When I worked in substance abuse counseling, I quickly learned the difficulties involved. People in early recovery can be grumpy, horny, enjoy power struggles, and frequently fail to make it beyond the word “early.” In my five years as a counselor in an outpatient clinic, I saw one client three different times. On his fourth admission, he requested a different counselor, and I agreed with him.
One man, whom I first met while working in an inpatient rehab, I met again several years later in the clinic. Mario was a middle-aged, alcoholic CPA who didn’t drink while sleeping. Otherwise, he drank during the day, at a bar in the evening, and again at home after returning from the bar. By the time I saw him at the clinic, Mario had developed esophageal varices, enlarged veins in his esophagus that could cause him to bleed to death. We discussed his situation, but Mario didn’t care, bluntly telling me that he’d drink until he died. Several months later, he did.
That kind of outcome creates a challenge for counselors; it is easy to become disillusioned. Despite your best efforts, people don’t succeed. Especially in a society that lauds success and derides failure, it’s hard not to take the poor results personally, causing a fair amount of turnover among the staff at treatment agencies.
To avoid my own burnout, I adopted an axiom for myself. When a client does well, it’s not because I’m a good counselor, and when a client does poorly, it’s not because I’m a bad one. The saying was a reminder that judging myself to be good or bad cannot depend on what someone else does. What I think or feel about myself is never another person’s responsibility. My obligation as a counselor is to provide the best counseling possible, but the successes or failures do not belong to me. If someone earns a medal, I don’t belong on the podium, and if they end up in jail, I’m not a co-conspirator.
The frustration experienced by counselors is a matter of boundaries. We expect from people what we have no right to expect. We try to make others responsible for what belongs to us. Judging ourselves to be good or bad, a success or failure, valuable or worthless is entirely a personal matter, even if we mistakenly believe others can help us.
This isn’t just true for counselors, of course. It applies equally well to any significant relationship in our lives. If I am a teacher, I have no right to expect particular grades from my students. If I am a parent, I have no right to expect particular behaviors from my children. If I have a spouse or partner that I love, I have no right to expect they will make me feel loved. If I believe in God, I have no right to expect God to do anything for me. In all these ways, I may wish for particular results, but I am wrong to expect them.
This is seen clearly when we believe that someone owes us. We expect to receive something from them. We expect to be appreciated, to be obeyed, to be respected, to be listened to, to be treated as we deserve. When it doesn’t happen, we’ll blame the other person, instead of taking responsibility for what properly belongs to us. Those expectations are designed to satisfy our own needs, after all, which the other person did not cause. And, since he or she didn’t cause them, neither can they fix them.
Relations to God are subject to the same kinds of problems. We’ll confuse what belongs to us and what doesn’t. We’ll expect certain results. We’ll blame God when things don’t go as desired. Our boundaries with God get as messy as they do with people.
Identifying our own needs and finding ways to meet them. Delimiting our boundaries. Deciding what belongs to us, what doesn’t, and living accordingly. Only then can love enter our relationships, because love can only be given free of charge.
Picture of compass by Gino Crescoli from Pixabay
Picture of burnout by Anna Tarazevich: https://www.pexels.com/photo/close-up-shot-of-scrabble-tiles-on-a-white-surface-6230965/
Picture of sign by Brett Sayles: https://www.pexels.com/photo/a-signage-with-the-words-me-and-you-10813066/
Picture of hand by Pixabay: https://www.pexels.com/photo/close-up-of-hand-over-white-background-255527/