Keep On Keeping On

Carole and I are working out how to “keep on keeping on” in the midst of increasing demands for our counselling time. We are both concerned about our long waiting lists and the urgencies caused by covid crises. And we are also aware that we can’t work as hard as we have up until this point.

We love the work of listening, wondering, consoling and challenging and we hope to continue our work with you for some time to come. So, to be able to do this and to do so effectively, we are making some changes. Here they are:

  • First — we are going to limit the number of new clients so that we can better serve the people we visit with now. This will begin on April 1, 2021.
  • Second — we are going to re-package our workdays so that we are not carrying as many hours each day. This will be in effect by September 2021.
  • Third — when covid has lifted, we are going to limit in-office visits and keep much of our work online.
  • Fourth — we will actively refer people who inquire about working with us. We have an extensive network of counsellors and we think we can match clients and counsellors quite effectively.

In summary, this means that we want to continue to work with you because we have a commitment to you, and we value the work we have accomplished together. But we are going to restrict new commitments to others.

Let us know your thoughts. Write to us at life@theducklows.ca. We will be sure to get back to you. And thanks.

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.

Couple Therapy with Individual Partners

Couple therapy is usually both persons in the same sessions working towards a common goal.

At times, it can be helpful for the therapist to visit with the individual partners and couples often request this. They have their own reasons, as do the therapists. And some of the reasons to meet individually have merit. For example, it might be helpful for one partner to talk through their “family of origin” without the other being there. Though, I have found it is helpful to have the less active partner to listen to the narrative again, even though they think they know it all.

But there are problems with the therapist visiting with individual partners and it is important to understand this prior to going one-on-one.

Triangles are a problem. “He said, she said” is what it usually sounds like. It can come back this way: “Did you really suggest that my husband leave me? Or were you working to have him finally make a decision about being with me?” “Hmm,” I muse. “Now how do I handle this?”

Spousal secrets are a big deal. “Please don’t tell Jack about what I am about to say…” I usually say something like, “I have a terrible memory of what I am supposed to forget. Are you sure you want to tell me?” They usually do tell me anyway and then we figure out how to disclose or the marriage-saving reasons to keep it a secret.

There are occasions when the partner uses the individual appointment to appraise the therapist of the spouse’s presumed faults. EG, “Did you know that Bob was diagnosed as ADD by our previous therapist? I think that is why he doesn’t help in the kitchen.”

Therapy is powerful. Deep listening results in feeling deeply understood and sometimes this results in a kind of fusion making for confusion. When the focus is on the individual, the person can experience herself differently than as a part of a couple. And say different things.

A few other thoughts when this situation arises: sometimes (seldom?), I will recommend the person wishing individual contact to visit with another counsellor while I continue with the couple work. This is helpful sometimes but it does result in another kind of triangle and a great deal of costly overlap. 

I also recommend that my clients understand the power of triangles. I have some articles on my website that I think are helpful and there is lots more on the web. When both parties figure out how doing individual work with their couple’s therapist can be a problem, they can often move forward with information and understanding. And that helps.

I think I have opened up a conversation without many conclusions in this blog. But I do want you, my client-friends, to be aware of some of this. Let’s talk about it during our next sessions.

My best to you.