Several years ago, I started saying to myself “I’m just some guy” in therapy to remember I don’t know more about my client than they know about themselves. The phrase was also a reminder that there are other therapists who are just as good or better therapists than I am, and a client is always free to go find someone else. Then, I began reminding clients, “I am just some guy” if I thought it would help them realize that they had it within themselves to make changes in their lives, and I was just there to help out. Also, using this phrase in therapy helped to relieve myself of the burden of unrealistic and unnecessary expectations for my capacity as a therapist and helped avoid a lack of humility, which would cloud my ability to do what the client needs from me, rather than doing what I need to show that I am a good or great therapist.
I believe in humility. I do not believe in humiliation or modesty, both of which are forced and rarely genuine. When we experience humiliation, someone or something outside of ourselves makes us feel small or unimportant or flawed. When we display modesty, we are often forcing ourselves to discount or diminish our own capacity in order to impress others that we are not full of pride. Modesty can be genuine, but humility is a more full form of modesty. Humility is genuine, whereas modesty often is not genuine.
So what is “humility?” Humility is simply a recognition and acceptance of our limitations as humans; including our flaws. Humility accepts our tendency to make mistakes, limited understanding of others, limited control over outcomes or people, the limits of our capabilities as imperfect beings. Humility has two great benefits when we allow ourselves to experience it genuinely. First, it keeps us honest with ourselves about we can do by reminding us of what we cannot do. Second, it offers a profound and lasting relief by reminding us that, since we can’t do “everything,” we do not need to try to do everything. If I can’t make a client achieve one of their goals in therapy (and of course I can’t), and I remind myself of this limitation, it relieves me from feeling responsible for whether they do achieve the goal. Back to the honesty piece, by reminding myself that I can’t make a client reach a goal, it also reminds me that they have to reach those goals themselves, which actually helps the client become stronger.
Once I was in a meeting with several other therapists. We call these meetings “consultations” where we discuss issues our clients are having and how we might want to help them with their issues (don’t worry, we don’t give out names or other client-identifying information). I had suggested another therapist think about “firing” her client who had missed several appointments in a row with not very good reasons. The other therapist was surprised, shocked even, at the suggestion, asking me, “what will the client do then, if I fire her?” I said, “your client either will or will not find another therapist.” This might sound cold, or even callous. Don’t worry, I don’t fire clients easily or for missing a single appointment. I even feel bad when I do have to let a client go for this kind of thing. But that’s not the point. The point is that I really do believe that “I’m just some guy.” I consider myself important in my life. But my client might not, and maybe should not. I am not that big of a deal in the scheme of things. There are thousands of other therapists out there. The client needs to find solutions that work for them, and I have just one set of solutions. The client might be missing appointments because they aren’t getting what they need and don’t know how to tell that therapist. By firing the client, that client has the opportunity to seek for themselves another therapist that is a better fit for their needs, whatever they may be.
In saying these things, I remind myself that my clients have the power to make change in their lives. Sure, I want to help, and do help them make changes. But I do not and cannot make the changes for them. And when I can’t help them, its time for them to find someone who can, or do it on their own, and they are in a better position most of the time to make that decision for themselves. I have to accept this limitation in what I do.
When I say to myself “I am just some guy” it reminds me of my limitations, which is good for me. When I say “I am just some guy” to my clients it reminds them that it is within their power, not mine, to make changes in their lives, which of course is good for them.
Copyright, 2011, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.