Our lives are shaped by so many things…our experiences, genetics, faith and the relationships, roles, rules and values within our families of origin. There was one particular value in my family of origin that I wasn’t fully aware of until I was in graduate school during my late 30’s. I had no idea of the impact of this value and how it had shaped me over the years.
During my clinical training, all of my sessions with clients were videotaped in order to review my work, particularly with my professor during supervision. After several months, I gradually grew to appreciate “seeing” my work and receiving feedback from Dr. Miller. I looked forward to my weekly supervision meetings.
I began working with a separated couple who had been experiencing severe conflict in their marriage. Both the husband and the wife were in recovery from alcohol and drug abuse. During our second session, the wife became visibly upset–heavy sighing, crossing and uncrossing her arms and legs, even getting up and leaving the room twice! Toward the end of the session I commented that I noticed she was upset. She replied, “Well, yes I am upset! We know all of this stuff (I was completing my assessment of their family history through the use of a family map or genogram). We need help!”
As a very young therapist, I took this personally. I became defensive and then began to share with her “why” I was doing what I was doing, i.e., the purpose of the genogram, the importance of obtaining a family history, etc. The session ended poorly, and I decided I needed to discuss this case with Dr. Miller and share a videoclip of the session.
After reviewing the clip, Dr. Miller asked me why I chose to explain my methods and the purpose of the intervention with the clients. I told him that I wanted them to know that I knew what I was doing. That I had been trained well and was implementing the techniques I had learned. That I wasn’t “just an intern.” It was then that Dr. Miller made a comment to me that shook me to my core and to this day has had a significant impact on my personal and professional life.
“Trudi, sometimes it is better to be helpful than to be right.”
I often refer to this as one of my biggest “light bulb moments.” I realized, through that one simple statement, that what I was trying to do was to prove to the couple that I was “right.” I also realized that being “right” was one the of values that was modeled and impressed upon me in my family of origin. In my family it was very important to NOT look “stupid” or to be wrong. We were smart, we knew what was right and we had all of the correct answers.
Dr. Miller’s observation showed me that as a therapist, being “right” wasn’t helpful to my clients. Patrons of therapy services want to be heard and understood and want help. Being “right” was about me–it was MY issue. This meant that in order for me to be “helpful” I needed to put my own issues on the back burner and deal with them at a different point in time. My job as a therapist was (and is) to serve my clients.
The concept of “being helpful vs. being right” has also impacted my personal relationships, particularly my marriage. When my husband and I have a disagreement, it benefits our relationship if I am able to stop myself from proving a point, being “right” or even showing him where he might be wrong. If I ask myself, “What can I say or do that will be helpful to our marriage right now,” I move from a place of self-centeredness to a place of service. If, in that moment, I choose to do what’s best, what is most helpful to “us,” then I am elevating the needs of our marriage over my own needs. It’s hard to do, but the benefits FAR outweigh any “sacrifice” that I may experience.
If, as Christians, we are to live our lives as Jesus did (“Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did” (1 John 2:6) , what then did Jesus model to us? He gave up his power and glory and became a servant. Mark states, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (10:45). For me, being of service to others is to suspend my need to be “right” and to look for ways to be useful instead.
Is “being right” an issue that you struggle with in your relationships? Is it difficult to put your needs on the back burner and make your relationships more important than your “self”? Is there an example of a different behavior or value from your family of origin that may have become an issue in your marriage or other relationships?
Therapy may help you uncover, understand and change patterns of relating. Perhaps, even, you will experience your own “light bulb moment” during the process. All of us at Cornerstone Christian Counseling are invested in helping you learn healthy ways to connect with others. If this sounds like something you’d like to pursue, we’d love to help!
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