Assume They WANT To Grow: Potential Is There If You Look For It

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She races in five minutes late, plops onto the sofa, and starts talking. And talking. And talking. The litany of complaints about her boss, her sister, and her landlord is so familiar now that I can almost recite it to her before she says it. I notice myself glancing at the clock, noticing that time is moving slowly. A now familiar little voice creeps into my head saying, “Why does she keep coming? Nothing I say or do has an impact on these patterns that keep her stuck. Nothing is happening here.”

The response I as a therapist offer at this very crossroads in a therapy session or in an entire therapy itself emerges from the bedrock of a fundamental belief I carry about human nature, about what motivates behavior, about what motivates people to come to therapy.

Do I see my client’s repetitive behavior that shoos away my help as evidence of pathology or sickness? If so, I’ll probably move toward trying in some way to “fix” her, by offering diagnoses, prescriptive advice, lectures about how to change her thoughts, and/or interpretations.

Do I see her behavior as evidence that, since “nothing is happening” but she keeps on coming, then either she’s too dependent on me or she doesn’t have anything to work on any more and is just wasting my time and hers? If so, I’ll probably suggest that it’s my obligation to terminate therapy.

Or do I see her behavior as an outward manifestation of an inner, unconscious (or perhaps barely conscious) pattern that longs to be healed and so is showing itself to me, over and over again, so that I’ll get it and help her get unstuck? If so, I’ll probably respond with ongoing curiosity, inside myself and toward her, so that I begin to get a glimmer of understanding that my desire for the session to be over, or my feeling of being unable to get a word in to help her is the very way her unconscious is helping me to understand how she feels, deeply buried beneath this swirling and stuck pattern.

Whether we’re conscious of our beliefs about our clients’ basic motivations or not, our underlying philosophies do inform our interventions at every turn. So it’s crucial for us to ponder this idea for ourselves as clinicians.

I don’t think it’s hard to tell that I believe my clients’ behavior and search for therapy is motivated by a longing to heal and a capacity to grow. My responses to their behavior emerge from that fundamental understanding, leading me to an attitude of compassionate curiosity about what protective purpose or communication avenue their symptoms are serving. An attitude of noticing and leading with their strengths, their potential, their sprouts of growth, even in the midst of difficulty.

This focus on strengths and potential and communication is very different than looking on the bright side or overlooking real problems. It’s about assuming that all people are innately good, and that they want to heal and grow and find meaning. It’s about believing that the psyche longs to heal and so it reveals to us its problems in all kinds of ways—verbal and nonverbal—in order to ask for help. It’s about harnessing the very strengths and potential we find in this search to help them change and heal their painful symptoms.

I know in my intuition and in my experience that there’s always potential for access to a deeper and true self in every client who’s walked through my door. There’s always potential for growth and healing and vitality, even if it’s very, very small. Even at it’s tiniest, a small dot of light of human potential in each client is a spark—a spark of their life force that is bright enough to shine through a hole in their defendedness, a hole that might be as small as a pinprick.

My client who keeps coming back, even though “nothing is happening?” Needs my confidence in her. Needs me to fan her tiny spark of potential into embers and then flames. Her returning again and again is her strength. That repetition is her determination to show me how she feels. So that I can help her learn how to move and be free.

My trust in people’s growth capacity is bone-level intuitive, but it’s also supported by science and theory. Keep an eye out for a future blog post about the science behind assuming that all people are equipped to heal, grow, and transform.

In the meantime, I invite you into an exploration of your own ideas. What are your beliefs about what motivates your clients to seek help? What are your fundamental assumptions about human nature? How do these perspectives inform your work?