By Jessica Borushok, PhD. ACT Trainer
We’ve all been guilty of it. A client comes in with a problem and the solution is right in front of them and all they have to do is reach out and open their eyes; all we have to do is lean forward and whisper a solution or create a perfectly plotted plan to solve this riddle. And just like that, we are wrapped into their solution focused story where we are the problem-solvers, they are the lost and confused, and together we are weaving a narrative that captivates while it draws us away from our process, focused work.
As clinicians, it is really easy for us to fall into the trap where therapy is another context for focusing on content and solving problems.
Where we fail to be a model for training function over form, but instead mirror the client’s outside world and approach to life. This can happen for many reasons: maybe you are in a setting that is assessment-oriented and have struggled to find a way to steer that initial session away from, “tell me all of your problems”; maybe you are new to this functional contextualist approach and find yourself falling back on comforting, symptom-reduction techniques when you feel you’re getting stuck, maybe you are working with a difficult population and haven’t quite figured out how best to take control of the session and the context you are creating, or maybe you are shy or feeling like a failure as a therapist–or even worried about upsetting your clients–so you smile and nod and unknowingly reinforce problematic in-session behaviors. Whatever the reason, the good news is that regardless of what that mental chatter says, no matter how hard your heart is beating, or how vivid images flash in your mind of your clients breaking down in tears or storming our angrily or telling you how much you really do suck as a therapist, you are in control of what you do in session, if you’re paying attention.
All too often we focus on the person sitting across from us and forget there’s another person in the room: ourselves.
See also: Positive and Negative Reinforcement in Context: A Look Inside Relational Frame Theory
This may seem silly, elementary perhaps, and yet time and time again we are drawn into patterns of behaving in session that reinforce a solution-focused, symptom reducing, out-of-session content-generating agenda. I do not mean to say that there is never a time in therapy to talk about things that happen in a client’s life, or that developing a plan of action is not ACT consistent. It is, sometimes. Rather, similar to what we teach our clients, we must be vigilant and sensitive to the context and the function of our own behaviors so that what we do in session is aligned with what is best for training the client in a functional contextualist approach rather than avoiding discomfort for ourselves. I say ourselves because I am guilty of it as well.
I know that Understanding the content of ACT, learning exercises, and nailing metaphors is not enough if we don’t slow down and pay attention to the context we are creating and identify how our private experiences may draw us in and trick us into a problematic eliminative agenda under the guise of helping.
So the next time you are in session with a client and find yourself sitting back and nodding, digging into the nitty gritty details of a story, or yearning to solve their problems, I urge you to slow down and ask yourself: what is this in the service of? The answer may surprise you.
Join Jessica Borushok for the Practicing ACT online training to dive deeply into these topics and more!