How do you listen to people’s problems all day long?

This is a question we counselors get from time to time, especially when someone is embarrassed that they need a counselor or think they shouldn’t be having problems (or that they are weak for having them).

Today in staff meeting we watched a video on vicarious trauma. This term has been mis-identified with burnout and secondary trauma. In short it isn’t about our symptoms or having our own trauma but about the changes in us after taking in large amounts of other people’s pain.

Individually, hearing any one person’s problems isn’t much of a burden. But when you add all together it gets heavy at times. What do I mean? Well, we begin to see danger of abuse everywhere. We begin to think that all leaders are abusing power. Interestingly, one of the speakers on the video said that early career therapists tend to struggle more with fears and later career therapists struggle more with cynicism.

Most of the problem is the result of the loss of hope. And yes, therapists sometimes lose hope. That is why we have staff meeting so that we can remember that hope comes not from our ability to change the world but that we fallen creatures look to the power of the cross to change us and our clients.

I’m not sure what nonbelieving clients hope in and how they manage living with the weight of the brokenness in the world.


Filed under Abuse, christian counseling, christian psychology, counseling, counseling skills, Psychology

5 responses to “How do you listen to people’s problems all day long?

  1. Wow. Great post. I was just thinking about something along similar lines last night. My dad is a pastor, and while one person or family’s struggle may not be too much of a burden on my dad or our family, when you add it together with all the other people’s struggles, it can be very challenging and exhausting. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Scott Knapp, MS

    I think God drew me to counseling to both help people and sanctify me…and I’ve known that for a long time. It’s only when I began to get the deep sense from the actual experience of counseling that I REALLY can’t do this effectively on my own! The more I grown into Jesus’ image, the more I must attempt to do the things Jesus would do…and then I discover in reality (as opposed to merely in theory, the way most of us live our Christian lives before real struggles confront us) I am not sufficient. When I re-read what I’ve written so far, it reads like something we’d all nod our heads and agree with…but I’m really, really coming to grips in my experience with this reality now in my life and career, and not merely giving it intellectual assent. I blogged in another conversational string that one of the duties of being God is that he must bear the burden of maintaining the existence of hell and all who suffer there for eternity, by virtue of His being the one who “holds all things together”…like Paul, I “…share in His sufferings” of that sort every time I “paraclete” my counselees and “do life” with them as their helper. How can any of us live out our “in His image” element without running headlong into the solid wall of reality that only He can live that kind of life through us? I think that secularists can be genuinely helpful so far as their efforts can offer the “cold cup of water” effectively at times, but they’re powerless to lead anyone to Living Waters, to true life. Some I’ve known have left the field to open deli’s and dress shops.

  3. jangle

    I agree with yous Scott. I was talking with a friend of my husband’s last weekend, and his wife struggles for over 2 years with OCD and anxiety. He asked me when he should see some improvement as she has been in therapy and on various meds all along. I don’t know much about their situation, but asked if the therapist was a christian offering her hope………..he looked very puzzled and replied, “no”. I began praying for this family immediately and have all week long. Seems like a “cup of cold water” would be too much to ask for from this therapist.

  4. Scott Knapp, MS

    Wow, what a difficult situation! I think you started at the right place…prayer! I also think that a secularist counselor could offer “hope”, but the question I raise is ‘hope in what?’ Usually the ‘hope’ is somehow through therapy you can be shown some way to muster your own personal resources to eliminate, or substantially reduce, the symptoms that are causing distress. Within these parameters, cognitive therapists (who address “negative” or “disruptive” thoughts that drive the symptoms) have shown themselves as very effective in treating OCD, anxiety and depression…and if that’s how you conceptualize those disorders, cognitive therapy truly can be a valuable “cold cup of water” to bring some merciful relief. My training persuaded me to conceptualized OCD as ultimately strategies of behavior employed to add order and control to an otherwise chaotic, unpredictable and uncontrollable world…an effort (albeit powerless) to undo the Genesis curse and circumnavigate absolute dependence upon God for life. In short, disordered worship. It can be a complex task to walk with someone to the point of believing this conceptualization strongly enough to view repentance and chosen dependence upon God as the only reasonable course of action…and the helper must bear with the counselee along this path as they walk, stumble, crawl, stop, root down, cut roots, and get up to walk again (at least, that’s how my character growth seems to progress at times). The secularist may view the cessation of symptoms as the end of the process, and the validation of the effectiveness of his helping efforts. The best my biblically-driven helping efforts (enabled by the Spirit) can do is guide a person to place where he can volitionally choose to trust God for change that neither he, nor the most skilled clinician, can accomplish, since profound heart/mind change and even the capacity to repent are gifts from God, a result of His kindness (Romans 2:4). Walking with someone to come to this point takes a toll on the Helper and the helper (me), something I am privileged to share in with Him. On the other hand, if all I do as a counselor is point out sin, display the appropriate Scripture for authority, and demand behavioral change only…well, I’ve circumvented a whole lot of tension and suffering for me as the helper, and I’ve remained safely distant and disengaged…and no wonder this type of “counseling” is the only tool some folks put in their counseling tool box!

  5. I simply wanted to make a few comments:
    1. I am a marriage and family therapist in the Orlando area. I know of many pastors and therapists who suffer from “burn out.” Mostly, it seems that these people are having a struggle with pride and/or the lack of humility to admit to it. That is what is so sad. We, in general, have put so many up on pedestals and thus, do not see them as simply “human”. They feel that, and are so afraid to let anyone down. We all need to be humbled but that is not an easy place to reach.
    2. I am a christian who is also a therapist. I see everyone, not just christians. I offer hope and attempt to motivate every client, couple or family with a new perspective that is positive. It is a bit easier when the client’s are christians as you can then use the Bible and prayer to seek change that needs to be made, but this is not the only way to accomplish that. The most difficult client is the one who plays the “victim” role. This is what burns me out the most. It does not matter whether they are christian or not, they really don’t want to let go of their misery.
    3. How does one go from being the “half empty” cup to the “half full” cup when they are not a believer? I believe that cognitive change is what works best in these types of clients. Changing perspectives, focusing on new things and holding them accountable to practicing new techniques that can be done at home. This means that some behavioral change must occur after the cognitive change is in the process.

    Just some thoughts,

    Alicia MA M.F.T.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.