One morning, as was common for me, I pondered the deep things of life in my shower (consequently, this is where I do my best thinking). Amid reflection, I stood back somewhat surprised to realize that the drain in my shower floor was off-centered. I had not installed this drain, so despite thinking the person responsible must have had good reason to make such a bold decision, I was still annoyed. My wife knows my perturbed reaction to such things well. It comes out when my psychological safety at home is disturbed by items not adhering to a few household rules. For instance, I believe there is a place for everything, and everything has a place. Another example is that, aesthetically, symmetry matters to me because it indicates balance. And balance is key to my well-being. Am I right? My particularities understandably sound rigid, even crossing the border from helpful to legalistic. I know this can be one of my weaknesses. These particularities originally came about functionally: when I was young, they helped me manage the internalized stress of everyday life before I understood (what I now know about) my neurodivergent brain.
Back to the shower. The beauty of this moment was that, while I would have historically stayed paralyzed in my annoyance for longer than appropriate, and probably let it derail the more important things in my life, I did not do so today. I shifted mentally, navigating a maze of healthy, grounding thoughts that allowed me to acknowledge (despite the lack of symmetry) that this drain was just fine. I would be just fine, too, and I could even enjoy this observation within my shower. Using skills I learned in my personal recovery journey, as well as my observations as a professional counselor, I could navigate this perceived disorder with relative ease. Ultimately, my shower experience helped me realize how far I’ve come psychologically. This was mostly because of the pain, effort, and intentionality that accompanies a therapeutic journey. Staring at that drain, I thought about a multitude of interactions with my past clients, and how much I have learned from them. It filled me with gratitude.
In the coming months, I will embark upon my sixth anniversary of being a licensed clinical mental health counselor. Since 2019, I estimate that I’ve spent over 6500 hours in intimate, therapeutic conversations with my clients. What a gift this has been to me! I remember prior to 2019, in graduate school at Regent University, I first learned about Carl Rogers. I believe Rogers once said that, above all else, his greatest teachers were his clients. I recall wondering in those classes when I might notice a shift in my upcoming career: a time when I could say that my favorite lessons about human nature were inherited from client interactions (versus research and continuing education). Let me be clear – I still value the latter very much. However, after a half-decade as a wounded helper, I am already deeply indebted to my clients for their influence. I was blessed to sit, sometimes laughing, sometimes crying, and other times quietly still, with these people as we journeyed toward wellness, maturity, and sanctification. This blog post is an ode and tribute to them!
I want to share five lessons I’ve learned over these recent years through my clients’ wisdom, which was hard earned in the crucible of the change process. These five lessons are a few in many that I gained with my clientele. So in actuality, this blog post is a tribute to every client with whom I have had the pleasure of working. These lessons stand out to me and bless me. They helped me become a better version of myself as a counselor and a human.
1) “Therapy gave me my words back.”
Trauma recovery has been a massively important piece of my counseling work. With every client, in typical trauma-informed fashion, I help intentionally shift their language in the counseling room from “what is wrong with me?” to “what happened to me?” I believe we all go through trauma, because trauma is the subjective experience after an event, season, or relationship that causes such overwhelm that we cannot make sense of it. One of my longest standing clients, who I will call Alvin, desperately desired trauma healing when he first showed up in my office. Alvin grew up in a small town with neglectful parents and a horribly abusive neighbor. Because the neighbor had an intellectual disability, his parents would often encourage Alvin to visit and spend time with him without knowing he was secretly terrorizing Alvin. For this reason, Alvin’s trauma was layered and multifaceted.
I worked with Alvin for years to loose one layer of trauma at a time, ultimately so his resultant core beliefs might be replaced with more functional and accurate reflections of Alvin’s identity as a child of God. After many of those sessions, Alvin sent me emails with his journaling thoughts. Some of those emails were bullet points or fragmented paragraphs to organize his brain’s reflections. However, between years one and two, I noticed a significant shift. Alvin began sharing written work that was drastically transformative. Truthfully, Alvin’s work mirrored some of the most profound poetry that I heard. His written pieces were delightful to listen to, but their greatest attribute was the deep, quick-witted insights into his resurrection story. His trauma recovery allowed him to step out of hiding (from within himself) caused by the compounded abuse. Fast forward to a recent session when we reflected on Alvin’s progress. I asked Alvin about his biggest take away from therapy; he said: “words.” I waited for him to eloquently elaborate as I knew he would…and he said therapy gave him access to more fully and heartfully describe his internal world, and he no longer felt trapped in aloneness. Alvin taught me that using one’s voice can be a vehicle for healing and an indication of it.
2) “I thought I was a narcissist.”
From the moment this client, who I will call Theodore, called for his free consultation, I could hear that he had made his mind up. He told me that he worked compulsively, struggled in his marriage and relationships, and desired therapy because “he was a narcissist.” He said something needed to change or he would lose the people he loved. Now, I often meet clients who receive a “narcissistic” label after exhibiting prideful tendencies toward a perturbed partner or colleague. However, Theodore understood psychology, and he thought through this topic more clinically than my other clients. In his case, Theodore listed the symptoms in the DSM-5 aligning with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) which people reflected to him as his identity. He even figured it was part of what made him special. [From my therapeutic viewpoint, when a client comes in with an acceptance around their narcissistic traits, and they are ready to change this, it is highly unlikely he or she has NPD. Those with NPD are often so unaware of their motivations to protect their self-image that they arrive at counseling outlining why their issues are not their fault.]
I started asking Theodore curious questions. In my experience, certain diagnostics can be confused with NPD, particularly unmanaged ADHD. It turned out that Theodore fit right into this ADHD diagnosis; he was even diagnosed as a child, but few people took the time to work with him to optimize his brain. I cannot tell you how many of my clients with ADHD have been mislabeled, from lazy, to stupid, to narcissistic…to the point that it becomes self-fulfilling. I have made it my professional goal to uproot this trend. Thinking back, I recall one session when Theodore sighed in relief to learn that ADHD was a neuro-biological issue, not a characterological one. Theodore stopped settling into the label of narcissism and he began learning to manage his neurodivergence. Today, Theodore does not sound like the same man that frantically called me for consultation. In fact, he told me recently that his wife is now seeing the changes in him, and for that reason, he is committed to therapy. In the end, Theodore helped me learn to stay curious, even when people (and other providers!) have their mind made up.
3) I think, therefore I am…more than my thoughts.
This lesson refers to many clients, all to whom I attribute my gratitude. As of 2023, I have specialties in the clinical areas of trauma, sex addiction, ADHD, and neurotheology. I regularly work with clients on addiction and ADHD whose distress and behavior are related to unwanted, impulsive thoughts. Many clients have no idea how to relate to their thoughts other than to react to them; i.e., “if a thought comes up, it ought to mean something about me or for me.” There is validity in this…though it’s a fraction of the story. Cognitive Behavioral Theory (CBT) details there is a significant interconnectedness between human thoughts, sensations, emotions, and behavior. I would argue that our behaviors are always a response to the interaction between our thoughts, sensations, and emotions. Even more interestingly, we (as humans) have the capacity for something called metacognition: thinking about what we think about. Thus, through the process of mindfulness, we need not react to every thought or even own certain cognitions!
Instead, we can step outside the thoughts, feelings, and sensations long enough to do what B. F. Skinner once advocated: choose our next step. He said, “between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”. I lay that foundation to reflect on the idea of intrusive thoughts. Despite all our maturity, humans can still have unwanted thoughts, especially within people who are prone to use mental escapism. I cannot tell you how relieved my clients feel when they realize they are not slaves to their thoughts. In fact, they don’t even have to pay attention to certain thoughts, should they choose! When intrusive thoughts arise, I encourage them to practice redirecting their attention to something else. One of my mentors, Dr. Jim Wilder, once said: “our greatest individual commodity is our attention.” I want to thank all my clients who remind me that we have a choice in our attentiveness. This makes all the difference in our mental health journey.
4) Do teens really “not know” when asked?
While I’m still trying to figure this one out, the mental wrestling match around it has been enjoyable! When I work with teenagers, especially those with ADHD, I often ask them questions and get the frequently similar response, “I don’t know.” I think about one long-standing, adolescent, male client who I will refer to as Simon. Simon is one of my most significant participants in the “I don’t know” response culture, but that is not indicative of his investment in therapy. When he comes into my office, he loves to play the game Sequence, so our therapeutic discussions and endeavors often occur during game play. In my many attempts to help Simon improve his executive functioning, I integrate mindfulness, visual cues, and other tactics. These are evidence-based interventions for improving ADHD symptoms, but I have also been experimenting with what might help Simon to stimulate deeper reflection and recall. I realized that, when Simon is given time, space, and motivation to allow his working memory to retrieve data, he is more than capable of participating heartily in these conversations! I love to highlight Simon’s strengths when our conversation begins flowing.
I remember when Simon first started coming to therapy with me, he told me that he called himself “special education.” It was clear this was a derogatory term for his intelligence/learning capability. It is not uncommon for my neurodivergent clients, young or old, to make remarks like this. There have been so many misconceptions regarding ADHD that my clients perceive there must be something wrong with their brains. They think that because they cannot sustain the attention necessary to participate in conversations, remember what they want to say, or even stay attuned with their conversation partner, they must be “stupid.” Like Simon, many of my clients resign themselves to saying “I don’t know” to questions directed at them as a means of protection. It is an easy way to prevent shameful feelings after distractibility, forgetfulness, or disorganization. Contrasting with the messages they’ve heard, my clients are so bright. I am thankful to Simon who reminds me that ADHD has nothing to do with intellect or capacity, only capability. And mental capability can often be learned, practiced, and improved.
5) Emotional safety…what is that?
I have the privilege of working with men across the spectrum of ages. In this instance, I remember counseling an older gentleman who was in the throes of addiction recovery. I will call him Chip. Chip was raised in a culture that promoted toxic masculinity through achievements like sporting triumphs, material gains, or sexual encounters. Chip came to counseling wanting to create a much healthier marriage with his wife by going through sexual addiction recovery best practices, including disclosure. I led Chip and his wife in this process; though it was hard for them, they committed to it and came through it with hope. In the early days of Chip’s recovery, he began reading through a workbook written by Carol Sheetz and Allan Katz called “Help Her Heal.” In this book, I remember him stating: “I’m really curious about the idea of emotional safety. What is that?” This question made me light up with joy. It simultaneously, and sadly, mirrored my observation of many male clients. Few men are socialized to respect their inner emotional world. Instead, we are trained to despise it as weak.
When this is the case, there is little potential to create emotionally safe spaces where relationships and maturity thrive. I described to Chip the function of emotions: these are flags for our brain/body indicating underlying needs, just like the alerts we get on our cell phones. Our job is to attend to the alerts by figuring out what they mean to us at that moment. Emotional safety is appropriately and gently tending to our feelings and others’ emotions. In my clinical opinion, emotions are often painful but never harmful. By this I mean that most of my clients engage in self or other harm when they avoid their emotions because their needs go unmet. Paradoxically, feeling and learning from the emotions, then expressing them constructively while we allow others space/time to do the same, is the key to emotional safety. We must first learn to do this in the context of relationships with others through co-regulation, which ultimately leads to self-regulation. Chip is in the process of becoming more emotionally safe for his wife and others – and I applaud his efforts. Working with clients like Chip has helped me refine my own language around emotional awareness, regulation, and safety.
When I began this blog post, I didn’t anticipate writing an epilogue. However, as I express appreciation to my clients for the lessons learned, I cannot end this reflective journey without communicating tremendous gratefulness to Yahweh. There have been so many moments in my counseling office where I perceived I was at an impasse. My client was engrossed in hurt, and I was limited in my clinical ability to handle it. So, I prayed, and in a miraculous fashion, God calmed me, and my client, then He helped us move forward with healing and transformation. Lately, I have been asking God for these interventions before going into sessions instead of during crises, believing He would use me in his sanctifying work. I’ve watched this prayer answered time and again! The greatest gift I’ve experienced as a counselor in these first five years was an increase in my faith in Jesus. Every time the Holy Spirit counseled my clients through me, it increased my ability to trust Him. In ending this musing on my client experiences, I pray that your off-centered (or centered) drains lead you into your own beautiful journeys of gratitude. Happy reflecting, and happy holidays!