Yesterday I met with a fairly resistant client. Everything I said—every suggestion, every reflection—was met with, “probably” or “I don’t know.” It was frustrating but I tried to pull out some of my (rusty) motivational interviewing skills and get her to state her own goals. We managed to come up with a couple of strategies to reduce her isolation and improve her mood; I was feeling pretty good about our limited progress. Then she hit me with this response: “So it’s all on me, huh.”
YES. YES, IT IS.
This has been a frequent experience lately in my practice: my patients want answers but they don’t want to change anything. Listen, I hear that. I want to lose weight but I don’t want to stop eating whatever I want. I have no trouble empathizing with that impulse, of wanting to get better without actually doing the work. What I’ve been thinking about during and after these interactions is whether I’m being clear about how therapy works. Namely, which one of us is doing the work here.
As clinicians we often want our patients to do what we think is best: quit smoking; leave an abusive partner; practice some deep breathing. But our patients don’t want to do those things. They want to feel better, sure, but they don’t want to make any changes. We meet at this impasse a lot of the time and try to figure out how to move forward together. We are both resistant. We both want the other to do the lion’s share of the work.
And who’s right? As a clinician, I’d say I am of course! (Ha.) I can’t do the work for people. I can’t put down the cigarette or leave the boyfriend or do the deep breathing (I mean, I can breathe deeply obviously, but not for someone else). But my patient wants to feel better right now. And they think the key to feeling better is making other people do some work.
Of course, I don’t do nothing. Ultimately I try to gently lead someone towards the things that are in their control instead of allowing them to focus on the things that are out of their control. I try to get them to see that they have to do the work, even as they wish that I would do it for them. I wish I could, too. Sometimes they don’t come back, maybe because they’re not ready. Or maybe because I’m not the right fit for them. I have to do my own work there, not to take it personally and use every clinical experience I face as a chance to reflect on my practice. As I told a patient this morning, I’m growing too. That is the gift of the work.