Sunday, September 13, 2015

How I work, part III: Development

This is one of the things that brought me to a counseling career, an interest in development. It kind of started with a new age and/or progressive political interest in what it means to be "evolved". You hear people throw this word around a lot. An evolved person. An unevolved person. Often there is an association with some personality feature or other. To some, being evolved means to have outgrown childish things, to buckle down, hold down a job, raise a family, stop partying every night and going to work with a hangover every Monday. To others being evolved means to meditate and do yoga and eat vegan and compost. To even others, it might mean having a very logical and scientific view of the world, that you aren't taken in by all that church and sandals and yoga beads and homeopathy stuff. I'm sure you can come up with your own examples, which often seem mutually exclusive.

People are often quite proud of whether or not they or some person they know or some person they read or listen to is evolved. It seems to be a pretty desirable quality. And people who aren't evolved get some kind of disdain or at best grudging sympathy, bless their hearts. Some people might put it differently. They might use words like aware, mature, grown up, enlightened, realistic, etc.

So I wanted to know what people meant by all this. It seemed like there was something true there, even if some of it was just clearly in-group politics. I mean, people like you and me are obviously the best kind of people, right? And so I came to learn about adult human development.

One way of looking at development is that it is simply learning. We all learn things all the time and that new knowledge, even if it isn't factual knowledge necessarily, changes us, expands our capacities, while constraining others. But it's also a way of describing exactly how that learning changes us, changes our attitudes and beliefs and behavior.

In some ways there are some pretty predictable patterns of development. They were studied by people like Kohlberg, and Gilligan, and Loevinger. In other ways, human development is a crazy fractal pattern with as many variants as there are people who have ever lived. Still, there are some predictable thresholds that we cross in life, and though they have common life events as catalysts or harbingers, they aren't as simple as the signposts of college, marriage, career, parenthood, midlife crisis, mentorhood, retirement, etc.

Developmental stages are often enough a part of the reason clients come to me. Maybe it's something relatively common - adjusting to a new job or a new marriage. Sometimes it a massive shift that completely reorganizes how you see the world. The kind of shift that has a wealthy investor giving most of his money to charity and taking up work with the poor and hungry, or a shift that changes a drug dealer into a minister, or a nun into a professor.

As a counsellor it is a privilege to be involved in these shifts. Sometimes they are small harbingers, early scent on the wind of a gradual process. Sometimes they are something of a crisis, a massive upheaval in a client's life. But which ever it is, these encounters are different from the medical/clinical model. There is no diagnosis, or at best we might call it a phase of life adjustment difficulty or something like that. There is nothing to "fix", no symptom to help a client cope with or lessen. Instead we get the privilege of standing next to someone who is transforming. Like whispering words of encouragement to a butterfly while they're crawling out of the cocoon. Some would say this is true of almost all counseling, but I think it's true of adult development in a special way.

So, I stay on the lookout for developmental processes. They can easily be confused with disorders or life problems, and they certainly can cause problems - can you imagine the difficulty of your entire worldview shifting? The meaning and importance of things can change radically. Your family and your peer group will likely think something is very wrong. You quit a church, a job, a career, a marriage. Or you suddenly start a very new and different one.

Right now I can see developmental processes pretty obviously at play in some of my clients. I'm excited to work with them. It's the difference between foundation repair and doing a major renovation or expansion on a house. Or helping an athlete heal an injury vs helping them break through to a new level of performance.

And sometimes, we start building on to the house, only to discover we need that foundation repair before we can proceed - which is part of why my job is endlessly interesting.

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