How many times a day do we wear our masks? Every time we go to work, school, or the grocery store? Someone says, “How are you?” on the elevator and we say, “Fine.” It does not matter if we are giddy or ecstatic or if we are sad and depressed – we are always “fine,” “good,” or “okay.” Not every moment of our day is devoted to being sincere.
When our clients come to us, it may be the only time of their day when they feel that they can take a risk and be authentic. The counselor may be the only person that can be trusted not to make a judgment or to keep an embarrassing secret. The counselor’s office might be the only place where a client can answer, “How are you?” with “Lousy,” “Upset,” or “Scared.”
Creating an environment for authentic expression without fear of judgment (or of upsetting the counselor) is paramount for the therapeutic relationship. To use an analogy of sorts, if a client comes to me expressing his love of college football, I may tacitly approve, being a college football fan myself. If this client goes on to say that his favorite team is the Georgia Bulldogs, that he bleeds black and red, and that he has not missed a home game since 1982, I – as a Florida Gator fan – may be highly offended. I may want to yell, “But wait! How can’t you see that the Florida Gators are amazing? Did you even see Tim Tebow play!?” But that is the reaction of Tara, the Gator fan, and in the therapeutic relationship, I need to be Tara, the Counselor.
Tara, the Counselor, has to keep an open mind and allow the client to continue being authentic in expressing his preference for the Georgia Bulldogs over the Florida Gators. Tara, the Counselor, needs to understand how and why the Georgia Bulldogs are important to him and what that experience is like for him. To discredit or argue about his sports preference would not be beneficial to the client. His cheering for his favorite team is not hurting him or anyone else. I think the lesson can be applied to any number of preferences that differ between our clients and ourselves – religion, lifestyle, education, employment, etc.
In the therapeutic relationship, if your client is a dog person and you are a cat person, so be it. The last thing you want is for your client to say what he has said to the grocery clerk, the mailman, and the stranger in the elevator today.
“How am I doing? Um, just fine.”
Tara Overzat is a counselor-in-training at Mercer University in Atlanta. Her interests include multicultural issues and acculturation amongst college students.