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33 OCTOBER 2001
ListenListen to this

the profession

The nature of caring

Writing a quarter of a century ago, Gilbert Wrenn presents a contemporary exploration of the work we do with young people. This is the second of two parts. See the first part here.

II – Caring for Self

A counselor can be helpful, as I said earlier, can assist others in powerful ways, even when he knows little, if he cares. You and I have been touched by people like that, people who listened to us, and for a few moments perhaps, lived with us as though they really cared who we were. And these were important people to us. We never forgot them.

Essential to my truly caring for another is self-respect for all that I am, fully admitting to myself all that I am not or have failed in doing. Numerous counseling protocols have shown that as a client increases in respect for himself (self-acceptance without defensiveness), he increases in ability to care for another. Counselors are people as much as clients are and doubtless respond in the same manner. Long ago Rabbi Joshua Liebman commented that “to love another one must first love oneself." What was a far-out doctrine then (for a religious leader speaking in philosophical terms) has now become a psychologically validated reality. This is why meditation, or a continuing relationship with a deeply respected person, or group experience which contributes to positive feedback are essential for a counselor.

Both strengths and weaknesses
It is of first importance that you care about yourself. You are a person unique in all the world. Most of us are more aware of our liabilities than of our assets, because our particular home and school cultures have stressed more what was wrong about us than what was right. Our weaknesses and errors were underlined, and our assets and successes were taken for granted. Do we, regrettably, pass this heritage along to our clients, our family, our friends?

What is sought is a balance, an awareness of both strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures. Self-respect or self-confidence means self-assurance tinged with humility. If you are open to all of yourself, then you know the boundaries of your knowledge and the limitless extent of your ignorance. In your self-awareness you know that you do not at all times have a high level of good judgment, sensitivity to others, caring for others. Humility, which makes you aware of the limited scope of your own knowledge and effectiveness, your own uniqueness, contributes to your acceptance of the uniqueness and limitations of the other. That self-respect and humility are complementary to each other, that one exists within the other, I learned only recently from a warm and sensitive young woman in the previously mentioned Nevada seminar. I had never considered the relationship between self-respect and humility before. I should have and I am grateful for the insight. Humility means that I could learn something every day–from someone. It means that life can be exciting!

Both head and heart
Caring for self means that you respect the various elements of yourself, not downgrading some to the benefit of others. You are one, the parts are inseparable and interdependent.. Take head and heart, do you consider one more important than the other? Let the story of the Tin Woodman make the point, retold in Don Fabun's Dynamics of Change. Two familiar citizens of Oz, the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman, are overheard as they travel down the main road to Oz. They have been discussing the Scarecrow’s lack of brains. He has just asked the Tin Woodman if he has any brains. “No, my head is quite empty," replied the Tin Wood-man, “but once I had a heart and brains also: having tried them both, I should much rather have a heart."

From this conversation it is easy to discern that the Tin Woodman is truly a citizen of the Western world, one who is totally caught up in the either/or dichotomy. He experienced his choice as between head and heart rather than experiencing a choice which could include both.

So it is with counselors. I have heard much discussion among graduate student counselors-to-be about the relative importance of cognition and affect, head and heart, knowing and caring. To care for yourself means acknowledging all of you and acknowledging that one part of self is dependent upon the whole. This book has focused upon the counselor who “knows and cares." There is no either/or–knowing enough means caring, and caring is often dependent upon knowing. In any event I cannot pluck out either heart or head from an indivisible me! And I respect me, not my heart or my head.

Enjoyment not duty
If I care for myself in the sense of self-respect and humility, then I am free to enjoy others–not everyone to be sure, but enjoyment would be the rule, not the exception, If I enjoy people, then some of my needs are met in the counseling relationship, group or individual, and I am freed to recognize the needs of the other. If I do not have to prove something to myself then I will not press the client for decision or commitment, will not push him in the direction of the decision that will give me a glow of satisfaction. Assurance about myself contributes to my effectiveness in the counseling relationship.

Respect for self means also that you do not let clients impose on you. You are concerned for them, but they cannot abuse your time or self-respect. They may be hostile toward you, but you may see this as an expression of their need rather than an exploitation of you. Openness in showing hostility may be an indication of their trust in your ability to absorb it without threat to them. If I sense strength in another, I can be more open with him without threat to him“Or without fear that he will retaliate. No, I am not speaking of openness between you which may involve an expression of anger. This may show respect for you. I speak of the abuse of your time and of the tendency to throw emotional burdens on you, asking you to carry the load. These are acts of exploitation; you do not have to endure them. As one counselor expressed it, “I am not a sacrifice upon the altar of my client."

"Sacrificing yourself" is a kind of egotism. When you begin “feeling sorry for yourself," then you are not caring adequately for either yourself or the other. You are lowering the dignity of both.

It takes time
Finally, a counselor must take time to consider himself, enrich himself, refill drained reservoirs of physical and emotional energy. You as a person deserve some attention. This may mean a little solitude, time in which to reconsider goals and regroup activities. It may mean music, reading, worship, some companionship with nature. Refurbishing your self means something different to each person. Recently a counselor shared with me the experience of herself and her husband. Their marriage of several years had become strained and brittle. They agreed upon a complete separation for three months. “During that time, and since we have been back together we have each done a lot of searching within ourselves about caring," she told me. “We both learned to like ourselves more and to care for ourselves. This was the missing ingredient in our former relationship. As a consequence we have had nearly a year now of peace, understanding, and deep caring. I think we had to have the time alone to examine ourselves and appreciate who we are."

A counselor has three commitments: (1) a commitment to himself as a person of worth, (2) a commitment to his clients, family, and friends as people of worth also, and (3) a commitment to the society of which both his client and he are a part and to that institution of society which he serves. Of these three, the first commitment is the most important. The most significant growth upon the part of the counselor lies in learning to trust himself. I have seen much frustration, ineffectiveness, and unhappiness in counselors over the years that could be traced back to their lack of trust in themselves. Growth in self-trust is not without agony, but it can also result in moments of exhilaration. It is a liberating experience to increase in one’s sense of openness, to move toward a complete sense of being, to become more willing to admit others and share oneself. To grow in this way is to increase the worth of the most potent single element in the counseling relationship. This is the person of the counselor, his sense of reality, his self-trust, his increasing awareness of the beauty and joy of living, and his open regard for others.

Dreaming and doing
One night recently I had a dream (literally) that I was reading an article in the Saturday Evening Post which closed with a long section on slowing down to “be," not constantly speeding ahead to catch up. The article said that someday a counselor would become famous for advocating being, not doing; that it was essential that you stop occasionally and let things catch up with you, allowing them to nestle down around you comfortably like little chicks around a mother hen, little fox kits around a vixen. Then both things and you could become comfortably aware of each other in an atmosphere of trust and affection.

This dream awakened me and, as I lay meditating upon it, I felt that I could stop and rest only for a time, that being required that I be up soon and moving ahead. If I did not, then life would move on around me, and I would be part of the flotsam and jetsam left behind by the eddy of the flood in the dry wash of the desert. I have followed down these washes after a storm, making rare “finds" of desert-whitened driftwood, lacy bits of saguaro skeleton, shining rocks, and charred wood from campfires, all dead, all left behind. One might change the metaphor and think of the beach after a storm, where driftwood, kelp, and shells all are left high and dry beyond the highest waves. For awhile they were afloat, but were finally flung high on the beach, spent and helpless.

We (all people) are different from the driftwood. We have some degree of autonomy, of self-directed motion. We can move out of the eddy, off the beach and get back into the surging stream or morning tide. We must, after our quiet time of becoming more intimately aware of ourselves, or our bones will whiten in the wash or on the beach. Eventually some curious wanderer will pick us up and marvel, “John, come and see. Look what was."

If the analogy has any degree of pertinence, the conclusion to be drawn is that being without doing results in nonbeing. There is a sign at the entrance to the Washington Monument, where long lines frequently form in front of the elevator. The sign reads, “There is no waiting for those willing to climb the stairs."

References for exploration

Bentley, Joseph C. The Counselor’s Role: Commentary and Readings. Houghton Mifflin 1968.

Bugental, J. F. T. The Search/or Authenticity. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1965. Fromm, Eric. The Art 0/Loving. Harpers, 1956. (A classic slender volume, well-known to many readers. I encourage a revisitation.)

Gardner, John W. No Easy Victories. Harper and Row, 1968.

Hamachek, Don E. Encounters with the Self. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1971.

Jourard, Sidney. Self Disclosure: An Experimental Analysis of the Transparent Self John Wiley & Sons, 1971.

Maslow, Abraham H. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. Viking Press, 1971.

Morris, Desmond. Intimate Behavior. Random House, 1971. (Yes, I am hooked on Morris. This is the third book of his that I have listed. And with confidence. Zoologist-anthropologist, he compares the intimacy of mother-child relationships among animals with intimacy symbols of humans. It makes much sense to me. This is a personal reaction, I am a “touching" person.)

Otto, Herbert, and John Mann. Ways of Growth: Approaches to Expanding Aware-ness. Viking Press, 1969.

Otto, Herbert A. (ed.). Love Today: A New Exploration. Association Press, New York City, 1972. (Twenty-one contributions by some excellent writers on different dimensions of love. To me, it is an engrossing and intellectually stimulating book. Not sentimental. “Love’s creative role in a world of alienation and destruction.")

Rogers, Carl, and Barry Stevens with Eugene Gendlin, John M. Schlien and William Van Dusen. Person to Person: The Problem of Being Human. Pocket Books, 1971. (This is Barry Stevens’s book. Her 100 pages of comment on the seven professional chapters by the other authors are intensely personal and appealing. Entitled “From My Life," her comments reveal a warm and sensitive person whom you feel privileged to know. Beyond this, you get some feeling of how you might become more spontaneously human.)

Schutz, William C. Joy: Expanding Human Awareness. Grove Press, 1967. Here Comes Everybody: Bodymind and Encounter Culture. Harper and Row, 1971. (Joy is a beginner’s book; the second one takes the reader further. The two subtitles partly suggest the content of each–but only partly. These are books about encounter groups, to be sure, ideology, goals, and techniques. But they are about honesty and joy in living. They are about Schutz also, his long experience with groups, what he has learned about himself as well as others. Personal books.)

Tournier, Paul. The Seasons of Life. John Knox Press, 1961.

Ungersma, Aaron J. Escape from Phonies. Westminster Press, 1969.

The Smile (film). 18 minutes. Contemporary Films, McGraw Hill, 267 W. 25th St., New York, N.Y. 10001. (An artistically directed French film about a Buddhist monk and his 12-year-old novice as the youth awakens to life around him.)

Wrenn, G.C. (1973) The World of the Contemporary Counsellor. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Reprinted with permission in The Child Care Worker Vol.3 No.4 April 1985

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