“I don’t know what I feel. I just feel overwhelmed. I mean, not all the time, but often. You know, like I’m not very good at this counseling thing. I’m sorry. I think I may have that generalized anxiety.” That brief exchange during your fifth meeting with Tiffany was a fairly accurate summary of the prior five hours you spent with her.

Whatever was bothering Tiffany was a significant disruption to her life and affected several areas of her life, but she wasn’t very good at telling you much else about it. You never got the sense that she was trying to be difficult. But when Tiffany talked about her emotions it was like she was translating a live conversation after two semesters of high school French. You got bits and pieces of her experience, but you were never sure you got the main point or that key words were being used correctly.

The odd experience is that you trust Tiffany, but you’re not sure how reliable her portrayals of her emotions are. You get the distinct sense that her last conversation with a friend, most recent pharmaceutical advertisement she saw on TV, or latest self-help blog she read had an undue effect on the words she uses to define her experience.

On top of that Tiffany was a very “good Christian” and was more than eager to “repent” of anything she was feeling that might be “wrong.” This gets in the way too. After she repents, she gets mildly defensive if you want to continue talking about the emotion she has agreed is wrong and gets spiritually discouraged that the unpleasant emotion persists.

In your time with Tiffany, you have pieced together the gist of her life story.

  • She is in her mid-20’s, got married two years ago, and started her first real job 8 months ago.
  • Her new job is one that she thought would make a great career, but she doesn’t enjoy it at all.
  • Her boss is “nice enough.” For a secular setting, he’s not heavy handed, but he definitely expects results.
  • She’s sweet and the thought of disappointing someone sits heavy on her mind and emotions.
  • Her conscience is sensitive, and she errs on the side of repenting before she understands what (if anything) she did wrong.
  • Her parents were loving. They provided a stable home and had an income where she has felt relatively limited life stress.
  • Her Christian faith is very sincere, but more sentimental than intellectual.
  • When talking to an “expert” (you, her counselor) she is easily intimidated and quickly deferential.
  • She has several things she is passionate about but is willing to delay those things if they inconvenience others.

After five meetings, your conversations with Tiffany have had several different emotions at the forefront of conversations: disappointment, regret, dread, sense of being overwhelmed, fear of disappointing others, and anxiety. She doesn’t seem to be committed to any one word to capture her experience. The emotional vocabulary word for each session seems to be her best guess on a fill in the blank quiz and she seems to think you’re the teacher who can tell her the right answer.

But whichever emotion is the theme of that week takes on the full weight of everything that is going on in her life. She doesn’t get desperate or brittle in her emotions, so you are not concerned about suicide. But when disappointment is the “emotion of the week,” disappointment is large; same with regret, dread, being overwhelmed, and anxiety.

You get the sense that you could offer her practical advice on any of these emotions and she would be polite enough to thank you and genuinely grateful. You also get the sense that whatever you say wouldn’t move the emotional thermostat in her life much, because how she talks about her emotions seems either hollow or fickle (you’re not sure which).

You spend some time trying to think about how to get traction in your work with her. You want to help her. She seems to genuinely want to manage her life and emotions well. But something is missing, and you’re trying to figure out what…

Case Study Discussion

This case study was written to set up the presentation for the free webinar A Case Study in Growing in Emotional Maturity.” The webinar will be Thursday March 25th at 1pm EST. My goal in this twice-monthly series of free webinars is to teach one primary counseling concept or skill each month and then provide a case study that allows participants to become more proficient at utilizing that skill or concept.

These are great events for:

  • Pastors, chaplains, and ministry leaders looking to enhance their pastoral care skills
  • Counselors wanting CEU credits to help them learn more about the intersection of their faith and practice
  • Leaders in church-based counseling ministries looking to grow in their case wisdom
  • Undergraduate students looking to discern a calling to vocational ministry or a career as a professional counselor
  • Friends and small group leaders committed to walking faithfully alongside their peers in tough times