published Thursday, June 6th, 2013

Upton: Key things I learned from my clients

By Tabi Upton

The world of a counselor can seem strange to others. We are often privileged to enter the most personal of people's worlds and then, after about an hour, to exit.

We work alongside clients -- brave individuals who are often fighting their hardest for change -- hoping to provide insight and honest feedback (but not too honest), all the while praying our own mistakes don't wound them any further.

It's a delicate balance of humility and confidence. The catalyst for therapy is often an insatiable curiosity about humanity and what makes us all tick. For all the things we therapists and counselors want to teach, however, we often find ourselves learning so much more. Here are just a few things my amazing clients have taught me over the past 12 years:

* It ain't over till it's over. I've seen the most wonderful turnarounds. I've watched people head towards a sure relationship breakup after weeks and months of fighting seemingly unsolvable dilemmas, then suddenly encounter a breakthrough of communication or insight that causes them to fall in love again.

* Sometimes complex problems are solved in the simplest of ways. A person can come in with a long list of complaints, do one thing differently -- l mean as small as eating more vegetables -- and watch several issues begin to resolve.

* Life and people can be startlingly unpredictable. You can't always tell by the paperwork about the particular resiliency, flexibility and passion of the person who wants to change. People surprise you, no matter how long you work with them. Sometimes it's a good thing, other times, not so much. Roll with it.

* Being victimized rivals plain old loneliness. Loneliness is just one of the hardest burdens of humanity. We severely underestimate the need for love and connection and the importance of ridding isolation from our lives.

* Children can grasp many of the same concepts as adults, and sometimes at deeper levels. I'll never forget an adolescent girl who struggled with panic and anxiety. I talked with her about her perspective of the world, had her draw a picture of her panic attack to see what it looked like, taught her deep breathing, etc. She got better, and I mean fast. She grabbed hold of every technique and ran with it. She was such an inspiration to me.

* You're never too old (and it's never too late) for change. One woman completely reinvented herself in retirement when faced with financial difficulties, health problems and a changing identity. She went back to school and chose a completely new career while she was in her 60s. She is still making plans.

* Vulnerability, transparency and authenticity make people more beautiful. Some people wouldn't dare venture inside a counselor's office. They're frightened by the prospect of someone examining their less-desirable parts. The truth is, however, that staunch self-protection can be a turn-off. People who let you inside the mess are endearing. They become more beautiful, not less, because of their courage.

* Mistakes happen. Forgiveness helps covers them. Ah! The torment of regret, of lost love, angry words poorly spoken, or missed opportunities ... how they sting us. We have to learn to give grace to ourselves so we can pass it on to others.

* Tears are sometimes the best response. I've sat across from a few clients with no clever antidote to the painful story that just escaped their lips while tears coursed down their cheeks. Despite my best efforts, because I don't cry easily, I found myself joining in. Sometimes words are unnecessary. Compassion is enough.

Tabi Upton is a counselor, workshop presenter and freelance writer. Contact her at tabiupton@bellsouth.net.

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