When Liz* suggested counselling to Sue* to reflect on her past experiences, Sue’s body language indicated that she might be reluctant. Sue and Liz, her member care worker, were chatting about how she was going. Sue, her husband and three children were preparing to head off to work in India*. Sue had shared earlier that she had experienced significant anxiety and depression in her adolescence. Liz also knew that Sue had experienced significant symptoms of anxiety during her recent Bible College training which increased Liz’ desire to encourage Sue to engage in some counselling work.
What would you do or say in this situation?
Member Care Workers can use normalisation to assist cross-cultural workers with struggles. Normalisation is a powerful tool that enables people to see their experiences as ‘normal’ for someone in their situation or position. When encountering symptoms that are outside a person’s usual experience, they may wonder, ‘What is wrong with me?’, increasing their distress.
it’s usually a great relief for clients to hear that those believed to be abnormal thoughts, feelings, and behaviors aren’t so abnormal after all, that actually they’re quite common, that many people struggle with the exact same things. It’s just that no one talks about the uncomfortable truths in polite social discourse, or even in close relationships if those truths are discomfiting enough. Everyone tries as best they can to appear normal and well-adjusted, which means repressing their strangeness.Schreiner, 2017
Counsellors use the normalising technique to assist people to have a more realistic perspective. For example, Yeo (2007) encourages clients with depression to view it ‘as a normal reaction to abnormal situations’. He gives another example,
To a woman who thinks herself crazy to be raving mad about her husband’s extra-marital affair, the counsellor could respond by saying, “I suppose it is only natural for you to be so mad. It is not easy to be otherwise when one is faced with such a painful situation.
The technique of normalisation should be used with care. It has the potential to be very effective but we do not want to trivialize our cross-cultural workers’ concerns.
Normalising problems in no way minimises their gravity. We take problems seriously. But they are accepted and viewed realistically.Yeo, 2007
Normalisation may not be the end of the road regarding work for the cross-cultural worker. However, it may remove an obstacle that is preventing useful work on issues in the cross-cultural worker’s life.
… normalization as a therapeutic tool should be used not to bring people back into the fold, into the warm comfortable womb of sameness, but rather should be used as a jumping off point for positive, growth oriented differentiation.Schreiner, 2017
Sharing of personal experience by Member Care Workers can be effective for normalisation, but must be used with care. Therapists note that personal disclosure can be potent in the process of normalisation (Dudley, 2007). He suggests,
the therapist might describe how they had a phobia of public speaking and how they overcame this.
However, personal disclosure by Member Care Workers for the sake of normalising has risks. A psychiatrist (Smith, 2019) said, “When considering the wisdom of sharing a personal story, it is important to ask ourselves if we are seeking a response.” For example, we might be wanting affirmation. If we are not seeking any kind of response, then sharing a personal story can be a powerful way of normalising a situation for the cross-cultural worker you are caring for.
It is important that we continue to let the Bible interrogate our understanding. (Read more about our use of the Bible in the ‘Theological Reflection Cycle’ blog post.)
A story to consider
But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
At sunrise he arrived again in the temple courtyard. All the people gathered around him there. He sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman. She had been caught committing adultery. They made her stand in front of the group. They said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught sleeping with a man who was not her husband. In the Law, Moses commanded us to kill such women by throwing stones at them. Now what do you say?” They were trying to trap Jesus with that question. They wanted to have a reason to bring charges against him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. They kept asking him questions. So he stood up and said to them, “Has any one of you not sinned? Then you be the first to throw a stone at her.” He bent down again and wrote on the ground.
Those who heard what he had said began to go away. They left one at a time, the older ones first. Soon only Jesus was left. The woman was still standing there. Jesus stood up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Hasn’t anyone found you guilty?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then I don’t find you guilty either,” Jesus said. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”John 8:1-11
The woman was brought to Jesus by a group of religious leaders in front of a large crowd gathered around him in the temple courtyard. The religious leaders told Jesus, and all those gathered around him, that she had been caught in the act of committing adultery, which would have been deeply shaming for the woman. Then Moses’ instructions for judgement of this type of sin by stoning was also referenced. It is interesting to note that no reference is made in the story to the man she had been caught in sin with.
In contrast to expectations, Jesus achieved normalisation of the woman’s sin, whilst not endorsing it. Jesus powerfully communicated that everyone present was a sinner, including the religious leaders who had brought the woman to him. By redirecting the focus from the woman to others, Jesus broadened the focus from one person, the woman, to the whole crowd including her, giving a better perspective. Lastly, Jesus challenged the woman to leave her past sinful behaviour patterns behind and so, grow in godliness.
This story is a foretaste of Jesus’ work on the cross, where he took away our guilt, our shame and our fear (Muller 2001). Typically, Western Christians focus on the guilt and innocence aspect of the gospel. However, the gospel is wider in scope. In the place of our shame, God has given us honour.
Scripture says, “The one who believes in him will never be put to shame.”Romans 10:11
Anyone who serves me must follow me. And where I am, my servant will also be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.John 12:26
What happened? How was this cross-cultural worker cared for?
As Jesus did with the woman, we can use normalisation to good effect.
Liz used normalisation to encourage Sue to go to counseling, by saying,
“A large proportion of the cross-cultural workers in our agency use counselling from time to time. Anxiety is a common problem for cross-cultural workers. One cross-cultural worker recently reported to me that working on her anxiety with a counsellor really helped her.”
During Liz’s second visit to Sue, she asked her how the counseling sessions were going. Sue reported that the sessions had been helpful and that she liked Zoe*, the counselor. Sue said,
“Zoe is helping me to improve my thinking…”
Sue was smiling as she said this but then the smile and enthusiasm vanished from her face. She continued,
“I thought I would only need one session and I have already had three. Zoe wants me to have another one next month. I feel bad about the agency having to pay for all this counseling.”
Again Liz observed that Sue’s body language seemed to indicate significant discomfort. Liz wondered, “What was going on in her head and heart? Is she feeling shamed?”
What would you do or say now?
“It is normal and healthy to work on our issues every few years or so. I go to a counselor or psychologist once in a while to work on an issue. I understand this as part of my Christian discipleship, enabling me to increase in godliness and serve God better.
Both myself, and our agency, advocate counselling as a form of preventative member care. We do this from a desire to increase our cross-cultural workers’ well-being and to build their resilience, so that they can serve God more effectively.”
Sue visibly relaxed.
Later, after Sue’s counselling sessions had concluded, she reported to Liz that the times with Zoe had been helpful and she was thankful for the encouragement to persevere with counseling. Sue and Liz spent some time praying together, including thanking God for the benefits of Sue’s sessions with Zoe.
If there was any indication that Sue was feeling shame, Liz could have said, “Through the shedding of his blood, Jesus has taken away our shame and given us honour in its place.”
* All names of people and places in this blog have been changed to provide anonymity.
Davis, T. (2020) Tamie and Kylie talk therapy. Available at: https://www.fixinghereyes.org/single-post/tamie-and-kylie-talk-therapy?fbclid=IwAR2Sz4Y3S-dYvSBBcHSnjP7MUW8mARVLi2Sb9jO7JaBmYLCdsihh65rtjW8.
Dozier, B. (2014) Barbara Dozier’s Blog. Available at: https://barbradozier.wordpress.com/2014/12/10/applied-counselling.
Dudley, R. (2007) Techniques in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: Using Normalising in Schizophrenia, Psykologi. Available at: https://psykologtidsskriftet.no/2007/05/techniques-cognitive-behavioural-therapy-using-normalising-schizophrenia.
Muller, R. (2001) Honor and Shame: Unlocking the Door. Bloomington, US: Xlibris.
Smith, R. (2019) ‘Normalisation’.
Yeo, A. (1993) Counselling: A Problem Solving Approach. Singapore: Armour Publishing.
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