Interact Journal Integrative Ideas for the Process-Oriented Psychotherapist

Categories Supervision Dialogs

On being helpless

Sometimes I can’t think of anything to do in session and I feel helpless.

When you don’t know what to do in session, choose one of two things:

• Invite him to be here with you.

• Invite him to be here with himself.

Whatever the client is talking about, invite that thing, incident, person, experience, metaphor, or relationship into the session, here and now. Holding to the idea that you have to do something puts pressure on yourself and, ironically, sets up expectations that stifle creativity. When you feel helpless in session, and the client notices your distress, he may feel pressured to do something. When that happens, he is paying more attention to your process than to his own. You have become more attractive to him than his neurosis.

Find out what happens when you give yourself permission not to “do anything in session. Quiet your mind. Wait for an idea, a thought, a picture, a memory, . . . Breathe.

When you can’t think of anything to do in session, try trusting yourself completely and don’t do anything! Doing nothing is often the perfect thing to do. It holds a space for the client to act, think, or speak as they please, and without interference.

Once your brain gets the idea about focusing on process and staying out of the system, your own organism is the best therapeutic tool you have. Pay attention to it, use it, and have as one of your personal goals to begin to let go of the dreaded Supposed To’s.

When you can’t think in session, it often helps to get out of your chair. So stand up and say some version of, “I have an idea. Let’s . . .” It doesn’t matter what your idea is. Work with his response to your idea.

Usually, whatever is going on with you has something to do with whatever is going on with the client, even though you might not know what, exactly. In this case, use your internal response as an intervention. Incorporate “can’t think” or “feel helpless” into the work.

Name what is going on with you. Then direct the focus back onto him. Invite him to explore his response to your helplessness.

“I’m feeling helpless right now. I wonder if you feel helpless right now, too?”

“Who else gets helpless when you expect them to do something?”

“How do you get helpless when you can’t think of anything to do?“

Easy to say, hard to do. I feel shame when I don’t know what to do. It’s hard admitting I’m less than perfect.

I have the same neurosis. Shame is one way we beat up on ourselves when we do not do our Shoulds.

In your personal psychotherapy, invite yourself to move in the direction of self- acceptance. While you are working on that, try making use of the emotion of anger as a biochemical antidote to shame.

Experiment with this in your own body. Find a way to get ticked off that your helplessness is interfering with your professional competence. The shame may hang around on the edges but while you are mad, the annoyance takes precedence and your mind will be clearer.

If you can hold onto that annoyance while you make a sentence, use your emotional response as an intervention.

“I hate to admit being less than perfect. Is that true for you too? What I’m doing to counteract my embarrassment is allowing myself to be annoyed that I feel helpless. The emotion of annoyance seems to neutralize shame.”

Then put the attention back on the other person. This makes an intervention out of your response.

“Try it yourself. Find something to be annoyed at right now.”

So that’s what to do when I don’t know what to do. What about when the client doesn’t know the right thing to do?

Let’s see, an experiential enactment which dramatizes the process of not-knowing-what-to- do. Hmmm . . . So, how do you usually decide what to do when you don’t know what to do?

(shrugs) I dunno.

Here are two pieces of tissue. One is the right one to pick and the other is the wrong one. Pick one now.

(Picks one.)

So how did you decide to pick that one?

I don’t know.

Okay. So let’s do it again. This time, pay attention to what’s going on with you as you make the decision. Here are two pencils. Pick the right one, now.


Wait a minute. Are you feeling helpless?


Okay. Notice that. Now, pick. And keep paying attention to your internal responses.

(Picks one.)

What happened?

Oh, I don’t know. I didn’t know which one to pick so I just picked any old one.

Are you feeling helpless now?

No. But I still don’t know if what I picked was the right thing to pick.

Well, there you have it. When you don’t know what to do, not-doing something leads to helplessness. And just doing any old thing doesn’t clear up your not-knowing, but it does eliminate the helplessness.

Well, I still don’t know if it was the right thing to do.

That’s true. So this time, you tell me to pick the right one.

Here are two pieces of paper. Pick the right one.

(I take a few seconds to introspect. Then I stand up, walk over to the white board and start to draw a picture while humming to myself.)

Hey. You didn’t pick the right one.

Yes I did. I checked inside myself to find out what the right thing to pick was. It turned out to be enjoying myself while I drew this picture. ¯

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