Ask twelve people to describe Catherine and you’ll get thirteen different answers: all in the same disposition family, but a bit distinct. General friends would say things like: nice, wishy washy, servant, undependable-but-for-the-best-of-reasons, or shallow-but-likable. Her children would say: a loving mom, a pushover, and easily-upset-but-no-consequences-afterwards. Catherine’s boss would comment that as long as you stay on top of her, she stays on task, but if she’s not getting some top-down pressure you never know what you’ll find her using her time on. Her ex-husband would say, “On one hand, she was the best woman I’ve ever known. On the other hand, I just couldn’t take living with her. I never knew what fire was going to need to put out, but it always seems like something was on fire in her world. I couldn’t take it.”

When you talk to Catherine, you get the sense that she is not very self-aware. When she describes an impulsive or foolish choice, she can describe the events and context of the choice, but when you ask a “Why?” question, she gets frazzled. It seems like crises follow her wherever she goes. Some of them find her; others she creates. So, there is always a context for short-term relief decision making. But the situations and crises don’t carry a consistent theme. They happen at home, at church, at work, and with friends. They can be financial, relational, related to health, or a borderline addictive relationship with alcohol.

Your early counseling relationship with Catherine follows the pattern you begin to pick up on in her other relationships. Initially, it is pleasant. You find Catherine to be nice. She is socially competent and an above average conversationalist. Something begins to feel “off” because she is good at conversation. You can tell she wants the conversation to continue but avoids talking about anything of substance in her life. This is particularly odd, because you have a counseling relationship with her – a relationship predicated on having a goal directed purpose to alleviate a life struggle.

Trying to create a counseling goal begins to feel like walking on wet ice in slick-bottomed dress shoes. It was nearly impossible to get any goal to stick and gain enough traction to make progress. There was ample drama. Every week there were a handful of mild to moderate conflicts to catch up on. But when you tried to press in on an aspect of the conflict that could be addressed, Catherine pulled back emotionally. She became Teflon. No matter how you approached the formation of a goal and possible options, you got the sense that Catherine felt attacked. When you asked her to identify a goal, it was as if everything in her life was “worth talking about” but nothing was “worth working on.”

You flipped back through your case notes to review the goals that had died the death of an icy reception.

  • Improving her relationship with her children who she felt like took advantage of her and under-appreciated all she did for them.
  • Addressing her drinking behavior that was an issue for her children, her ex-husband, and which she occasionally described as having a controlling influence on her life.
  • Creating a budget to address the significant debt that had been steadily growing over the last 25 years.
  • Learning to be more assertive with her co-worker, boss, and friends because those relationships all seemed to be imbalanced against her.
  • Working on healthier eating and exercise habits to address the displeasure she had with her body image and trying to create some positive momentum to address other life issues.

All of these goals met a similar fate. They came up as Catherine reviewed recent conflicts. They bothered her significantly. You offered to help her work on them. As soon as they moved from stories to goals, her connection to the problem decreased significantly. As soon as working on the goal became “hard,” it was clear that Catherine no longer felt like the goal was “worth it” to her and she portrayed the goal as your idea.

Finally, you decide to take a meta-perspective (that is, looking at the big picture rather than the details, as if all these struggles were verses of the same song). You raise the possibility that the melody behind all of these struggles is Catherine’s aversion to unpleasant emotions. She tentatively sees validity in your proposal, but not as tentatively as she agreed to other counseling objectives. She asks how approaching counseling from this perspective would be different from how the two of you had been working together.

Case Study Discussion

This case study was written to set up the presentation for the free webinar A Case Study on Growing in Negative Emotion Tolerance.” The webinar will be Thursday February 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