When Falling Brings About Great Work

A free-range approach to a humiliating experience in therapy

Posted Jul 30, 2016

Let’s call my next client Desmond (not his real name). Picture a really nice college-aged kid with a somewhat socially anxious presentation. He was an undergraduate student in my Personal Growth course and after the semester was over, he specifically sought me out for some guidance on career and identity development. (I was working in a career resource center on campus at the time).

And that is when it happened – to use a clinical term, I fell on my arse. My cheaply-made office chair rapidly dis-assembled itself while I was pondering how to help this likeable young man. In the blink of an eye, I found myself on the putty colored carpet surrounded by the shrapnel of scattered chair parts. And it was the best possible thing that could have happened at the best possible moment.

Here’s the thing - there are clearly some helpful boundaries to maintain as a therapist. For instance, my ethics generally suggest that therapists should provide services to patients without any expectation of a return. At the same time, there may be some unhelpful boundaries that we hold for our own comfort as therapists (if we’re being honest with ourselves). I would put into this category anything that gives patients cues that we are not really human by virtue of falsely projecting that we have our act together at all times. I would imagine that this is how Desmond saw me in the context of being his professor, holding forth to a large undergraduate class on various topics related to psychology and personal growth.

I may have been able to fix my chair myself (or maybe not) but either way, my instinct was to let this shy, rather withdrawn young man help me. I put out my hand to get a boost back to my feet and asked if he might help me re-assemble my chair.  I wish I could describe the transformation in his facial expression when his professor asked him for a hand up and some help sorting out her seating. He beamed at me and went straight to work on my chair. We talked as he worked, and as we did, I noticed a shift in his confidence – it was almost as though this micro-transaction allowed him to start to see himself as someone who had something of value to offer to others. It also equalized the two of us in a way that was helpful to him.

He didn’t ultimately go into a career related to office furniture assembly – that would be a neat ending to the story, but not a truthful one. However, I facilitated some soul searching work for him over the next several weeks. He approached this with an open, hopeful attitude and mindfully, thoughtfully identified a career with real promise.

In addition to spontaneously asking for his help to sort out my ass-over-applecarts situation, I also added a free-range psychology element at the end of our work. I asked him to find me in 7 years (7 years is short enough to keep my request in mind, long enough to give him time to progress in the career he had identified). I told him I didn’t know if I might be teaching at a university, running a private practice, or working at a hospital but that since I had found a career I feel called to do, I would be find-able somewhere. I asked him to write me a letter in 7 years to tell me how his life and career had unfolded. The instinct that guided this intervention is that some patients need some additional support for one’s “voice to go with them.” I knew I would not forget this lovely young man who had blossomed before my very eyes, and I wanted him to know that I had positive expectations of his future and would be eager to hear about his progress.

Seven years later, I received his letter. I am so proud of what he has accomplished that I wish I could boast openly of his achievements. To protect his privacy, I will instead summarize what he wrote – he interned in his chosen field, got into a top tier graduate program, told me that his professors were “amazing” and has made a successful career since that time. The letter concludes – “thanks again for your inspiration – I probably never would have done all this if it wasn’t for your help.”

I think he might have been successful because he had it in him all the time, but I suspect that me falling on my arse so spectacularly may have sped things up for him a bit. With a free-range approach, an unexpected bout of personal humiliation might actually change the tide in therapy.