First Questions First

When people come for counselling, they need to ask and answer a few questions.

The first question is: “What do you want to change stated reasonably and measurably?” That’s a laborious question! It is about what you want and what you can practically do. It is about what is reasonable and measurable. Answering this question is the hub of change.

I think this is a respectful question. I do not ask them what their parents want them to change your what they think God wants them to do. I asked them what they want. It is an important differentiating question. “What do you actually want?”

Most people come to counselling hoping to make a change. Perhaps the person wants a better relationship with an adult child. Or someone else is hoping to reduce anxiety in social situations. And perhaps, in a more nebulous way, someone would like to connect to an inner spiritual self. All of this involves some sort of change — a change of behaviour, a change of perspective, change of tone.

A few days ago, I was meeting online with a couple who wrote in their Intake Form that they wanted to build their emotional intimacy. For the first 10 minutes or so they blamed each other for their shared inadequacies, which were many. I did not see a desire or intent to change personally but to coerce the other. I asked them, “What would they like to change reasonably and measurably?” Confused, they stopped blaming, looked at each other and began to think. Perhaps the pragmatism of the question dumbfounded them.

The second question follows logically: “What are you willing to do to make this change happen?” This question is as pragmatic as the first. Change happens in time increments. Everyone has 168 hours in the week and some of those hours should be directed towards intended change. For couples, we might recommend a “10/10” and you can read about that here. Developing intimacy (at least at the beginning) is going to take 20 minutes a day or 140 minutes for a week. That is probably more intimacy than any most couples experience in a year. (By the way, the couple described above has done the 10/10 for a couple of weeks now. They are initiating the change that they claimed to want.)

The third question is a bit of a surprise: “How might you sabotage yourself?” This is about the predictable ways in which we spoil our future. We all have “adaptations” to the hard work of change. A client friend wants to learn to improve his performance at work. He knows he has the capacity for leadership, and he dreams of success. The problem is, he can never get around to answer question 2, “What are you willing to do?” Avoidance, forgetfulness, carelessness, un-planfulness (not really a word but you get the point), busyness are some of his adaptations. You might call them “excuses” but I think of them as “sabotages.”

These are what I think of as first-order questions of therapy and change. Without wresting and responding to these issues, no therapy is done. So what do you want to change? Or, “What do you want to work on today?

If you want to read a bit more on these questions, here is an outline from our Tools section. It is called “Contract for Change.”

[Any comments or questions are welcome. Please contact us at life@theducklows.ca]

Q — What do you want to work on today?

What do you want to work on today?

This is a frustrating question for many of my client friends, though they hear it most every appointment with me. Some deflect the question and talk about the events they have experienced since they have seen me last. Some ask me outright, “don’t you know me well enough by now?” Others look at me with a placid glaze hoping that I will answer my own question, which I sometimes do, especially later in the day.

My clients are smart. They are intuitive. And manipulative.

Some want me to set the agenda — many people find it easier to follow than to lead, or maybe they are worried about making a mistake. Some of my client friends think that I am the omnicompetent professional and that I should be able to tell them what it is that they should work on. Some people must simply think that I can’t think of a better opening gambit.

Here is what the question means to me and why I have used it for 40 years.

  • The question is addressed to you, the one sitting in front of me. It is not about what someone else wants you to work on, or why someone else wants you to visit with me. The session is entirely about you.
  • It is about wants, not the oughts – shoulds – musts you carry around in your head. It is not so much about what you need to do or what someone else thinks you need to do. The responsibility is yours to figure out what you want.
  • It is not about sharing or chatting or being a sounding board. It is about mutual work towards a particular goal decided by you.
  • It is about today. It is not about tomorrow or yesterday or some time far, far away. It is not about your genogram history, though that is relevant. It is about right now and how that fits into the continuity of your life.
  • Also, it is an important question to me when I go for help. It assumes that I am responsible for myself. I like that. Maybe it’s a compliment.

So that is why I ask this quite predictable question. And while I am asking it, I am watching you and thinking. I want to see what efforts you will make to manage me. I want to see if you will avoid work by talking about the past or projecting to the future. I listen for your subjunctive tense [“well I would’ve done that if…”]. I wonder if you will start in blaming your partner, or your trauma, or your family of origin.

I listen to what you want to work on and what you want from me so that we can work together in the complicated narrative of your life.

See you next time.

Loneliness – A Quandary that Refuses to be Solved (by David Ducklow, Chaplain)

In today’s fast-paced world, it is often the un-said hope and expectation that we, along with our friends, family and colleagues are okay all the time. At least we don’t want them to tell us that they feel anything otherwise. Then we may not need to worry about them. In a delightful story, Eeyore, the glum and introverted donkey found in The Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, expresses how this is a false belief we have, because, unless we believe the lie we are telling ourselves, we simply are not O.K. all of the time.

In this story, Pooh and Piglet wonder if something is wrong with Eeyore, since they had not seen him for several days. So they put on their hats and coats and trotted across the Hundred Acre Wood to Eeyore’s stick house. Inside the house was Eeyore.

“Hello Eeyore,” said Pooh.”Hello Pooh. Hello Piglet,” said Eeyore, in a glum sounding voice. “We just thought we’d check in on you,” said Piglet, “because we hadn’t heard from you, and so we wanted to know if you were okay.”

Eeyore was silent for a moment. “Am I okay?” he asked, eventually. “Well, I don’t know, to be honest. Are any of us really okay? That’s what I ask myself. All I can tell you, Pooh and Piglet, is that right now I feel really rather sad, and alone, and not much fun to be around at all. Which is why I haven’t bothered you. Because you wouldn’t want to waste your time hanging out with someone who is sad, and alone, and not much fun to be around at all, would you now.”
Pooh looked at Piglet, and Piglet looked at Pooh, and they both sat down, one on either side of Eeyore in his stick house.

Eeyore looked at them in surprise. “What are you doing?” “We’re sitting here with you,” said Pooh, “because we are your friends. And true friends don’t care if someone is feeling sad, or alone, or not much fun to be around at all. True friends are there for you anyway. And so here we are.”

“Oh,” said Eeyore. “Oh.” As the three of them sat there in silence, though Pooh and Piglet said nothing at all; somehow, almost imperceptibly, Eeyore started to feel a very tiny little bit better.[1]

Whether we admit it or not, we have all been in Eeyore’s place. And this exchange between friends shows how one’s sadness, aloneness or possibly loneliness can slowly diminish if we are patient with it.

Loneliness is a feeling resulting from a “lack of sympathetic or friendly relationships.” It happens when we believe that our current relationships are less satisfying than what we hope for, expect or feel like we deserve.[2] Because he is a fictional character, we don’t know if this is the exact reason why Eeyore was feeling this way. But however he was feeling, Pooh and Piglet were willing to be with him in the moment. And recognizing Eeyore’s feelings, while remaining present to them, is the first, and most important step to helping someone move past them.

As a chaplain in long term care, I have spent a lot of time with lonely people. Whether they are willing to express it or not, one can guess whether they may be lonely simply by determining what they are diagnosed with. This is because heart disease, hypotension or one of many addictions are often referred to as loneliness diseases, and the vast majority of residents are diagnosed with one or more of these diseases.

For those of us who are younger and want to avoid loneliness, we should pay as much attention to it as we would to our diet, exercise and the amount of sleep we get each night. But can we eliminate it entirely? Not really. It might help if we are a little bit more extroverted, but that might just be a band-aid solution to a deeper issue. This is because loneliness has been around us since the beginning of time.

At the beginning of the Torah, after God created Adam from the dust of the ground, he says “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”[3] When Adam sees and names Eve, what proceeds from his mouth is some of the most heartfelt poetry, rejoicing and praise the Torah has in its pages.

“This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.”[4]

Here, God is not creating a wife for Adam, though this is what she is. He is not creating someone with whom Adam may “be fruitful and multiply” though they can make love to one another. God creates Eve to join Adam in his loneliness. He creates her to be a friend, because this is what Adam needed, and this is what friendship does.

As Dr. Keith Karren writes, friendships do not get better based on the number of friends we have. Instead, it is the closeness and quality of those relationships that determine our satisfaction. So whether we are married, single, living with someone, or by ourselves, it doesn’t matter. The issue is whether we have someone we can turn to for support. And the more people we have in our lives, the better.[5]

So just as Pooh and Piglet did with Eeyore, can we assume that our friends wouldn’t mind wasting their time hanging out with us, even though we may be sad, alone, and not much fun to be around at all. Because, whether we say anything at all, when we spend time with the lonely, our presence may ever so slightly impact them in a good way. And who knows? This might be exactly what our friends need to do for themselves as well.

[1] Retrieved from The Maddle Project, published December 15, 2018, on August 3, 2020 https://www.facebook.com/themaddieproject/photos/it-occurred-to-pooh-and-piglet-that-they-hadnt-heard-from-eeyore-for-several-day/1794783897315560/ Author unknown, but presumably A.A. Milne
[2] Karren, Keith J. 2010. Mind/Body Health: The Effects of Attitudes, Emotions and Relationships p. 260
[3] Genesis 2:18
[4] Genesis 2:23
[5] Karren 239

The Position (but not what you think)

When you say to someone, “I have your back,” then “the position” is the physicality of that.

“The position” is an attachment posture for problem-solving, planning or visioning, doing a 10/10 conversation, foreplay for love-making, watching TV, or simply resting. It provides a maximum amount of physical contact without the necessity or even the intention of sex. It is not about coercion; it is about support and affection. It is about dreaming of something better. It is about having someone’s back. It is not a face-to-face encounter.

I often recommend this posture for couples that have low intimacy or who seldom share sex. The position lines life up, merges intentions, welcomes the future.

Vertically we call it “the position” but horizontally it is called “spooning.” Both are postures for caring intimacy.

Everyone needs support sometimes; everyone needs someone who has their back. The position builds a couple’s “emotional bank account” when there have been too many withdrawals or when there is a threat of emotional bankruptcy. The back person strengthens the front person, as the front person rests into the support person.

The back person (man or woman who provides the support) has their arms surrounding the resting person (in the front). The support person’s arms and hands can be held or directed by the front partner to touch and hold in the way that they wish. Couples find this directed touch to be both soothing and erotic.

It is a good practice to switch between being the support person and being the supported one. Say 5 minutes and then switch.

Both are facing in the same way. Rather than being a face-to-face encounter, the position soothes rather than challenges. It allows for seeing in the same direction. It reduces the intensity of conflict or fighting. It builds trust.

I have found that men love to be in the supported position — it is not just a female thing. Both can support and both need support.

See the link on my idea of a “10/10” daily conversation. Combining the position and the 10/10 is about emotional sanity.