Grieving The Action Tendency

A couple years ago, back when I was only seeing individual clients, I had an amazing individual client supervisor named Kathleen Connolly. She gave me the single most important sentence that has guided who I am as a therapist.

I was lamenting to her one day in my earlier years (I’ve always been a dramatic supervisee) about how hard it is to stop myself from trying to fix or help clients. “I can’t just sit with their emotions when they are suffering! I need to fix this for them! The only times I’m able to just sit with clients is when they’re grieving, since there’s no fixing that.”

And she said unto me,

“Wesley, all therapy is grieving.”

This was a profound moment, that reverberates through all my work. I think of this sentence at least once a day.

Eating disorder? Anxiety? Depression? PTSD? These are all ways our bodies are trying to cope with grieving. My body gets anxious and frantic and solution-oriented (others may withdraw, distract, or shut down) instead of sitting in the empty space of loss.

With couples work, this piece of wisdom has been coming up for me around the Action Tendency. A lot of times I’m trying to figure out ways to bring the action tendency to light without shaming, and it’s amazing how much resistance there is for many looking at their action tendency.

Something George Faller said in his last training really, really resonated with me. He said, speaking for the clients, “Do you think I don’t know that me bringing up my frustration pushes my partner away? Do you think I don’t know that?” Or for the withdrawer, “Do you think I don’t know that it makes my partner crazy when I shut down and go away?” But that in the cycle, we don’t have that many choices.

This opened a way for me to link this back to my favorite sentence - all therapy is grieving. Instead of trying to get people to see what they do drives their partner away, I want to see what happens when I instead take the angle of grieving. To help a client grieve that their action tendency isn’t working. Because that will require them to sit with the vulnerability of Step 3. “I am so scared you don’t actually care, I don’t know another way to try and change this other than to try to get you to see how wrong you were about something. And it’s not working. And that makes me even More frantic and scared.”

That grief brings in the vulnerability, the sadness and longing underneath the cycle. But remember, we wouldn’t go here until we’ve done a really solid Step 2 and honored the heck out of that secondary emotion. We are not on an express lane to primary emotion! Secondary emotion is a place we must visit and linger and see the function and beauty of.

Linking the action tendency this way helps me realize I’m not there to get clients to see how unhelpful their action tendency is, I’m there to help them grieve that no matter how hard they try from a place of good intention, their action tendency is not working.

Where does this bring them (and us) then, when we are able to see, nothing I do works to bring you closer or make you less angry? To a scary, open, unknown place. When we finally accept that what we do doesn’t work, we find ourselves on a barren mountain top. What do I do, then? What is there? To me, this is where there is an almost spiritual aspect to our work. To me, this is the in-between place. The place of acceptance in the grieving cycle. After we’ve banged our heads against the wall in Stage 1, and right before we build in the security of Stage 2. It may only be a brief moment, but it’s often a place of such unknown for the clients that it’s really scary to imagine stopping that action tendency. Luckily Stage 2 rushes in with that security - “I want to be close to you, I need you to be more gentle with me because your disappointment impacts me so much. Here I am. I want to stop hiding. But I need you to be safe with this vulnerability. Will you help me?”

Link to share: