To open up a can of worms. To kick the hornet’s nest. To open Pandora’s Box. To discuss the elephant in the room. To address the 500 pound gorilla in session. These are all expressions that to most have a negative connotation and are usually associated with impending consequences and physical or mental discomfort. The expressions alone invoke a pang of anxiety for me because the implication is that something big is about to happen. If we address the elephant, name the gorilla, release the worms and unleash the hornets within the therapy room we could have a veritable mess that needs to be processed, understood and sometimes contained. This has been my experience…but is facing reality really that bad? And isn’t it important to acknowledge a problem in order to solve it?
The lesson I want to explore here concerns the unspoken “thing” in the room and what to do with it. As a beginner therapist I look at this challenge through as many different lenses that I can think of. It seems to boil down to managing this issue– really the crux of the therapy session – in one of two different ways.
The first management method I thought of was to nourish the beast. Here, the issue is simply ignored by everyone in the session and the therapist hypothetically pulls out a handful of grass/straw every time the creature begins to stir, pats it on the head and hopes for everyone’s sake it calms down and remains silent. I will call this management – avoidance (with a tinge of denial). Quite often this avoidance is the preferred management practice of the masses. This strategy is characterized by complete ignorance/denial on the part of the client(s). The nod towards Pandora’s Box is subtle at best, and neither confronted nor addressed.
The second form of management is to broach the issue. The hornet’s nest gets kicked, the elephant is called by its name, and the mystical box is opened. If therapy is to benefit the client, a discussion of the issue in fine detail, inside and out, must follow. This option is difficult especially for beginner counselors like me and this is the option I experienced this week in practicum. For the case in question, the entire therapy process screeched to a grinding halt when the couple could not openly address the impasse of the unspoken “thing” that initially brought them to counsel. This stalemate was addressed last week in somewhat unpredictable and awkward fashion, (hence this post) as an attempt to move the therapy process forward.
Tackling these tough issues is to really get to work, in my opinion. Confronting tough issues takes courage and a certain amount of gumption not only for the counselors, but more importantly for the client(s). It is frightening to trust the process and share difficult issues which have remained unspoken, buried, ignored, worked around for an indeterminable period of time.
So I wondered, exactly how important is addressing this animal in the session? Personally, I want to practice honestly and openly during therapy. I believe this nurtures the therapeutic relationship - especially utilizing the strength based brief therapy model- and paves the way for a rapid, fluid transition from the initial and working stages into consolidation and termination stages. But if the elephant remains untracked then is that necessarily negative for the clients? Who gets to decide what happens with the worms on the floor? These are contextual questions I will ask you to consider within your own practice. Overall, I learned this week that my own style of counseling centers around honesty and broaching the difficult pieces that therapy often addresses, all the time carefully considering “Where, exactly is my client?” Just what purpose has the elephant been serving? And is the unspoken issue impeding the therapeutic process? Will bringing the elephant into the session benefit the client and first and foremost do no harm to the client(s)? I learned this week that the elephant must at least be broached and not necessarily sliced thinner, pathologized or post mortemed.
So I welcome the gorilla into the session, to sit next to the worms by the angry buzzing hornets bathing in the mythical light of an opened Pandora’s Box. I guess what happens next is truly up to the client, because if they are not willing to “go there” then ultimately as therapists we can do little but sit and listen with genuine empathy hoping we are there when the worms spontaneously open under pressure, the hornets get restless and the gorilla beats his chest. We can all sit around and stare at the scene or we can slowly start to take apart the unfolding menagerie in front of us, roll up our sleeves, dive into the issue and deconstruct it from the inside out. The elephant may be allowed to linger or it might - in true circus fashion - disappear, leaving only a memory and an imprint on the client(s) soul where the huge beast once dwelled…
So next time your client brings their pet into session, what are you going to do with it?
(NB No animals or boxes were hurt during the production of this blog.)
Christian Billington is a counselor in training. He is passionate about end of life issues, grief and loss, trauma and the development of training to better prepare the emergency services for what they experience in the field.