The Space Between Stimulus and Response

Reflections on addictions counseling and creating change

“The biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit. We are in great need of people being able to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes.” — Barack Obama

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I am not sure I have ever experienced self-righteousness in relation to clients. I am more tempted to say that I have gratitude from my experiences with clients. I am often aware that my clients have survived many trials and tribulations that I have not had to endure in my own life. And as I have said, having been adopted, I feel strongly that my life could have taken a very different turn if my environment had too been different. I like to highlight that my clients are survivors and to emphasize the way they have coped successfully in the past, or to generate compassion by emphasizing how now dysfunctional behavior once served a purpose for clients while growing up. I feel very strongly about what Professor McWay said in our last lecture, which was to have appreciation for how very difficult it can be to change, even for individuals (like graduate students) who are largely able and who may have a strong support network.

Staying in contact with my inner client means that I continue to be on a path toward self-discovery and self-growth. It means that I continue my own therapy and supervision. It means that I do my best to model for clients effective behavior and the honest struggles to achieve personal effectiveness.

One thing that has helped me is to recognize my underlying feelings when I encounter irritation or frustration in relation to a client. I often find that there is a fundamental doubt about my effectiveness as a counselor. Am I doing the best for this client? Do I have a sense of how to support a client in dealing with her issues? The truth is that sometimes it is easier to see clients as difficult, rather than to admit that you are stumped about to proceed. At other times, frustration may indicate that I have overstepped my boundaries as a clinician; for example, having done all the referral paperwork myself for a client seeking inpatient treatment. I am learning how important it is to honor my emotions (and their appropriate expression) and to use them as cues about what is or is not working in my life.

Using appropriate self-disclosure, I also reflect on times I have dealt with mental health issues of my own— disordered eating, depression, anxiety, and perfectionism. I find that people have certain universal experiences. We have all felt sadness and loss, fear, joy, anger, guilt and shame, even if our situations are very different. I make efforts to tap into times when I have shared the same emotions as my clients. Further, all people have similar needs— including belonging, safety and meaning. I try to tap into times when have successfully and unsuccessfully tried to meet these needs. And when in doubt, I try to humble myself and to simply listen.



One thought on ““The biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit. We are in great need of people being able to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes.” — Barack Obama

  1. Meg, I really enjoyed your post. It is a very insightful, personal and honest post. I agree with you that us, counselors, have also gone through difficult experiences in our own lives and the ability to analyze them and learn from them can be very helpful when we work with other people. The more aware we are of our problems, pains, and loses, the more we will be able to understand, respect and help our clients. Sometimes I have the feeling that people see mental health professionals as perfect or as people that do not have any problems in their lives, and that is so no true. I feel the more we try to understand ourselves, accept ourselves and make changes where we can, the better persons and counselors we will be.
    Thank you for a great post.

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