Finding Courage for the Tasks

Freud's Study

Reflections on a Consultation, by Jonathan Young

He nestles into the chair like an old cat that has found his place. He does not speak at first, but gazes out the window - as if the right words would come from the trees. I sit with this colleague I have known for years, but have not consulted with before. I am at the stage where most of my work is with peers. The need tends to be for some mix of advising and therapy.

He is struggling with a career crisis. His practice is down just as his expectations are up. A book he was writing has stalled. I resist my impulse to suggest solutions quickly. It is better if I hold my tongue. Advice seldom helps. His main need is not information. He knows far more about his options than I do. More likely, he needs to find his lost confidence. How easy it is to imagine success is a fluke and failure our true fate. My thoughts drift to the big house paid for by his practice, but I don't mention it. I understand - evidence is irrelevant. Doubt is muscular.

It is late in the day. The light shifts as I listen. He catalogs his anxieties. There are many. He is a reflective guy. His skills at introspection serve his work as a therapist, but seem to take him into blind alleys personally. It is good that he is talkative. I need time to formulate a response. Finally, I cut in, "You seem to be in an enchantment. Like in a fairy tale. You are not entirely yourself of late." He nods slightly. There is a shift as he relaxes a bit, and is more engaged with me - not just in his fears. I now can tell the list of worries is an oppressive space he goes into. It is his dark cave of doubts. Now we are in a conversation.

Just suggesting that he has not been at his best implies he has better resources available than he has been using. He starts another list. This one is things he is pleased with, his skills, the people who have benefitted from working with him, his strong referral sources. Even though the shift to the celebration seems positive, it again feels to me like he has moved into another space, as if he is caught inside a cave again.

I reflect on trying to ease distress in clients for decades. Whenever I felt it was my task to calm them, it didn't help much. I wonder if I can be any use to this colleague. Praise or reassurance wouldn't have much impact. I comment that his system of measuring himself is rather severe, that he has extremely high standards. I ask if the assessment is constant. "No," he says, "When I walk along the hillside, it fades. I can just be there." His tone of self-criticism leaves as he describes the pleasure of his daily hike. The calm, confident person was in there all along. From this mood, he can reclaim his sense of purpose. He already chose a meaningful life, but lost the thread of connection to his own story. Helping him find the strength he mislaid is a worthy task. Working from restored effectiveness is what he needs to face the challenges. My part in this process is small, but crucial. The right words may be few. A lot of it is in the timing. The task is to help him re-connect to a fuller sense of himself. He does not need to become a different person. He needs to claim his best self.