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Will You Change Me, Or Will You Accept Me?

Each therapist has, to varying degrees, made a decision on the fundamental question of their work, which is how they are going to be helpful. And there are two basic attitudes that they can choose from: the first involves solving clients’ problems, whereas the second is concerned with finding a way for clients to solve their own problems.

Whichever attitude a therapist chooses, it manifests in almost everything he or she does, from handling referrals, to holding the frame, to saying goodbye. Each action, remark, and gesture has as its fundamental motivation either the desire to convince clients of the right course of action, or to explore how clients can resolve the matter in a way that is conducive to them and their values.

This is not to say that therapists are always projecting the same attitude. Some problems are more difficult for us to resist than others, whereas some issues even require us jump in and take control of the situation, like when a client admits suicidal thoughts, plans, and intent. However, for most of the issues clients bring up in session, the choice is either to help directly or indirectly.

The arguments for helping a client solve his or her own problems, as opposed to solving them yourself, are so well-known that they have become cliché. They all basically boil down to the wisdom behind “Teach a man to fish” vs. “Give a man a fish.” What I want to highlight in this post is one more reason why jumping in to solve a client’s problems is not the strength of our trade.

The idea is summed up in one of Carl Rogers’ most famous quotations: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I change.” The problem with offering a solution to a client's problem is that it does not allow any acceptance of the situation, but instead sends an implicit message that “Yes, things need to change, and here is how you will do it.” But if that is the message, then the “curious paradox” Rogers talks about never has a chance to occur.

In my experience, I have found that clients’ problems are usually not as scary, bleak, or irreversible as they seem. When we take a step back and allow the client to have his or her problem and the responsibility to address it, it sends across a curiously powerful message, as well, which is that not every problem needs to be solved.

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