Some of my clients like assignments. They like it when I give them jobs to do or worksheets to fill out or assignments to complete so I do. But I tell them that it’s ok for them to not do well at whatever I’ve asked them to do or to not be able to do it all. I tell them that their real assignment is to notice what they’re doing and report back. If I ask them, for example, to write a gratitude list and they come back to say they couldn’t do it then we’ll talk about why. I’m not grading their gratitude list. I’m not even grading their effort. What I want to hear about is how it felt to write or to not write it. For me — and I hope for the client — both experiences have equal value.
Life is made up of mistakes, right? The more things we do and try, the more likely we’re going to rack up some failures. Sometimes we have to find out what we’re not so good at to find out where we really shine. And sometimes we have to spend some time with the wrong people (friends and lovers) before we know what qualities we need in the people who surround us. That’s why I picked a maze to illustrate this post — sometimes we have to walk into a lot of walls before we find our way out.
Fortunately, counseling is a judgment-free zone. I don’t mean that my clients and I toss critical thinking out the window — just the opposite. We apply our critical thinking but we leave the shame behind. We recognize mistakes and failure for what they are but I try to help my clients understand that in every wrong move is the chance to get a better understanding of what the right move looks like and feels like.
Back to that gratitude list. If my client can’t or won’t write one then we talk about why. Is she not able to make time for self-care? Why not? Is this an internal or external reality? In other words, is she setting up roadblocks on purpose or is her schedule really overwhelming? If she started to write it but came up short then I want to know how it felt to try. Did she feel resentful about the assignment? Is she not ready to give up on some of her sadness or anger? Because change is hard even if it’s for the long-term good. Giving things up — even lousy things that hurt us like bad attitudes and fear — is still giving something up. Sometimes we need to confront and talk about that loss before she has room to try again.
So see, failure counts as a win in therapy. It helps shape our next efforts together. It helps in our understanding. And it gets us closer to success.