We counselors have an almost impossible challenge: we have to facilitate a client into more functional and satisfying behavior patterns within a system that strokes dysfunctional behavior. From the very first, clients come to us (or are sent to us) because they are (or someone else is) dissatisfied with some aspect of their functioning—this very act is a process in which dysfunctional behavior results in lots of attention—lots of strokes. We as counselors are challenged to help them develop other behaviors which are more functional in getting strokes, all the time giving them attention because they have a problem. People don’t come to us because they are happy or successful or satisfied with their relationships or job or life in general—those sources of strokes that make individuals ‘winners’.
And many of the tools of our trade stroke dysfunctions: ‘diagnostic tests’ focus on problems. The MMPI does not have any scale for ‘satisfied with my life’ or ‘happiness’ or sexual satisfaction or autonomy. Insurance companies reimburse for dysfunctional diagnoses. In fact the DSM-V is an expanded handbook of how to identify (and thereby stroke) dysfunctions! Would that the creators of the DSM-V would develop 2 volumes—one to identify problems and the other to identify functional conditions (including names derived from Greek and Latin) which would replace the dysfunctional ones!
Even treatment plans and goals primarily stroke problems—even if they incorporate descriptions of successful therapy in their process. And in all supervision I have ever had, it is the problems that were dealt with—that is, the problems got the attention—the strokes.
As counselors we were taught how critical strokes are for survival. We learned about Rene Spitz’s study of children raised in orphanages which provided food, clothing, etc. but no holding or stimulation or ‘stroking’--they hardly survived. And from pre-birth through death, strokes are critical for survival and we will get them any way we can—verbal or non-verbal, positive or negative, conditional or unconditional. We need them as much as food and water—they are critical throughout life for the continual growth of the brain.
Even much of our formal education in school incorporates more strokes for failing than for succeeding. In school, those who get poorer grades tend to get more attention (=strokes) than others; those who bully or have relationship problems or drop out get more individuals concerned about them than those who do all that is required of them. So-called defiant behavior is a great way to get lots of strokes from those ‘in authority’. When I was in school, on a quiz, the items I got wrong would be emphasized by being checked! (When I teach, I always check those items the student got right—stroking what they knew when they took the test, not what they didn’t know.)
Positive psychotherapy stressing the affirmation and stroking of the client’s strengths and successes gets its force from this simple fact—the client’s behavior will change in response to what we stroke. Our basic challenge is that the client’s behavioral skills have been shaped by the way they got stroked in their past and they have to learn and trust new ways of acting and thinking and feeling. And this can be nearly impossible if they continue living in a situation which strokes their dysfunctions—including counseling situations whose very existence depends on dysfunctional behavior.
We counselors do have a daunting task! But we do it anyway by working with clients using the attitude that they are doing the best they can with what they have to work with—stroking them as a person and their decision to come to counseling and working with us to make their lives better--by working with them in an ‘I’m OK; You’re OK’ relationship.
Ray McKinnis is a counselor with a special interest in 'spirituality beyond religion' and veterans 'beyond PTSD'