How To Help Your Clients Undo What They Haven't Yet Done
Posted by Christian Conte, PhD on 5/21/18 - 1:14 PM

Once, a man who was recently released from prison told his counselor how enraged he was that he just had his wallet stolen from him. This man was visibly angry as he described having $450 dollars in that stolen wallet; and to make things worse, he had a strong suspicion who stole it. He told the counselor that he was going to seek out the thief, get his money back, and kill him. The counselor did not flinch, judge, or panic when the man told him he would seek out and kill the thief. Instead, he asked the former prisoner how long he’d been incarcerated. “I was down for 8 years, and I just got out,” the man replied.

The counselor asked, “Did you like your time in prison?”

“What?” replied the man angrily.

"Did you like spending time in prison?" the counselor repeated in honestly inquisitive voice.

The man then stared angrily and directly into the counselor's eyes and asked, “Did you ever spend time in prison?”

“No,” said the counselor.

“I didn’t think so,” said the man angrily, and he looked away shaking his head in disgust.

The counselor prodded further, again, genuinely inquisitively, “Let me ask you: In all that time in prison, were there ever moments when you wanted to get out?”

The former inmate seemed to get even angrier at this question, “What’s wrong with you?” he asked. “Of course I wanted to get out! I wanted to get out every single day!”

Unfazed by this man’s anger, the counselor asked, “How badly did you want to get out?”

The man, now visibly more agitated and enraged, stared down the counselor intensely and said, “I wanted to get out every second of every day!”

And the counselor asked, “What would you have done to get out?”

And the man, still staring through the counselor, replied sharply, “Anything.”

“Anything?” asked the counselor, matching the man’s eye contact and in a firm voice of his own.

“I would have done anything!” said the former inmate, stepping aggressively toward the counselor.

The counselor looked piercingly but compassionately back into the eyes of the angry man without flinching and finally asked, “Would you have paid $450?”

The man stopped. He got it. He understood. The counselor's words moved through him. He realized that if he would have killed the man who stole his $450, he would have ended up in prison (this time probably for life), and while he was in prison, he would have “done anything to get out,” certainly including paying $450 - and his anger left. He thanked the counselor and walked away.

Now, this is a true story, and the client was mine, and because it’s a true story, you probably want to know the rest of what happened, so I’ll tell you. The man, the former inmate, he was calm enough after talking to me that he went home and went to sleep instead of seeking out the man he believed to be the thief who stole his money. In the morning when he awoke, he said a thankful prayer that he didn’t go after that man and end up in prison. In fact, he even imagined that he paid the amount that was stolen from him and was now free. He felt so good knowing that he resisted acting on impulse for the first time in such a long time, that he decided to make another good decision and clean his room as soon as he got out of bed. To his grateful surprise, not long into his picking up the pile of clothes off the floor of his room, he found his wallet - and the $450.

The question you can ask your clients is this: How much would you pay to undo impulsive decisions you've not yet made? Would you be willing to pay the price of self-control? In the safety of your counseling office, it's often helpful to play out your clients' most impulsive thoughts without the slightest bit of judgment. The more you can play out future scenarios, impulsive decisions, realistic consequences, and what your clients would be willing to do to go back and "undo" something that they haven't even technically done yet, the more you can expand their consciousness and move them from the impulsive, emotional center of their brain to the higher-level thinking center that will help them make more effective decisions.

It's never too late to undo what hasn't yet been done.  


File under: Musings and Reflections