Get Outta Your Head ? It’s a Bad Neighborhood!
More and more I keep reiterating “choose and choice.” They are very empowering words that help us all to understand that no matter what happened in the past, we can still make a better choice today.
What happened in the past that was painful has a great deal to do with what we are today, but revisiting this painful past can contribute little or nothing to what we need to do now: improve an important, present relationship.
The only person we can change is ourselves. And people can change. Most people who are able to come to a counselor’s office on their own are competent people. They are looking for happiness, not just pleasure. It is the counselor’s job to treat them as if they can do something more with their lives than what they have been doing.
In traditional counseling, a lot of time is spent both inquiring into and listening to clients complain about their symptoms, the actions of other people, the world they live in, and on and on—the list is endless. The more they are encouraged or allowed to do so, the more important the complaints become and the harder it is to get to the real problem, what the client is choosing to do now. Choice theory does not deny that clients have legitimate complaints, but it teaches that the only persons we can control are ourselves. We can’t control anyone else, including our counselors, with these complaints. Reality therapy emphasizes what clients can do to help themselves and to improve the present relationship that is the problem. Doing so not only saves a lot of time but focuses the counseling and makes it more effective.
Finding the present relationship, avoiding the past and excessive complaints about the present, and sticking to what clients can do, not only shortens therapy, it also helps clients understand that they are free to lead more effective lives. They are not free to have all the freedom they may want in a present relationship, but free to forget the past and stop blaming others, which is taking up a lot of time that would be much better spent making more helpful choices now in their lives. To do so, I begin to teach the clients choice theory, which they can then use to make better choices and learn to handle many problems that might have lengthened the therapy. It’s kind of a therapeutic stitch in time that saves nine.
I have a saying that I frequently share with my clients, “get outta your head – it’s a bad neighborhood.” The more you stay in the past, the more you avoid facing the present unhappy relationships that are always the problem. I believe we can learn more from past successes than from past misery.
Some clients come to counseling believing they are helpless, and it is not the counselor’s job to perpetuate that belief. Their pain and misery are the ways they have learned to deal with their helplessness and to tell others about how upset they are. No one, not even counselors, should allow clients to control them with their choice to suffer. As much as this goes against our common sense, misery is their choice; our job is to teach them better choices.
Since all people who come for counseling have at least one unsatisfying relationship, it is incumbent upon counselors to form good relationships with all clients, to let the clients know that they care for them and that if the clients are willing to talk, listen, and think about all that goes on, the counselors will be able to help them. All clients are lonely when they come in and have to have a friend and ally in their counselors. As the counseling proceeds, the counselors teach them, that they are responsible for their own lives and that others may change, but they can’t depend on it. It is also crucial to teach clients that life is not fair, that in the real world some people give more to relationships than do others. If counseling is successful, the client will have worked to improve old relationships or create better new ones. To be happy, we all need a few good, close relationships.
Choice theory looks at past abuse far differently. It teaches that these children, or now adults, can use choice theory to help themselves. They are no longer victims of what happened unless they choose to see themselves that way. Choice theory explains that the current thinking that they must relive, and even confront, the abuse is not only ineffective but can be harmful. In any situation, it is always harmful to imply to people that they are victims and can’t help themselves. Countless people in the world who have been abused as children and adults, many horribly, have helped themselves without traditional therapy and with no knowledge of choice theory. They have had bad experiences but still have been able to learn to trust people. They have suffered, but they have not been permanently damaged.
Children or adults who have not dealt effectively with the abuse need good counseling, which should include the choice theory explanations both of what happened and how to deal with it. Most important, they must learn that they are not suffering from the abuse itself as much as from the fact that they have lost trust in or may never have learned to trust people. Sexual abuse is one of the most difficult behaviors to deal with because, in many instances, the child did trust the abuser when the abuse began. Learning to trust is crucial to learning how to satisfy our needs as we deal with the world. From their experience, not trusting people makes sense to abused children.
Counseling them with reality therapy and, concurrently, teaching them choice theory can do much more for them than taking them back through the abuse. Revisiting a bad experience does not make you stronger. If you have been starving for a long time, you need food, not an explanation why you weren’t fed in the past. Wounds, even severe psychological wounds, can heal, but only through experiencing love and gaining the trust that, with effort on their part, this love can be sustained. Choice theory explains that all problems are present problems because the needs must be satisfied now. You cannot eat a meal you missed any more than you can eat a future meal. You can store food for the future just as you can make a good friend whom you can enjoy in the future. But enjoying the friend now is the key to enjoying the friend in the future. An abused person, because of an unhappy past, may be less capable but not incapable of dealing with the present. The past, be it abuse, neglect, or rejection, is not the problem. His or her present problem is no different from anyone’s present problem—all present problems are relationship problems. We all need a satisfying present relationship with someone we can trust. The past doesn’t intrude on the present unless we choose to hold on to it.
Again, I would focus on what was unsatisfying about the present relationship or relationships and not try to dredge up the past. Regardless of what has happened to us, choice theory does not focus on the past as the cause of our present difficulties. Many clients want to stay in the past. They are afraid to deal with the present problem and are happy to escape into the past to find someone to blame for their present unhappiness. It is the job of the therapist to ferret out this present problem, not to go into the safe past. I say safe because clients use the past to avoid facing what is really happening in their lives now.