An Open Letter to My Clients – Past, Present, and Future

In my work as a Distance Counselor (using the precepts of tele-mental health), I am often asked by my clients if they e-mail me too much. My answer is always, no. I make it clear that they are free to email me at any time about any subject whatsoever! The fact is, I enjoy reading their mails. Moreover, I believe writing is astoundingly therapetutic.

In the late 1980s, psychologist James Pennebaker developed a form of writing therapy called expressive writing. When you engage in expressive writing, you write about your deepest thoughts and feelings without concern for spelling, grammar, or sentence construction. It is free-flowing and unfocused self-expression.

Although not everybody benefits from expressive writing, recent studies have shown that expressive writing helps anxious individuals perform better on tests. We’re not sure exactly why this is, but one leading theory is that writing about test anxiety “offloads” worrisome thoughts, thereby freeing up mental resources to concentrate on the test.

Moreover, my clients often ask whether their words and expressions are repetitious. No, I reply, they are not. And I ask them not to worry about repetition – this is not a class where there’s a right or wrong answer, or points taken off for verbosity.

Therapy is all about getting things OFF your mind and into the “therapeutic space” between counselor and client. We do that so we can examine them in an analytical way; holding them up to the light of day, so to speak. Often, our concerns, problems, etc., will seem somewhat irrelevant in the process. Or, they may be truly significant. Only in that way can we begin to re-story our lives.

They will invariably ask if the are annoying me, to which I reply, “You cannot annoy me. At age 60, I am way beyond that. My clients interest me and only rarely do they give me pause. I am all about listening.”

Just as invariable is the notion (in their writings and through their spoken words) that they, my clients, feel as if they will “never move beyond [their] problem.” Frankly, my conclusion is that that we rarely move beyond our problems in any sort of geographic or philosophic way. In other words, we cannot “move” physically and hope that our problems won’t somehow follow us.

And, philosophically-speaking, the best we can hope for is a categorization and some sort of psychic compartmentalization of our problems. For example, the tremendous heartache, which I felt at age 30 when my then-girlfriend, Cheryl, announced that she was moving on to another man and getting married, is still with me. But it has been categorized, if you will, into one of those “life events” that taught me innumerable lessons about myself and the world. She and I can and do reminisce about our experiences some 30 years ago and can laugh about them now. I tell my clients, “You too will get there.”

“I regret that we are born with two lives,” said the wonderful author, Baroness Karen von Blixen (“Out of Africa”), “the one we are born with, and the one that we learn with.”

That has always seemed to me to be one of those Capital-T Truths, in the sense that we cannot avoid it. Learning is therefore all about repetition and the development of neural pathways, some of which can result in a kind of mental scar-tissue that hurts when touched. But better that we feel the pain in a mental sort of way (thinking here of what we have learned about having touched a hot stove) than to repeat ourselves (thinking here of the definition of insanity: Doing something the same way over and over again, hoping for a different outcome).

People are not stove-tops. We cannot turn them off and hope they will cool down. We must live with whatever personality quirks and attractions they come with, and aim for either a proper dovetailing of both with our own, or side-step such people altogether.

The right relationship amounts to a calculus that delivers a result of 3 out of 1+1. Does that make sense?

Since the only behavior we can control is our own, when we try to control someone else and turn them into something they are not, we are trying to force a 3 out of 1+1. And it will never work. We need to side-step that person and engage with someone else. It is a life-long process and is why, at age 60, I have perhaps 5 truly close friends (one of which is my wife) who have been additive to my life and who have given me 3s, 4s, and 5s (and more!) out of that basic 1+1 equation.

Nota bene: Even our enemies, or those whom we have elected to side-step, will teach us something and deliver a result of 3 out of 1+1. I think back to people who are no longer in my life but who managed to teach me something of such incredible value that I cannot and will not ever forget.

Remember Epictetus here, in the sense that we are charged with adjusting our view of events if we hope to grow. Hard work though it maybe, I have elected to view their impact on my life as a positive one, even if the learnings were delivered negatively, and even though it resulted in the aforementioned side-step.

Those are my thoughts on this blustery Sunday in October in Laramie, Wyoming. Agree? Disagree? I would love to hear from you.

About Dr Joseph Russo

Born and raised in Woodland Hills, California; now residing in Laramie, Wyoming (or "Laradise" as we call it, for good reason), with my wife Cindy, our little schnauzer, Macy Mae, and a cat named Markie. I hold a BBA from Cal State Northridge and an MBA from the University of Nevada at Reno. My first career was in business, for some 25+ years. In 2007, I shifted gears and entered the helping professions as a mental health counselor. I earned an MA in Educational Psychology and a Doctorate (PhD) in Counselor Education and Supervision. In my spare time I enjoy mentoring young and not-so-young business and non-profit executives as they go about growing their businesses and presence. I also teach part-time at the University of Wyoming, in both the Colleges of Education and Business.
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