Plans. We all have them. Some pan out and some do not. Some are intricate pieces of mastery while others are basic with few steps and little external influence. The more complex plans tend to involve greater steps, involve more important but uncontrollable variables such as relationships and time. So is it any wonder that with so many different possibilities that fall outside of the locus of control, that the clients we often see are deeply affected by plans gone awry?
I was struck this week when reviewing my current case load at how virtually every individual, couple or family is experiencing some type of change because a plan or dream has failed to blossom. In hindsight, so early in my career, I have not worked with a single case that did not involve some sort of plan deviation that created a state of acute or chronic flux alongside anxiety and turmoil. In retrospect, the constant flux, change, deviance, failure of plans to come through for us all at times should perhaps not have been such a startling revelation to me. But it was. In fact I find some irony in the fact that some folks seek counseling because they have no plan or motivation to create one. These issues may sound familiar to you in practice: the house fire or natural disaster; the back injury; the college sweethearts and the unplanned affair; the sudden death of a loved one; the chronic illness that left a partnership and family divided; the sudden loss of employment necessary for house payments and children’s education. The variables are never ending but all have the same theme for the client: it was not supposed to happen this way.
So what is the issue to consider here? Is it the trauma, loss and discomfort often associated with the loss of plans and dreams and how the client envisioned things working out? Is it the analysis of rigidity and flexibility within an individual that results in difficult adaptations and acceptance that, more often than not, things do change? I would offer it is a bit of both. Or is it something else all together?
As a counselor in training I am learning to look at how systems and individuals adapt to change, to the loss of plans, the unpredictable events that change everything in a heartbeat. I am also learning to appreciate the clients’ challenges when their plans fall apart. Perhaps the grandest part of my learning is understanding how when change happens there will always be a certain level of anxiety and discomfort due to lack of control. Crucial to mental and emotional health is the degree to which we accept or deny the new challenges presented. I have always admired individuals and families, who manage adversity in the form of drastic change in plans. Those people we all know who take it all in stride, adapt and move forward. In session this might be framed as resiliency when faced with adversity.
A shining example of resiliency is Christopher Reeves’ adaptation to his disabling accident. To fall from a horse and be paralyzed in the fashion he was, to have things change so dramatically for himself and for everyone around him is a great example of things not going to plan. I would venture to say the quintessential Clark Kent did not plan on falling from his horse. Christopher Reeves’ example is extreme, but underlines the lack of control we often experience in life. Plans change all the time, people must adapt, and this is the rich pattern of life. As therapists, it seems our role is not only to help a client realize the impacts of unplanned events, but also to help them sit with their discomfort and learn new ways to adapt to changed circumstances with acceptance. If possible, we hope our clients are able to regain some semblance of control again with a new plan and dream.
If plans were not intertwined with our dreams would we be so reticent to relinquish those dreams and accept that things change? Conservatism for the most part is not the norm for society and individuals. This is really just a contemplative, observational post, but I wanted to put it out there, because change, like muconium, happens. That much we can count on.
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.