Labeling the Worms

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Last week a fellow came into the office and asked me how I could listen to “all this stuff” all day and not go home “crazy” at night. I replied, “Good question!” (which is a kind of neutral mirroring kind of thing to say).  He went on, “People must come in bringing cans of worms all the time!”

I said, “Yes, they do. But what I do is label the worms.  Every time they take one out of their, uh, can, I carefully write their name on it.  After a while we have all these worms crawling around the floor.  When they get up to leave, I quickly gather up all their worms, drop them back in their can. They walk out with them all.  Thus I don't take any of their worms home with me.  Heck, I've got enough of my own.”

Now I thought of this as a nice metaphor for the kind of boundary skills that a therapist, a parent (or a spouse for that matter) needs in order to be able to walk lightly after a visit from a burdened person. 

I learned this all 30 years ago when I was first studying to be a counselor.  Here's that story. (This is not an example of either good counseling or of the wisdom of revenge.  This is one of those learning experiences about boundaries.)

A woman came to see me who was in a very miserable marriage.  Her husband would yell at her, threaten her, hit her, blame her and generally make her life miserable.  I, not knowing any better, took it on me to get her away from this “brute.” (I now call this being a butt-inski.) I saw her weekly for about two months, and finally she moved out from her home.  I felt better.

She stopped seeing me, and two months later I heard that she had moved back in with him.   I recall going into, what I now call, a professional depression.  I felt terrible.

Four months later this gal came waltzing into the outer office of the place where I worked.  I almost did not recognize her.  She looked good.  Gone were the tired lines, the dark shadows around her eyes, the droop.  She sparkled.  She came up to me and thanked me for my help.  I told her I didn't think I had helped much.  She shushed me. 

“I knew you were trying to help.  I appreciated it.  And I could tell you wanted me to get away from him,” she smiled at me.

“I heard you went back with him?!” I replied.

“Sure,” she said, “I had to.  You see, he used the threaten me with divorce all the time, if I did not do what he wanted.  Well, I  knew you thought leaving him was a solution. But I had to do it my way.  Oh. did I!”  

“I prepared myself over a month.  And then I moved back in with him.  I made his life a living hell for six weeks, and then…. I divorced that bastard!  That was my way. And I felt much better – kind of completed it.” 

I thanked her. And have thanked her again and again over the years.  Sometimes I get cocky, thinking I knew what was best for someone else.  I'm a lot more cautious and thoughtful now, thanks to that courageous lady!

And so, when you listen to someone elses problem, I suggest you don't try to apply your solution to it.  I suggest you write the other person's name on their problem, share your ideas, and then wait for them to reveal their solution to their problem.  My friend says, “I love your problem and I can't wait to hear your solution.”  Label them worms.   

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