#9 Proximal Distancing: What is that?
This time I will be using the Gestalt lens to look at right-sizing distances and physical protections for clients within the counselling room.
Have you ever noticed how often, when people are talking about or watching something that is uncomfortable in some way, they will pick up a throw pillow or a sweater or anything within reach and hold it against their chest, sort of like a personal barrier or shield? Well I have noticed this and it struck me as a really good, spontaneous way that people were taking good care of themselves when they did this. They were acting in their own best interests to feel more comfortable when being exposed to something that was making them feel threatened in some way. This is also observable in people watching a horror movie, but in that case, it is a something they want to watch and they want to feel scared, but they also wanted a little bit of protection perhaps to make it possible to still be able to watch while feeling horrified.
So that is where the concept came from for me, how does it make it's way into a counselling room? Well often we are asking, or by use of some of our questions in counselling, exposing our clients to areas of their experience that are not comfortable for them to see, hear about, imagine or directly re-experience. Yet all of these things often do occur in counselling sessions. When this happens it seemed to me to be reassuring for some clients to be able to grab a pillow or blanket or some other physical object in our counselling space to place between themselves and the scary feeling, idea, conversation, or question that we are asking them to consider. Observing this happen spontaneously modelled the idea of doing this same kind of self protection deliberately but using physical distance this time.
I have a reasonably large office 16'x12' so in couples counselling in particular, when we are dealing with an uncomfortable idea, question or someone flooded or dissociating, there are times when I will suggest some kind of grounding process and also ask them if it would feel OK to either move themself or request another to move further away from them physicall for a time, while still staying in the room. I may also ask the other party not to speak or attempt to interact with them until they signal they are ready for more interaction with them. Sometimes it could also be me they need some distance from in the moment as the asker of the difficult question, or initiator of the difficult interaction. When I do this I emphasize the distance is good, and staying in the room is also really important. This process gives agency and safety to someone in a difficult emotional state which was not of their own making.
Another way to offer a similar alternative physical dynamic protection option, especially if physical space is limited, is by suggesting the person with the discomfort physically turn their body away from the other, and also their gaze and touch until such time as they are ready and willing to re-engage in the interaction. I refer to all of these type of interventions as Proximal Distancing. I see it as an expansion of a client's personal agency for emotional safety, carried out by the client, to not have stay too close to someone or some feeling that they are not comfortable with, without having to disengage. They just create more space for themselves when they need it.. I guess it could be seen as a form client regulated exposure therapy or a different way of using succesive approximation. The value of using this strategy is when clients find themselves getting overwhelmed and if they don't have enough room to feel emotionally safe in a session. If they don't feel safe enough in session and disengage in some way we may loose a valuable opportunity to support them in some new ways. Watching them discover some of these alternative ways of finding some emotional safety based on choices they see and make themselves can be a huge step forward in their self confidence going forward.
What I have noticed from clients after they have used this strategy in session is, they have been more emotionally mobile and able to improvise these same kind of protections outside of sessions as well. I now always have multiple cusions of various sizes and blankets in my office for props if needed in this way.
So that's it for now on this process, I hope you will find something of use to you in your work with your clients. Next month I am offering you a specific brief grief module I have used often to assist folks unable to find a way into their own grieving experience. It is structured and individualized at the same time. I hope you will join me then, Caio. David