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Counseling Starfish

When I look at the world I’m pessimistic, but when I look at people I am optimistic.

– Carl Rogers, Psychologist

Key: Healthy counselors need support, purpose and devotion on their paths of personal growth.

Living it: Define the personal and societal value of your effort and allow for course-correction.

Clinical Concept: Rogerian Client-Centered approach applied to counseling and supervisory relationships via use of cultural parable.

I’ve been a counselor for nearly a quarter century. If you count high school, when the Outreach Counselor sat me down and called me “the other counselor I’ve been hearing about” from his clients, I guess it’s even longer. After all that time, I’ve chosen my path through many crossroads. I’m sure you have, too. This month I turned 44 and I find myself facing another one: the crossroad of devotion. Though this article has a slant toward counselors, please know that these thoughts can apply to anyone in a helping profession, anyone who gives of themselves for the sake of another.

People have passions, purpose and pastimes, all of which constitute an expenditure of a finite amount of life. We also have daily tasks, mundane work necessities, and doing what we must to pay the bills. Tick, tick, tick, we give them our time—sometimes lovingly, sometimes grudgingly—and thus, the actual moments of our life. In terms of living an enjoyable life, this time must be spent wisely, no matter our career. As counselors, I find this mandate even more important, especially in the face of the actual pain and hardship which we willingly face and give our life to every day. There is a cost, and everyone wonders at some point “Is this worth it?” As I said, devotion.

In answer to this question, I came across an old story which some refer to as a parable and some refer to as a legend. I have quoted it here from one of many sites, as “The Legend of the Starfish” (Matters, 2009). I hardly ever quote something in its entirety, but sometimes exceptions must be made.

“A man was walking along a beach when he saw a young boy. Along the shore were many starfish that had been washed up by the tide and were sure to die before the tide returned. The boy was walked slowly along the shore and occasionally reached down and tossed the beached starfish back into the ocean. The man, hoping to teach the boy a little lesson in common sense, walked up to the boy and said, ‘I have been watching what you are doing, son. You have a good heart, and I know you mean well, but do you realize how many beaches there are around here and how many starfish are dying on every beach every day. Do you really think that what you are doing is going to make a difference?’ The boy looked up at the man, and then he looked down at a starfish by his feet. He picked up the starfish, and as he gently tossed it back into the ocean, he said, ‘It makes a difference to that one.’”

Seeing the Stars

The things that make you different are the things that help you change the narrative.

– Elaine Welteroth, Journalist and Editor

It’s easy to take the Legend of the Starfish as something trite or Hallmark-y, but that is to demean its power. Pause. Consider. Let it resonate with you as a helper of people. What does this story mean to you? What part of your essence does it touch?

It is a story of devotion in which all their different perspectives are valid. The boy, of course, could be considered the “hero” of the tale. He is the analog for the helper, the counselor. He is purpose and passion. “It makes a difference to that one,” he replies. There are hopefully many times in the life of a counselor when we discharge a client, or after a powerful session, and we say the same thing.

But the man is no villain. The legend doesn’t say “and the man came to ruin the boy’s dream” rather he was “hoping to teach the boy a little lesson in common sense.” He even was motivated by seeing the boy’s gifts of good-heartedness and well intentions. He saw the size of the task ahead and perhaps, as an older person, saw the value of well purposed time. The man could be seen as an also well-meaning, perhaps a seasoned counselor who had faced, or succumbed to the burn out which is rife in all helping fields. The boy sees a beach of starfish and begins to save them from the obvious danger in front of him. The man sees the boy and seeks to save him from the more subtle danger that he believes is present.    

We cannot overlook the title. Despite their valid perspectives, the story is never referred to as “the parable of the young boy” or “the legend of the man.” The focus is the starfish, and for good reason. Without the starfish, the boy would lack purpose and the man would have little to advise upon about how his time is invested. The perspective of the starfish is why we do the work we do.

This reminds me of the pioneer of the client-centered therapy “one of the preeminent psychologists of the 20th-century,” Carl Rogers, who’s non-directed approach “places the client in control of the therapeutic process” (Cherry, 2020). Rogers’ work has defined much of modern psychotherapy, and he is one of my main influences, especially his belief that people were essentially good and sometimes simply need support and assistance in becoming the best they can be, or “self- actualized.” Rogerian therapy is based around the idea that the client knows best, though they may need help working through barriers that impede self-actualization. So, in Rogerian fashion, the man and the boy are inherently good and, there are no deficient entities since the starfish has the loudest voice of all, though it never says a word. There’s nothing wrong with the starfish, it just needs assistance to get to the good life.

Once a Starfish, Always

The starfish must love each other better than we do.

– Jean-Paul Sartre, Philosopher

So, how do we make sense of this parable if there are no villains and all perspectives are valid? Through the lens of relationship. “In my early professional years, I was asking the question: How can I treat, or cure, or change this person?” Rogers said. “Now I would phrase the question in this way: How can I provide a relationship which this person may use for his own personal growth?”

The boy, in relation to the starfish is providing the most simplistic, but vital, healing relationship—helping the starfish meet its life-needs. The starfish, in relationship to the boy, provides him purpose. The man, in relationship to the boy, is attempting to provide a more actualized level of aid in helping him to see a broader picture and evaluate if he is investing his effort effectively. But the boy, in relationship to the man, is also helping. His observation “it makes a difference to this one” is left unanswered in the story because it is used to kindle understanding in the reader. How you responded to this story, what it touched in you, is the personal growth which the boy stirred in the man.

To me, this story of devotion is about helping a single life, and as many single lives as we can. But, the greater lesson, to me, is that we are all starfish. There were many times in my life when parents, mentors, teachers, colleagues and counselors metaphorically found me on a beach among my peers and tossed me wisdom like much needed water. At 44, and nearly 25 years of counseling, I have seen through the perspective of the boy and the man, and sometimes I think that we, as counselors, forget we are still starfish on a beach, with needs and hurts that also need to be cared for and personal growth which yearns to thrive. As passion and purpose turn to pastime and daily tasks, I fear we forget, or worse, begin to see ourselves as different than our clients. Perhaps superior, but also, that our needs are to be put aside for the good of others. We all have value and all our perspectives are valid.

The reason why I use the Legend of the Starfish paired with Rogerian thought today is because that is what informs not just how I counsel, but how I supervise other counselors. Not that our difficulties managing the very real stress, emotional exhaustion and cognitive strain of our profession shows us as flawed, but that we are inherently good people who’s symptoms show that we have a barrier to growth which I’m honored to help surmount. It unifies us with our clients as fellow starfish that may need a hand reaching the sea again. Devotion ebbs and rises, like the tide. No matter if your high in the wave or stuck on the beach, this article is to serve as a reminder that the shift is normal, visible and able to be course corrected with help.

“It seems to me that the good life is not any fixed state. It is not…a state of virtue, or contentment, or nirvana, or happiness,” Rogers said in his seminal work On Becoming a Person. “The good life is a process, not a state of being” (Cherry, 2020). Clients and counselors sometimes need help remembering that seeking the good life, and helping others find theirs is not one-and-done. Thus, we relish the highs and we forgive the lows, seeking new growth.

As I face this current crossroads, I know the path I’ve chosen. It is to be boy, man and starfish at once. To cherish the lives I’m honored to aid, to seek aid for myself before I’m on the beach, and to be mindful that I only have so much time, so to ensure my efforts make a difference. In this new year I will be reaching out more to my fellow helpers in support, aid and perhaps just companionship as another starfish on the beach, may seeking to teach, or boy with a purpose.

Perhaps you’ll join me.

* If you are a counselor who is interested in being supported in your personal growth in person, via phone or via Telehealth video chat, please reach out to me. You are worth it!

Cherry, K. (2020) Psychology and Life Quotes From Carl Rogers. History and Biographies. Retrieved from: https://www.verywellmind.com/carl-rogers-quotes-2795693  

Matters, K. (2009)The Legend of the Starfish. Retrieved from: http://www.blog4change.org/articles/79/1/The-Legend-of-the-Starfish/Page1.html

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