The first signs of the New Year that most of us see is often the fireworks over Sydney Harbour in Australia that illuminate the iconic Bridge and Opera House a good ten hours before we celebrate the occasion here in the UK and this year has been no exception albeit slightly muted. It’s likely that people will not mourn the passing of 2020 too much with memories of the Covid-19 epidemic reeking chaos and misery across the world. However with all of our own country now in total lockdown and huge numbers of the new variant of Covid-19 cases every day I guess there’s little enthusiasm for celebrating the arrival of 2021 except for the promise of the vaccines.
For many people, the New Year can bring about ideas of making changes to their lives in the form of Resolutions. In years past it was not unusual for people to draw up lists of these pledges, which might have included: to stop smoking, cut down on alcohol, lose weight, get a better job or take the dog out more often. However, unfortunately New Year Resolutions are seldom kept and this can bring about feelings of disappointment in us and so we feel worse. The main reason for the lack of success of these promises is that they are often unrealistic and also unachievable without outside support.
As therapists of course, we are in an excellent position to provide this support and that is why at this time of year our counselling and psychotherapy world is usually extra busy. Depending on our modality, we might employ the S.M.A.R.T. approach: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timed.
For example Specific might be going cycling to keep fit. Measurable - deciding how often and how far one might go. Achievable - confirming one is up to the task – are there any reasons why this can’t be done, health etc? Relevant – will this help to keep fit? Timed – when will it start, how long, when will progress be reviewed?
As therapists we can work with our clients to decide if the changes they want to make are achievable. In my work with clients I sometimes use John Bird, the founder of The Big Issue magazine as an example of how to break down a problem into manageable chucks. In his book ‘Change Your Life – 10 steps to get what you want` (2008 Vermilion Publishing) he writes of his chaotic younger years days of shoplifting, burglary and homelessness and how he was imprisoned in a young offenders’ institution at the age of fifteen where he was locked in a cell for 23 hours each day. He had been abandoned by his family and felt hated by everyone. At one point he ran away from the institution but was caught and taken back. As a punishment he was instructed to dig over a huge field with a spade and a pitchfork. The size of the task was meant to overwhelm and defeat him but he was determined not to let that happen. Mentally, John divided the field into small squares of 3% which straight away made the task more manageable and also meant that he could measure his progress. Every time he dug over a square he felt he had achieved something and this made it easier to keep going. By breaking down this huge job into small steps, it was no longer daunting. This was the birth of his now legendary 3% rule.
Breaking down the problem with baby steps, small steps, little victories or the 3 % rule will almost certainly make the issue in question more manageable but we still need to decide together if the ultimate goal of the client is actually achievable. Clients wanting to be CEO of M&S by Easter, World Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World by the end of the summer or an Astronaut by Christmas will need all of our helping skills if they are to avoid a feeling of disappointment. Here the application of a Force Field Analysis might be useful to identify Hindering Forces and Facilitating Forces, allowing the clients to build a tangible picture of the pros and cons of their wishes. As discussed in TAP’s Christmas blog, those of us that have reasonable expectations of what we are able to achieve will often surpass those expectations and in doing so will improve our self esteem.
When a new client arrives at our counselling room and after the pleasantries and admin are over, one of the first things we might ask is `So, what brings you here?` and later `What are your expectations of counselling?` or `What are you hoping to achieve?` And however cloudy, vague or guarded the answers might be, we then tease out what their goal really is. But there’s a huge underlying factor here and that is hope. Our client has singled us out from the possibly dozens of therapists in our area. They have probably trawled the Internet for some time, reading profile after profile, studying picture after picture and comparing qualifications and modalities and after all that they have chosen us. They have chosen us because they believe we offer hope, hope that we can help them get from where they are now to the place they want to be. And there’s the balance isn’t it? Optimism and hope for change within achievability and realism.
©David Trott 2021