For those of us who are not quite making the big bucks, or making few bucks at all, at least getting to window shop and dream about what we might like to buy if we won the lottery is a realistic alternative. Perhaps it never quite hits the spot that that gorgeous dress or those slamming heels would, but it doesn’t hurt to play dress up in the store and try it all on, having a fun time with your friends pretending your budget is as lofty as your taste in clothes. But this is not the window-shopping I want to bring attention to here.
In counseling, especially in the pastoral counseling role, where the therapeutic relationship with the client is particularly vulnerable and touches the deeper spiritual aspect of a person, window-shopping is harmful, inappropriate, and sometimes difficult to detect as a counselor. In the spirit of “look don’t purchase” and even “try it don’t buy it,” the counselor who is also a window shopper does something similar, but not nearly as risk-free. To understand what this looks like in counseling, try to think back to a time when a friend, though perhaps not a considerably close one, or an acquaintance even, was having a conversation with you, and before you knew it, you realized the conversation was getting pretty deep, perhaps deeper than you expected. The friend or acquaintance was beginning to really spill their guts to you, or told you they had never told anyone what they had just told you, and they seemed glad to have done so. What feelings and thoughts do you observe in yourself? Maybe you feel a little overwhelmed and surprised at what they shared. Maybe you feel like you are not surprised at all because many people have often felt they could confide in you for whatever reason. Maybe you feel happy with yourself for being of some help to this person. Now, what do you observe in the other person? Maybe they seem vulnerable and a little emotionally spent. Maybe the look on their face is hanging on to whether or not you are going to react in either a comforting or an uncomfortable way.
New questions: What might you get out of this interaction? What is the purpose of it? And what are the implications of it? It can be tricky and subtle, trying to walk the line between being there for someone and letting them share what they feel they need to, and also knowing when boundaries need to be enforced for the benefit and best interest of all parties. What I am trying to get at here, and what I think everyone is guilty of – being on either side of the equation at one time or another – is that the evidence of this type of interaction does not necessarily mean you are a good listener, a natural helper, or anyone’s “only person they can talk to” just because an individual decides to disclose their secrets and complicated problems to you. Especially if it is clear that you are most likely not the appropriate relationship in that person’s life for them to be investing in, you are doing them a disservice. If you do not try to compassionately and carefully express respect for the person by protecting them from over-sharing or making themselves vulnerable unnecessarily, you could be leaving them open to more disappointment and invalidation than you might expect. If you aren’t careful, it is possible to find yourself gravitating to the role of the window shopper as you may receive some kind of gratification and personal satisfaction from feeling special, needed, and like a wise counsel for others.
Full-blown window shopper status in counseling only occurs when the counselor intentionally and purposefully allows the client to divulge much more information and detail about things like trauma, abuse, sexuality, gossip, and more than is therapeutic. To check themselves, counselors must constantly ask the questions: What is the purpose of what we are doing in counseling? How is this for the benefit of the client? More so than other instances of this kind of interaction, counselors have an even greater responsibility to facilitate healthy disclosure, and to protect clients from over-sharing by teaching and modeling appropriate sharing and boundary asserting. A person’s life story, the specific and meaningful events in their lives, and the intense things they go through are not like a snazzy sports car you wish you could drive off the lot. They are something that person, or that client, already owns. These things are a part of who they are, part of the person in front of you that you are called to care about as you ought to care, not as you would like to care so you can feel valued yourself. Remember, keep the window-shopping in the marketplace, where it won’t have any cost.