“You are not meant for crawling, so don’t. You have wings. Learn to use them and fly.”
– Rumi, 13th century
Gavin looked guarded as, in my best coach/therapist voice, I asked: “What would you like me to help you with?”
Was he depressed? Angry? Addicted? Bullied by others or himself?
Were his nights torn asunder by screaming nightmares? His days ripped open by grotesque flashbacks?
Did he simply want to exercise more? Cut down or quit smoking/drinking? Find, maintain or rediscover love with some misunderstanding or misunderstood partner? Soothe and master some aching anxiety? Defy and transcend some deadly depression?
Our eyes met briefly.
“I want to achieve my potential as a human being.”
I’m tempted to pedantically wisecrack “Not as an amoeba then!” but I resist. Instead, silence reigns as I awkwardly nod as if he’d simply asked for a glass of water. Blimey! Err, okay…
Words are easy, but the realities that hide behind those words can be something else entirely. Just because something can be said easily it doesn’t mean it can be done or understood easily.
So what did Gavin mean? And was it my place to help him?
Words are easy
For approximately three seconds, as Gavin eyed me with a quizzical but strangely complacent look as if to say “Well, what are you going to do?”, thoughts whizzed through my mind.
Like many of us, Gavin had been trained by our commercial culture to view reality in transactional terms. But neither he nor you or I can buy their ‘potential’ from someone else. No one can tread your path for you simply because cash has been exchanged. Although people can help others become who they might become.
I wondered whether Gavin had ever thought through what ‘achieving his potential’ would actually mean, in terms of a lived reality rather than just a string of significant-sounding words.
Maybe this stream of thoughts took a little more than three seconds, as when Gavin’s voice brought me back to reality he sounded impatient.
“Well?” he demanded.
I asked Gavin what he meant by ‘potential’, but he didn’t really answer my question. Instead he just started talking. He spoke for twenty minutes straight, every minute bursting at the seams with words. He seemed desperate to talk.
“What do you want me to do about your human potential?” I eventually segued.
“Well… err… I…”
“And what do you actually mean by ‘potential’?” I again asked.
Words without meaning
Some words are so abstract that we forget they are abstract. They may need unwrapping before we can actually use them to better our approach to reality. Words like ‘enlightenment’ or ‘potential’ or ‘happiness’ are known as nominalizations. They don’t have the universal, concrete meaning of nouns like ‘door’ or ‘table’.
Clients sometimes inform us they “just want to be happy!” That gives me nothing to help them towards. Many clients who claim to want ‘happiness’ or to achieve their ‘potential’ have never gone as far as actually connect it up with a real sense of future reality. Rather, they have just voiced the word and left it at that.
So if you have a client who doesn’t seem to have a problem in the usual sense, but states they want to achieve their potential or uses other nebulous language to describe their stated goals, my first tip is:
Tip one: Get specific
Again I asked Gavin what he meant by ‘potential’. He looked almost offended that I even had to ask. I sensed that no one had ever asked him that before. Had he ever thought about it?
When we talk of ‘achieving potential’, it’s easy to be so vague as to what these words mean as to render our discussions meaningless. People might nod sagely to one another without having the slightest idea as to what ‘potential’ might actually mean in a practical sense. So my first tip is to actually define the word.
How will you know when you reach your ‘potential’? What will you be doing, able to do, feeling, thinking? Or maybe your true potential is so profound the current you cannot even fully conceive of it. Maybe the grub can only guess at the realities of being a butterfly.
Ideas around potential need to be specific. Rather than thinking “I want to achieve my potential!” – which sounds worthy, but is so vague as to leave us glued to the starting blocks of life, we can ask questions. This is how it went with Gavin:
Me: “What does ‘potential’ mean to you?”
Gavin (looking nonplussed): “Well… achieving self-actualization…”
Me (using Socratic questioning): “And what does ‘self-actualization’ mean?”
Gavin: “Err… well… I don’t know… sort of… fulfilling my potential?”
The new upspeak indicated Gavin had perhaps never really thought about this too much before.
Me: “Do you mean some kind of spiritual enlightenment? Or being the best you can be in practical terms, maybe in your job or financially or in relationships with others?”
Gavin: “Well, all those things would be nice!”
Me: “I don’t claim to be a spiritual teacher able to help anyone toward enlightenment, but if we can focus on these areas where you feel there’s room for improvement in your life, that what be something, would it not?
Gavin decided he wanted to find more interesting work and build the confidence to do so. He wanted to feel confident enough to start seeing his friends again and eventually meet someone special. He also had a feeling he could be really good at something he’d never had the nerve to try. Perhaps we could work on that too.
Now we were getting somewhere!
Next I wanted to look at to what extent Gavin’s life fulfilled him.
Tip two: Help your client develop spare capacity
There are many kinds of potential. We may all have varying fitness potentials, or language learning potentials, or even maybe spiritual potentials if that is possible. But whatever the kind of potential, we need to be specific about it, otherwise the word ‘potential’ just becomes a vague term that seems profound or important but doesn’t really pertain to anything.
Whatever kind of potential we are aiming for, we all need to meet more basic drives in balance before we can find the spare capacity to think about anything ‘higher’.
When you’re starving to death, the last thing you should be thinking about is your potential as a fine graphic artist. But imagine if you believed your need for food was really a need for artistic perfection. You could spend the rest of your life frantically seeking that perfection while your malnourished body gradually withered away.
Gavin lapped up my undivided attention so ravenously I suspected his real need was more basic at that point. He thought he needed to ‘reach his potential’, but what he really needed was attention, because he wasn’t getting enough in everyday life.
Maybe he was a little lonely or felt unheard?
The state of Gavin’s life
Not only was Gavin’s social life almost non-existent, a whole host of other vital needs were remaining unmet in his life – job satisfaction, recognition, a sense of meaning, intimacy, excitement. He was ‘thirsty’. We can’t help an athlete fulfil their Olympic potential until we make sure they’ve got their diet right. In some cases, at first they may need help even just to walk.
First things first.
I suggested to Gavin we work on overcoming the blocks to a more satisfying life so that once he was more fulfilled by his life, then he could think about becoming all that he could become – or at least more of what he might become.
In a sense, every time you help a client overcome an emotional difficulty or meet some need in life you are helping them develop the spare capacity to better develop into who they could be.
I worked with Gavin for two months. In that time he got a new, fulfilling job. He became more relaxed and was able to listen more in therapy, indicating that his need for attention was being met in his wider life. He started seeing friends more, and began dating a “beautiful woman”.
As his life acquired more balance, we were finally able to look at his ‘potential’ – or at least how far he might be able to take some of these improvements.
Tip three: Help your client learn to disregard popular opinion
Ever heard of the ‘Bannister effect’? In the early 1950s, it was considered ‘impossible’ to run a mile under 4 minutes. But on 6 May 1954, Dr Roger Bannister ran a mile in 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds. He wasn’t supposed to do that.
However, it wasn’t a physical barrier, but a psychological one that was stopping a whole host of other athletes from doing the very same thing.
In the 12 months after Bannister’s historic run, the ‘Bannister effect’ saw 37 more runners break the 4-minute mile, and in the 12 months after that, another 300 did it. All athletes who presumably could have run that fast before Bannister’s run!
Gavin was actually a very funny guy. He had a real way with words, and every time we met his turn of phrase and take on reality made me laugh. The more his needs were met, the greater his spare capacity to use his sense of humour developed.
For a long time, he’d secretly harboured a dream to do stand-up comedy. He’d mentioned this to his parents when growing up and they’d told him that boys like him didn’t do things like that. And that suggestion had stuck with him – not simply as their limited idea, but as an immutable reality.
I described the Bannister effect to Gavin in trance, and also told him a story about a newborn bird who felt at first as though it was meant for crawling until it learned to fly. In a sense, he experienced being that bird.
He hypnotically rehearsed doing stand-up, and then began to do it for real! I attended his first gig. He brought the house down.
He was fulfilling more of his potential. I told him his potential was his business and no one else’s – not mine, not society’s, and most certainly not his parents’.
But there was more.
Tip four: Push the boundaries
Some of Gavin’s focus on his ‘potential’ seemed, in an abstract way, to really be a quest to overcome self-sabotage. He felt there was great pressure on him to succeed, and that made it difficult.
He also sensed there was more to life than he was experiencing, just as the grub might sense it was meant to become a butterfly even if it couldn’t quite imagine it.
But unlike a grub, we were able to talk about it in a solution-focused way, build a path towards greater personal fulfilment, and then start following it.
I wanted to help Gavin widen the context of his forthcoming success and all the things that entailed. I reminded him:
“Remember, it’s not just your potential you need to consider, but the potential of a situation. All situations you enter have a potential that you can help realize. I’m not suggesting you start breaking laws, but if we are too eager to please others and fit in with public expectations, then we’ll never reveal or discover what a situation (be it a business venture, social gathering, or garden design) might actually yield. Play with ideas – push them to their extremes sometimes; go a little further to see what’s possible. All progress is made by ‘unreasonable’ people.”
I think it’s important to learn to forget about what other people see as impressive, great, or even beyond the limits of possibility. There is always a first person to do anything. They venture into the world of the impossible and bring it back to the world of the possible.
Focus on what you really feel you want to do and have potential for, and remember the Bannister effect: ‘impossible’ can be little more than a limiting popular delusion.
With Gavin we went from meeting his “human potential” to:
- Getting his needs for giving and receiving attention met
- Finding a new partner he could be happy with
- Starting a side career as a stand-up comedian, which is gaining momentum even as I write.
But it’s a trap to assume that anyone can become anything, as attractive as that sweeping idea might be.
To achieve our potential or potentials, we need to develop a sense of what we are naturally like so that we can focus on areas that accord with our innate interests, nature, and strengths. This prevents us wasting time by trying to be a duckling when we really have the nature and the potential destiny of a swan.
I may not have helped Gavin achieve his full potential. Of course I didn’t. I suspect we don’t yet know the full extent of human potential.
People talk about reaching their potential, but how many people tell you they have actually reached it? “Hi, my name’s Bob. I’ve reached my full potential. That’s it, I’m done now!”
We would do well to remember that all apparent fulfilment of potential is a step – not an ultimate destination. Too much self-satisfaction, feeling that we know all there is to be known, or have done all there is to be done, may effectively erode the possibility of further progress.
We are always learning, always developing, and always (if we are wise) working to realize our potential, which may, after all, be infinite.
And you can further develop your ability to widen clients’ perspectives with our Conversational Reframing online course. Read about the course here and sign up to be notified when it’s open for booking.
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