Help clients understand and break the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle

Five Requisites for Effective Clinical Service

Requisite 5) Special Personal Traits
Page 1 of 2

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council


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        This article is one of a series on effective professional counseling, coaching, and therapy with (a) low-nurturance (dysfunctional) families and with (b) typical survivors of childhood neglect and trauma. These articles for professionals are under construction.

        This series assumes you're familiar with:

        Before continuing, pause and reflect - why are you reading this article? What do you need?

+ + +

        This article continues an outline of seven requisites for effective professional service to divorced-family and stepfamily clients:

  • your true Self usually leading your personality , and...
  • special knowledge of systems, yourself, clinical assessment and intervention, and these clients; and...

  • special attitudes about these clients and the therapeutic process; and...

  • special (a) clinical skills and (b) personal traits (below); and...

  • a high-nurturance, stepfamily-aware environment; and...

  • special resources. 

 Requisite 5) Special Therapist Traits

        Clinicians with identical knowledge, skills, and resources can still differ in effectiveness with complex, multi-problem clients because of some key personal traits. A (personality) trait differs from a skill in that it is inherent, rather than learned. Most people can sing or learn to play the piano. A minority are gifted (innately talented) and can consistently create unusually evocative (touching, inspiring, entertaining, uplifting, moving) music. Can you name some unique traits that set you apart from most other people?

        Competent therapists, coaches, and counselors need basic traits like empathy, compassion, awareness, creativity, courage, humor, patience, decisiveness, and vision. From two decades of providing therapy and pre-re/wedding education to hundreds of average Midwestern-U.S. divorced-family and stepfamily clients, I believe clinicians working with these multi-problem client families need at least nine special traits for long-term effective service:

  • Staying centered, focused, resilient, and patient in multi-problem, multi-client confusion, neediness, and conflict;

  • Spiritual trust, openness, and maturity;

  • Key attitudes about these clients and the therapeutic clinical process with them

  • Steady "wide-angle," long-range, multi-level awareness;

  • Comfort with and interest in solving  concurrent, complex systemic problems;

  • Comfort with confronting wounded and/or unaware clients in denial;

  • Comfort with strategically frustrating clients ruled by false selves

  • Motivation and skill at interesting and educating clients about key abstract concepts;

  • Calmly accepting frequent personal inability to provide all that clients currently need;

  • Instinctively flexing therapeutic modalities, focuses, and intervention strategies in response to  changing client and workplace needs and conditions.

        Option: reality-check this summary with veteran stepfamily therapists and consultants. Here's brief perspective on each of these traits:

Trait 1) Staying centered, focused, resilient, and patient in multi-problem, multi-client confusion, neediness, and conflict.

         Therapists who work (a) with several to many multi-problem divorced-family and stepfamily clients concurrently risk of feeling confused, unfocused, and periodically overwhelmed. This is specially true if _ their professional responsibilities (roles) aren't clear or appropriate, and/or _ their workplace is disorganized and/or conflictual (low-nurturance). Do you agree that some people are inherently better than others at retaining their "center" and staying "grounded" in chaotic, turbulent conditions?

        The essential requisite for this trait is self-awareness that your true Self consistently guides your inner family of subselves (personality). A significant benefit to having this trait is modeling for wounded clients what it looks and sounds like to be calm and focused despite many concurrent responsibilities, conflicts, and confusions.

Reality check: Recently, from one (I easily become overwhelmed and defocused by work-related chaos) to ten (I'm steadily centered and focused despite significant occupational chaos), I'd rate myself as a ___.

Trait 2) Spiritual trust, openness, and maturity.

        Here, spirituality refers to a clinician's personal faith (trust) in an accessible Higher Power which is a reliable source of support, guidance, and serenity. It does not refer to a set of religious (denominational) beliefs, icons, rituals, and belief in a Holy book or text.

        Spiritual openness means accepting each client's spiritual beliefs and values as legitimate and appropriate for them, no matter how different they are from the clinician's beliefs - unless the former seem to promote significant personal or family stress. If so, focusing on...

  • clarifying client beliefs and their origins, and...

  • respectfully exploring second-order changes may be an appropriate clinical goal.

Openness also means having steady inner permission to learn and use co-parents' spirituality as a major resource in helping them fill the primary needs that bring them into therapy. For more on this important topic, see this.

        Do you feel personal spiritual awareness and wisdom spontaneously develops (matures) over a typical person's life span? Do you believe that self-aware people can intentionally grow their spiritual wisdom, sensitivity, and maturity? Does spiritual maturity affect people's behavior? Exploring this in depth is beyond the scope of these Web pages.

        Premise: the more open, aware, and mature a clinician's spirituality is, the more likely s/he'll have effective long-term professional outcomes and satisfaction. This is specially true in phase-3 (individual) work - inner-family harmonizing. Among scores of clients seeking to recovery from false-self wounds. I have never encountered or heard of anyone who didn't feel that relying on a nurturing, responsive Higher Power was essential to their healing and daily life. What's your experience?

        Every therapist has the steady option to proactively develop and use their spiritual faith and wisdom in their work. Clinical supervisors and program managers have related choices about how, when, and whether to promote spiritual openness and growth in themselves and their clinical staff. Related choices are if, how, and when to ask for spiritual consultation in individual cases - e.g. using veteran or gifted pastoral professionals strategically. This implies the ability and motivation to assess a client-family's spirituality, among many other variables.

        Pause, breathe, and notice what your subselves are saying now about intentionally using spirituality as a resource in working with selected clients and co-workers.

        Another helpful personal attribute for clinicians working with divorced and stepfamily clients is... 

Trait 3) Steady "wide-angle," long-range, multi-level awareness

        People who seek therapy are usually seeking short-term relief from several discomforts. Clients and clinicians who have lived in chaotic, stressful environments most of their lives are used to focusing narrowly on filling current personal lower-level needs ("dousing brush fires"), and not planning effectively to fill family-members' future needs ("fireproofing the forest"). Typical wounded co-parents aren't aware of their narrow focus, and/or don't rank it as a significant current personal or family problem.

        Current literature suggests that (1) it takes average kids and adults many years to fully accept and adjust to changes and losses (broken bonds) from divorce or mate/parent death. (2) The complex merger process initiated by re/marital courtship takes four or more years to stabilize. (3) Preparing a child for successful independent living takes about two decades in our culture.

        These three realities suggest that clinicians and colleagues have implicit responsibilities to _ promote client awareness of them, and _ encourage clients to adopt a wide-angle, long-range concern for their own systemic welfare. For this to happen, the clinician/s and client co-parents each need to have their Self enabled and free to lead their inner families (personalities). Recall that focusing on inner-family harmony is phase 3 of working with these clients.

        Some clinicians are inherently gifted at intuiting how current co-parent attitudes, priorities, conflicts, and behaviors affect all members of a nuclear-family system now (wide-angle vision) and in future years (long-range vision). Every therapist makes an implicit choice to include or minimize a client family's future welfare in current intervention goals and strategies - specially when co-parents are too focused on present relief to care about their future personal and family well-being. The latter condition usually implies _ significant false-self wounds and _ related chronic self-neglect .

Reality check: On a scale of one (I mainly focus on filling current personal needs) to ten (I always care about my whole family's long-term health and happiness), I rate myself as a ___.

Trait 4) Interest in and the ability to resolve complex, concurrent systemic problems. Typical divorced-family and stepfamily clients are significantly more complicated structurally and dynamically than average intact-biofamily clients. Each client family usually has a cluster of concurrent, inter-related, multi-level problems they seek help with. Professionals working with several to many such complex clients at once risk losing strategic focus and balance. To experience this, scan this menu of common  client-system stressors and return.

        This essential therapist trait has several components: for effective outcomes, s/he needs to...

_ Be able to objectively comprehend and articulate complex, multi-level client _ presenting (surface) and _ underlying primary problems (unmet needs); and then s/he needs to be able to....

_ realistically identify and rank-order ("organize") all major primary systemic problems, and relate each one to short and long-term client and therapeutic goals, in each session and between; and then...

_ communicate problem-summaries effectively to attending clients and related supporters; and then be able to...

_ negotiate effectively and agree with everyone on an ordered treatment plan to empower the client co-parents to fill their current and long-range primary needs, and to...

_ effectively resolve concurrent _ inter-subself (individual) and _ inter-personal values conflicts while doing this, over time; and to...

_ stay process-aware and focused on the dynamic mix of these and new problems as the work progresses, and _ make strategic real-time decisions based on changing system and environmental conditions.

        The essence of this essential therapist trait is the inherent motivation and ability to break complex abstract systemic problems into discrete unmet needs, rank them with the client, and stay focused on permanently filling a few needs at a time despite situational shifts and discord. This is specially necessary when client co-parents can't do this ranking and focusing themselves (yet).

Reality check: Recently, from one (very inept at tolerating and resolving concurrent, complex systemic problems) to ten (I'm consistently tolerant, competent, and effective) I'm a ___.

        The next essential therapist trait is...

Trait 5) Comfort with confronting wounded, unaware adults

        Typical stepfamily co-parents are unaware of significant false self wounds in one or more family members. Those who are aware often minimize, rationalize, or deny their "psychological problems" and their toxic impacts. This presents therapists and supervisors with a complex decision: if, when, and how to confront some or all members of a client family, and risk their quitting.

        Some therapists prefer to focus "only on positive interventions" and see confrontation as "negative" - so they avoid them or use indirect suggestions instead. Others see value in strategic confrontations, but time them wrong or frame them in a way that leaves the client-members feeling scared, guilty, anxious, defensive (attacked), and perhaps angry.

        Common conditions that justify constructive, timely, respectful confrontations with these challenging clients include...

  • one or more family members has symptoms of significant psychological wounds

  • couples are about to make - or did make - wrong re/marital choices

  • some members deny their stepfamily identity and have toxic unrealistic expectations

  • toxic and/or ineffective communication styles, specially between mates and/or ex mates

  • a willful child or aggressive ex mate is ruling a re/married couple's home, and they allow it

  • an adult or child has one of the four addictions , and others are co-addicted

  • a mate had or is having an affair, and won't disclose that

  • major barriers between ex mates are stressing other stepfamily relationships

  • co-parents insist on focusing on surface problems, vs. underlying primary problems

  • clear abuse , neglect , or criminal behavior

  • a dying or dead re/marriage, and probable future re/divorce

  • sexual feelings and/or actions between stepsibs, or a stepparent and stepchild

  • a co-parent is avoiding responsibility for toxic attitudes or behaviors

  • one or more co-parents are inhibiting healthy grief in other members, and deny this

  • co-parents are avoiding re/marital problems by focusing on kids or ex mates

  • A co-parent is unconsciously enabling the wounds and toxic behavior of another family adult or child

  • one or more co-parents denying situations like these, and denying their denial

        The inescapable ethical choice here is the same as that which medical doctors face: who is ultimately responsible for a patient's wholistic health: the patient, or the doctor? Answering "the doctor" suggests you feel that therapists have an implicit moral obligation to confront clients on toxic systemic conditions like the above.

        Therapists who depend on client fees for their living face a conundrum: confront clients and risk termination and loss of income, or avoid confronting, and risk guilt and censure from ethical "failure"? Ambivalence on this (and possibly degraded service) is likely if a clinician's answer conflicts _ with their employer's policy, _ their profession's code of ethics, and/or _ prevailing laws. Choosing not to choose implies "the client is responsible."

        Whom do you believe is responsible for client's long-term wholistic health?

Effective stepfamily professionals also have...

Trait 6) Comfort with strategically frustrating wounded clients

        The psychotherapy profession exists because clients are unable to make second-order systemic changes to _ reduce present discomfort and _ improve family functioning. Co-parents in any family who are ruled by false selves often present a therapeutic challenge: some subselves ask "Please help me change," and other subselves say "No matter how you respond, I'm too scared, distrustful, or depleted to change." This is similar to the approach/avoid, love/hate, and pseudo-intimacy phenomena in romantic relationships.

        When wounded stepfamily adults aren't ready or able to do phase-3 (inner family) work, therapists may choose strategic frustration as an intervention. Frustration is the primal human response to feeling "I can't find a way to fill an important current need."

        This choice forces clients to confront their own responsibility to fill their needs by saying or implying "I don't know what to do about your (presenting) problem/s." This is one of a class of paradoxic interventions who's implicit theme is "I'll help you by not helping you." The "ToughLove" support program for co-parents of "rebellious, defiant" (wounded) teenagers is based on this choice. Search the Web for info on them

        Depending on...

  • who leads their personality,

  • training,

  • professional standards, and...

  • degree of experience,

...therapists vary in their comfort with strategically helping by not helping.

        Clinicians, supervisors, and clinical and program directors whose subselves believe that their self-worth and professional reputation depend on clients' and colleagues' approval may balk at intentionally frustrating wounded clients. Human-service professionals most apt to include compassionate frustration as a legitimate intervention will be guided by their true Selves (capital "S").

        Would people who know you well say that you believe in strategically helping by not helping? If you have children, are their times you express your caring by helping them find safe ways to grow self-reliance? If you work in a human-service organization, can you describe your organization's implicit policy on strategic frustration as legitimate, ethical behavior? "No policy" is a policy.  

Continue with perspective on four more desirable therapist traits for service to these complex clients.

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Updated September 30, 2015