I have been reflecting a lot recently about therapy. A recent post discussed clients’ plans that fail to come to fruition (see ‘a bit awry.’) A further thought occurred as I was writing said post. Another common theme with clients involves what I consider to be the ultimate variable, the ultimate uncontrollable, the ultimate enforcer of plans, intentions, dreams and ultimately when this entire shebang is finished, like it or not. So what is this omnipotent variable?
What does time have to do with counseling? What does time have to do with anything? “Everything” and “nothing” are the answers that I hope made their way through your brains and maybe even escaped as a whisper towards your computer or phone screen. By the way, switch those things off and give yourself break (see ‘turn me on’ an earlier post).
If I’m asked what clients have taught me about time, my immediate answer would be “Many things.” I have been taught that time heals, that time seems to affect everything. Time is unstoppable. Time moves us forward through our lives. Time makes us grow. Time is unforgiving and yet allows for forgiveness. Time is precious – ‘If only I could turn back time.’ Time fosters regret. Time facilitates plans. Time, time, time. If you listen, you will hear time in session, not only as a starting and end point but as a consistent variable with clients. We are all waiting for some passage of time to heal, to incubate new life, to permit the departure of old life, to offer a promotion or pay increase, to hope that a relationship will blossom or improve, that we can finally go home and begin the weekend. It is a fantastic variable to consider and yet more than any other variable in our lives, time appears in many ways socially constructed and yet still maintains individual meaning. I am not sure that I would go so far as to state that time is a factor for every client anyone has ever seen, but I am thinking about it.
What about time in regards to therapy? Time is definitely a factor in therapy although it affects us in different ways. We usually consider Time as a constant, although people variously report time passing by slowly, seeing life flash before their eyes, or time passing quickly when we take vacations or have fun. While some clients are able to move through events quickly and others move through events slowly, each person’s journey and experience of time should be respected and validated. Remember, we all deal with different issues, and we often deal with the same issues in different ways. How long, for example, is an appropriate time to grieve? How long is an appropriate time to learn to take proper care of oneself? The latter I am still working on. Time, as a construct, belongs to the client, and not to us. So as a therapist, I am learning to reserve judgment on time, because that is for clients to define for themselves.
I have begun asking clients about time with regard to their own plans and what is happening for them outside of the therapy room. How will they know they feel better over time? What does the passage of time allow them to think about, reflect on, to feel and to accomplish? Perhaps more important, or as a follow up, I’d like to ask what is stopping them from carrying out plans, fulfilling hope and having desired expereinces now? Why later? If I listen for clues in their responses I see that time as a variable can be a convenient crutch for the client – it is easy to put necessary things off in the short term. “I will start next week.” Time can excuse poor coping, “It is too soon.” A client who thinks they have time to spare can be a powerful deterrent to progress, while conversely, a client who is running out of time (dying) can be highly motivated to move quickly. I have noted in my copious hours of studying for upcoming boards the focus of different theories and techniques that are governed by time; past, present and future orientations. So it would appear time is an important consideration in the counseling profession and yet little can be done to prevent its inevitable forward momentum. Time, as a reframe is a gift. A tool for learning, for experience, for planning, for motivating, for healing, for growing and for being (the list goes on…)
Sometimes I wonder if we as therapists can find each client’s thoughts about or relation to Time and help them to use that as a positive influence - to “strike while the iron is hot” and utilize time as an ally. Perhaps we owe it to our clients to remind them that time is precious, and that none of us knows what tomorrow will bring. This ultimate variable – Time – cannot be changed or controlled, but it can be utilized as a source for inspiration and progress management.
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.