want you to alleviate it for them.
  2. Holding the boundary between an immediate “yes”and an immediate “no” is a very uncomfortable place to be. The chances are that uncomfortableness is the same feeling a client wants to get rid of.
  3. Checking in with our own need to “help” from time to time is a useful way to stay on top of unconsciously colluding with clients.
  4. When we feel the uncomfortable urge to “help” ask yourself – “what am I trying to get rid of here” the chances are – it’s the same thing that the client wants to get rid of.
  5. If you can tolerate the pressure a client brings to your relationship then you can teach a client how to make sense of their own pressure instead of removing what may be a powerful symptom of a more profound issue.
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