Why I Don’t Try to Change My Clients — Even if they say they want to change
In my early 20’s, I volunteered on a Biodynamic farm in Germany. I was there alongside several other young Americans. The farmer, a kind middle-aged Dutch man, taught us how to use old-fashioned hand tools such a small human-drawn plow. We worked slowly and peacefully. We sat for hours tediously laying mesh over pea sprouts for reasons I no longer remember. We planted row after row of potatoes. We determined that the old-fashioned methods were profoundly inefficient. We were Americans! We could help to improve, modernize, and streamline the process, making it more profitable and better all around!
Our experienced farm mentor was patient with us. He allowed us to be ourselves and explore our curiosity. He never pressured us to work harder or faster, which I’ve experienced on other farms. After a few too many of our efficiency interventions, he sighed in exasperation, “The potatoes like to go slow!” he said.
Indeed. Potatoes are root vegetables. Heavy, dense, accustomed to the dark. Why were we trying to rush them? I could see this with the potatoes, but it took me much longer to see it with people.
Despite thousands of hours of training with tai chi, yoga, meditation, hypnotherapy, Processwork, and many other modalities, it took me a couple of decades of pushing myself to be better-faster-smarter-more-evolved before realized I was applying this same “improvement and efficiency” mentality to my own personal growth, and to that of other people. Why wouldn’t I want to accelerate the process of becoming the best version of myself?
It wasn’t until I started seeing clients for process oriented counseling that I was able to see that I had been doing to myself what I had previously done to those poor potatoes! Processwork, or process oriented facilitation, asks that I notice and facilitate the natural process which is emerging in someone’s life. It asks that I be deeply, humbly respectful of the unique nature of each person’s path and that I gently, with perfect timing, nurture their inherent nature to come forward to be known. You cannot change someone’s true nature, and if you go after it with “self-improvement” ideas, it will often run and hide, even while the person’s primary personality shows up and works diligently to make the required changes.
Think about this with potatoes. Potatoes are root vegetables. They need a good place to root in light, loose, well-drained, moist soil. They prefer full sun. They don’t like frost. And they have a funny quirk-if you pour more soil on top of their leaves, they’ll produce more potatoes underneath and send up a new layer of leaves!
Potatoes are not like lavender. While they do share a love of full sun, that’s where the similarity ends. Lavender likes sandy, nutrient-poor soil. It likes to be relatively dry. It doesn’t mind the cold at all, and in fact requires cold for its seeds to germinate. If I poured a bunch of compost over lavender’s leaves, it wouldn’t produce more lavender, it would just rot and possibly die. I cannot treat lavender like potatoes and expect good results.
With plants, this need to honor an individual’s inherent nature is obvious. So why can’t we see this with people? Our culture of counseling and coaching often mimics our mainstream culture of endless drive and incessant improvement. This is contradictory to most ancient wisdom traditions.
When I was intensively studying Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan, we had a saying in class, “To move 1,000 pounds, use four ounces.” This means that four ounces of pressure, applied in the right place at the right time, can move 1,000 pounds with ease. I think of Processwork the same way.
When I was studying for my Master of Arts in Processwork, one of my teachers told a story to illustrate this phenomenon. He talked about working with a large organization. He did all the preliminary interviews, sat in on some meetings, and said one or two words. After he left, the organizational leader called him. “I can’t figure it out,” the organizational leader said, “you didn’t do anything. You just sat there and said one or two words, and yet our whole organization has changed for the better!” That’s Processwork’s version of moving 1,000 pounds with four ounces.
I didn’t fully understand this until a client said the same thing to me. “I don’t know what you do,” they said, “Sometimes you just say one or two words and I talk the whole time but when I walk out I always feel better. Everything has changed.” I told them I’d like to accept credit for having some cool superpower, but really I’m just doing Processwork, the art of moving 1,000 pounds with four ounces. I don’t get distracted by someone’s words or the hypnotic content of their stories, I just look for that one place where I can apply the simplest, most elegant intervention possible to shift the whole system in a healthy direction. In a culture which teaches that more is better, that force can achieve anything, and that you should always be able to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, this is a radical idea.
How many of us have truly been seen, have truly been allowed to bring our whole selves forward and have someone hold space, listen, and love us for exactly who we are, and who we are organically becoming? Many people go their entire lives never feeling this type of acceptance with their families, spouses, best friends, or even therapists. I believe this is a tragedy. In some ways, all I am doing with clients is loving them for exactly who they are, and helping them to love themselves for that as well. And some people are quirky! Feisty! Loud! Unfriendly! Awkward! Brilliant! Some people are lots of things that society has always told them are not okay. I help each person integrate the truth of who they are so that they can live as fully as themselves as possible, so that they can love themselves.
This does not mean I leave aside my boundaries. On the contrary, I have very clear boundaries. I cannot hold space for someone else, or expect them to feel safe working with me, if I am willing to allow any hurtful behavior to go unaddressed, and that works both ways-if I am hurtful in any way, I try to address it as soon as I become aware of it. These boundaries are love, too, for myself and the other person.
Now imagine, in our goal-oriented change culture, if someone said to me, “I’m too fat and too loud and I need to get a grip and get some control over myself!” and I said, “Yes, I can help you get a grip and get control over yourself! We’ll work together to make you skinny and quiet.” I have just taken sides with the critical bully that blares at them from the t.v., that comes from their mother at every dinner conversation, that says they are too much for this world. To side with that bully is not loving.
What I want really to know is, “What is it that you have to say that no one has been listening to? What message do you have that’s so important that you shout it out, even if it offends people?” and, “How is it that you need to take up more space? What in you needs to be big, needs to have a body that people can’t ignore? What in you needs to be rooted, heavy, or safe?” My theory, which proves itself correct time and time again, is that if something needs to change-for example, if a person truly needs to lose weight for physical health, which is not always the case-then it will change naturally and with relative ease once its underlying message has been heard. And don’t we all just want to be heard?
When someone is seen, heard, and validated for who they are, there is no need to try and change them. The patterns which are not serving them will fall away, in their own time, as they’re ready. When I can practice an open, loving curiosity about the truth of who someone is-which requires me to be ever-increasingly true about who I am-then I am free to nurture their inherent nature. Then, whether someone is a potato or a lavender, they bloom.
Originally published at https://www.ecospiritualeducation.com on February 28, 2020.