The following personal experience taught me something about counselling relational conflict, whether that conflict is with another or inside me.
A few nights ago, I woke up at about three in the morning, declaring to myself, “I must do it! I must do it!”
For a couple of days, I had been feeling extremely stressed. I had talked to a friend that morning, who was badly in need of help, and as a result, I was uncertain what to do. I strongly wanted to support my friend in some way, and at the same time I feared becoming entangled in a messy situation, with a long history, in which I would find myself lost, hurting and unable to help my friend or myself. I believed I needed to solve the problem I was faced with by deciding on a clear course of action. I told myself I must weigh up both the pros and cons of each of my available options: to help or not to help. Over the next few days, I swung back and forth between those two possibilities, for a few hours feeling option A was preferable, and then for a few hours being clearly on the side of option B. After a couple of days and nights of exhausting to and fro, though I wound up standing more in “Sorry, but I can’t help you” territory, I sensed that I wasn’t on stable ground and that sooner or later I’d be swearing allegiance to the opposite side.
While talking to another friend about my dilemma, I continued to repeat, “I can’t do it. I just can’t do it.” I believed, at the time, I was meaning that I couldn’t help my troubled friend who had phoned a couple of nights before. However, it later seemed to me I was saying more than that. I was saying, in addition, that “I can’t figure this problem out. I can’t decide what course of action I should take.” In the end, though the conversation was helpful and I was less distressed, I was no closer to any clarity. I felt that were I to chose either of the options that were presenting themselves, I would wind up experiencing regret. By the time I went to bed that night, the whole matter seemed beyond my capacity to think clearly about it. I had come to a dead end: there was no good solution to the problem until…
Waking up in the middle of the night telling myself, “I must do it!” seemed to be the end of a process, the final and crucial part of which was completely unconscious. I didn’t know what, but something important had happened in my sleep. I knew with certainty that “I must do it” meant I simply must find a way to help my friend. Hearing that inner voice as I lay in bed gazing above me into the darkness, I knew I could do it without getting entangled. Once having become clear what I needed to do, I realized that I did indeed have the power to create and maintain the boundaries that were necessary for me to feel safe. To help my friend and to look after myself were both possible–both doable. How come I had not seen that before?
The problem was I was seeing my situation as a problem. Problems need solutions; they ask for them; and so to satisfy the problem I was having, I straight away set out to solve it. I began by asking myself should I choose this (offer help) or choose that (not offer help). But what if I had chosen a third option, to both help and not help? On the surface that appears a contradictory and meaningless question. But below the surface, this third option offers me the opportunity to get to know both sides of the issue without assuming one must be right and the other wrong. I approach the situation as though I want to get to understand both sides. And this is exactly what I did, though not intentionally, when, for two days, I went swinging from one position to the other. I thought I was trying to find which one was right, but in actuality I was giving myself the chance to hang out with both. I was forming a relationship with both sides of myself, each with its very legitimate desires, the side that wanted to help a friend and the side that wanted to keep myself safe.
Some people, like the renowned twentieth-century physicist and philosopher, David Bohm, say that life is like that. The universe isn’t essentially problematic and needing to be solved or fixed, but it is paradoxical and asking to be known for what it is.