As clinicians, we hold a lot of respect for the process. Just sitting with a client and holding space for the pain one might avoid in everyday life is often enough of an intervention to create meaningful change for a client. I try to be diligent and caring in that space, letting the client guide the path ahead. But there are some truths in the world that can alter the perspectives that drive negative emotions for people, and one intervention that helps clients see outside their pain is somewhat simple.
I recall one of my own therapists saying to me something simple that changed my whole world. I was struggling with a person in my family who had treated me poorly and continued to demean me whenever we had family functions. I wanted to learn how to handle this person’s behaviors over the holidays where we would be in close contact. In session, I was lamenting how I feared this person’s contempt for me. My therapist simply said to me “you can’t control anyone else’s feelings or behaviors, but you can control your response to their behaviors.” Something shifted a core element inside me when she said this very simple statement, changing the way I see my own sense of power in my relationships with others. I learned from that day forward to be more mindful of my response to difficult people, to create better boundaries, and to remind myself that I can choose the people I am close to. In doing so, I began to see myself differently, as someone who had agency with others.
With clients of my own, I like to explore how regulating one’s emotional response can lead to a feeling of power in any situation, as well as clear boundaries. I want clients to see the wide array of options when feeling injured, as I have in the years since hearing my therapist’s wise words. People can often feel trapped by their emotions, unable to see another way of handling themselves when disrespected, criticized or abandoned. As a therapist, I explore with clients how the dysregulated or avoidant response to perceived injuries is not creating outcomes the client desires. And in fact, the response that may have worked as a child or in a previous relationship isn’t working today. Our work is often to identify how a client sees oneself, what change the client is capable of, and how that change can impact the outcomes for him or her. Oftentimes, the change can have profound impact on the client’s entire worldview and their place in it.