Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Crisis Intervention. Disaster preparedness training. They all say the same thing. Attend to primary needs first. Maslow depicts them as the following: breathing, food, water, sex, sleep, homeostasis, and excretion. Not as an attractive a goal, perhaps, as self-esteem or friendship, but without the base of the pyramid a person cannot focus on that which is of higher importance, including and leading up to self-actualization. Sometimes I think in counseling practice, we forget this. We jump to the tip of the pyramid first, and forget to think about the basics.
It’s easy to focus on basic priorities when an abused woman is planning on leaving her controlling partner. Get out first, and then work on the issues that helped her end up in that situation. But take another situation, such as a depressed mother dealing with an ADHD child, and it’s easy to overlook her everyday stresses and focus solely on her depression. But how can she focus on her wellness in the depression situation, with a constant five-year-old crisis on her hands?
A lot of our training focuses on causes. Early childhood, past trauma, nature, nurture and much more. But what good does it do to know where it comes from if we forget how to apply that knowledge? I had one guileless new client, an older woman; who gave me the perfect quote for this situation. She began our session by asking me, “Are you going to be one of those therapists who just talk about things or are you going to do stuff?” Bless her heart! I wanted to laugh out loud.
It’s easy to get caught up in the mapping of personal history and problems. I enjoy it myself. People are fascinating, and I have fun trying to “figure them out.” But I think our saving grace is remembering to take the history and make it relevant for what the client is experiencing today. It’s not a call to abandon the big picture, but to keep in mind practicality.
Sometimes our clients are the ones driving the bus on this mania for “big” change. You all know the type: peppy, never met a problem they couldn’t solve until this one. They’ve ignored it so long it’s become larger than life; and now they want it done tomorrow. If allowed to go down this path, they might achieve big change for a few days, a week. But then they crash and burn. They skipped a step.
We can still keep the goal of self-actualization in mind for our clients. But we can’t forget the first step. Choose your metaphor: you might think of it as sweeping away the old and broken. Tearing down rotting foundations and helping your client find new and solid ground. However you choose to think of it, the end result is that our clients need our help to start at the bottom. Making sure their basic needs are met is the base of the pyramid. The rest of it points upward.
Stephanie Ann Adams is a counselor who believes in the ability of the mind to understand and change behaviors, and in each person’s power to create the life they want. Her blog can be found at www.sassynsane.blogspot.com.