Gently is the Way


Does It Have to Hurt?

“Sometimes I think I’m too non-judgmental." My physician's comment came after I had thanked her for being so open-minded.

I love it when someone surprises me.

We chatted about whether a physician should include disapproval in some form in order to motivate a patient.

“Maybe there is a time when judgment can be motivation,” I offered.

Even as I said it, I knew I didn’t believe it. I admitted as much, then shared a story of a client.

Cherie had come to me under some professional duress. She’d been underperforming in her position, and her manager was getting increasingly impatient with her. She told me, “I need you to be hard on me. It’s what will motivate me.”

I nodded and then proceeded to listen as she described her developmental needs, at least as well as she understood them. Over the next several sessions I learned more and more about her background. She had overcome a great deal of limitations in her family system and culture in order to succeed. Clearly she was motivated by difficulty,  and she had a consistent  theme of overcoming that had taken place over many years.

Still something didn't ring true. In our fifth session, I asked her to tell me about her original motivation to overcome a challenging life situation.

An entirely different sense of her arose as she described a punitive and condemnatory father, uncles and brothers. In fact, I could sense bitterness beneath her words. As we explored more deeply, it became apparent to both of us that she had paid a terrible toll for all the hardness she had encountered at their hands. While it had motivated her, her drive came through anger and spite. While I’d never diminish her successes, I certainly would question the effects it had on her.

At one point, as Cherie looked to me for guidance, I smiled at her. Actually, it was a smile of compassion because my heart hurt for her. Out of nowhere came a phrase. “Cherie, gently is the way.”

Her eyes grew teary in response.

“After what you've endured, I can’t be hard on you. How about we find a way to motivate you that doesn’t hurt so damn much?”

Cherie was able to find another way. One that did not require her to experience the harshness that had become her normal. It continues to serve her well. Today, when we cross paths, as happens every now again, she smiles at me before we embrace. Always she whispers, “Gently is the way.”

Seeing True

Each of us has adopted our own sense of normal based on our experience. It may not be normal, and may not be useful, but it is familiar. The question we must ask ourselves is whether it serves us well. Self-harm is never a good outcome, even if it is our normal.

Seeing True in Action

Here’s a fun exercise:

Identify the primary ways you believe you are motivated. For each, honestly list the pros and cons of each approach.

Then, talk to some peers or friends. Describe the situations you routinely face, and ask them what strategies they would use to be motivated. Finally, ask about the pros and cons.

See if you can find a better way...gently.

Updated September, 2019