Basic Attitudes of the Counselor
By Sister Paula Vandegaer, L.C.S.W.
Jane Doe has just had a home pregnancy test and has found out that she is pregnant. She is not married. She and John did not plan on marriage right now. She feels panicky. She thinks maybe abortion would solve her problem. She looks online and finds your pro-life agency’s telephone number. She calls. What does she expect of us at the other end of the line?
First of all, Jane expects us to listen to her. This may be harder than it sounds. Pro-life counseling is based on the belief that people do not come to us to be lectured to, but to sort out their own feelings and to be given the truth. When people understand the truth they can then make an informed decision.
Informed decisions occur when all the facts are out on the table and a person can look at them objectively. It’s easy for a beginning interviewer to believe that the most important facts that a person needs to know are the facts about abortion. This can cause the interviewer to not give sufficient attention to the person’s feelings. Listening can solve the problem.
When a person is in a crisis situation there are a lot of feelings inside. Some of these feelings may be negative feelings of hurt, anger, fright, or betrayal. Strong and powerful feelings can have several effects on us.
First, when we have a lot of feelings at one time, it can make it difficult for us to sort out those feelings: Which are most important? Which should I keep? What should I let go of? Which are having a negative effect on me and causing me to do something I will later regret? Which am I ashamed of? Which am I justified in having?
We don’t easily answer those questions unless someone has listened to us in a totally accepting way and allowed us to express all of our feelings, even the ones we are most ashamed of.
Second, overwhelmingly strong negative feelings can make us feel inadequate, overwhelmed and insecure, unable to respond to the situation. I must be a weak person. I must be a bad person. I can’t handle this. I’m not capable. Talking to a listening person allows us to put words on our feelings and thus get in better control of them. It allows us to figure out how we feel rather than have everything jumbled together. When we can put a word on a feeling it begins to give us control over that feeling.
When a listening, accepting person asks us questions to help us sort out our feelings it reduces their control over us. “Jane, how did you feel when your mother told you to abort the baby?” Has she ever disappointed you like that before? How did you handle it then? Did you feel good about yourself? How can you handle it now? Would that make you feel good?”
Listening does not mean passively sitting and doing nothing while someone is talking to us. If that were the case a person could sit in front of a stone wall and talk to the wall and that could make them feel better. No, listening is active. We ask questions. Our questions should help the girl to listen to herself and to really sort out what she is feeling. “Jane, let me see if I heard you correctly. Is that what you said?” or “I’m not clear on this. Can you explain that a little further?” or “Jane, that is confusing. Could I ask you a few questions and clarify that for both of us?”
Closely allied to listening is acceptance. Jane has probably already talked to someone and may have already gotten some judgmental feedback. “You mean you got yourself pregnant! How could you have done such a stupid thing?”
The strongest thing that you have going for you is your attitude of acceptance. You are not going to get upset with her for what she did. Remember, this is a young woman who has a lot of feelings that are already making her feel very uncomfortable about herself as a person. It is very important that you help her understand that you know how she feels and why she feels that way and you don’t blame her. “I understand how you feel, Jane. This is pretty rough thing you are going through.”
Sometimes your client will say something that is very unacceptable. “I want to kill that boy that got me pregnant.” You must tune into her feelings and the intensity of the problem. “Jane, you’re really angry with John aren’t you.”
Don’t be overwhelmed. This is at the core of acceptance. You can recognize and face with the young woman how intensely she feels. If she can face her feelings together with you, it will help her to be in control of them and calm down.
When we are under pressure, many of us think that we are the only person who has ever felt that way and that there is something wrong with us for having these feelings. Acceptance on the part of another person has tremendous power to help us to get things in perspective and to get ourselves in perspective.
When Jane Doe told her mother about the pregnancy, she may have reacted in horror and shock. When she tells you about her problem, you accept the fact that she has a problem and go from there. To judge guilt or innocence is not your job.
Most of the time we do not know all of the experiences or pressures that lead to people to whatever situation they are in. If we did, we might have a clearer understanding of why people make the choices, both good and bad, that they do. Since we do not know these things, we must accept people at the point that they are at and not judge them.
Being nonjudgmental does not mean approving of every person’s actions. When a client tells us that she is going to have an abortion, we don’t consider that a morally neutral action. We judge actions and behaviors but not persons. We do not say, “Jane, it’s all right for you to have an abortion-or commit suicide- or kill your boyfriend.” No, we recognized the depth of feeling and support the client’s attempt to face up to her situation and move to more acceptable solutions.
When we first start in pro-life counseling it may be difficult to be nonjudgmental when the girl is talking about an abortion. We must remember she would not be requesting an abortion if she felt it were morally wrong. She is requesting an abortion because of problems in her life that make her feel that bringing a pregnancy to term is too much for her now because of pressure from home, friends, counselor or because of internal problems and anxieties that are overwhelming.
Our listening, acceptance and nonjudgmental attitude will help her gain inner strength and gain control of her feelings. This will help her to feel able to take care of the child growing within her and thus be more willing to have her baby.
Jane Does calls you and tells you her problem. It is a similar story to the last three young women you helped. But each one is a unique person and each one has unique feelings and responses. Even if something that you did or said was extremely helpful to one young woman, it may be very unhelpful to the next person.
This is why it is hard to answer questions like, “What do you say when the woman says__.” There is never a stock answer. There is only the answer that you feel is appropriate for this woman at this time. What is right for one person may be wrong for the next.
When a pro-life volunteer gets a call on the phone and refers a young woman to the emergency pregnancy services for a simple pregnancy test, even that simple referral must be done only after there has been sufficient listening and individualization of this woman’s problem. Otherwise the woman will respond to the referral for a pregnancy test as being a cold, uninterested and uncaring way of “getting rid” of her on the phone.
If the young woman feels listened to, accepted, and not judged she will be more willing to listen to other facts relating to her decision about her baby – facts such as, fetal development, what an abortion is, and what it does to her and her baby. Giving her these “facts” along with listening, acceptance and a nonjudgmental attitude will truly help her to sort out the issues and make an informed decision.