Jon Williams, MA
Clinical Supervision Specialist
Time is a paradox. Time is a great thief, as it robs us of our youth with every moment that passes. Conversely, time gives us a foundation for everything that we experience. In the “hard” sciences such as math, chemistry, biology, and physics, time is accounted as an agent of change. In the “soft” sciences such as psychology, time is the constant that we can measure progress against. The passing of time is a constant inevitability, yet we can perceive time as “flying by” or “dragging on.” The malleable perception of a constant that passes on with the precision of a vibrating atom is a phenomenon that only the human experience can produce.
We pay great attention to time in the mental health field. We study the past of our clients, seeking to understand what they had experienced. We tend to see the “now” in terms of the current needs of our clients and what they are currently experiencing. The status of the future is often more vague and ambiguous because there are many moments of time that are unpredictable. The future is our hope and the goals we strive to work toward but there is little certainty of what will be.
Time plays an enormous role in the recovery process. We may be working in the “now” to help resolve events in the past so our clients can experience improvements in the future. The interrelationship between what we do, what has previously occurred, and the future outcomes is an esoteric abstraction that we often do not actively consider. Consumers of mental health services are often acutely aware of time, though not necessarily through the same perceptual filter of providers.
Whether regarding a symptom, barrier, or crisis, consumers’ “now” frequently takes precedence to the past or the future. There is an entire school of Gestalt Psychology that is dedicated to working on the here and now. As providers, it is sometimes easy to defer consumers’ “here and now” to a future time because the perspective of the provider may be vastly different from that of consumers. The paradoxical nature of time plays a significant role.
Take a brief span of time to think of a moment in your life that you were struggling with something. Time seems to expand, seconds seeming to take minutes and minutes become hours. Conversely when you are highly active and engaged in a task, time seems to compress where hours seem like minutes and minutes are like seconds.
When a provider is busy assisting multiple consumers on a given day, their perception of time may be racing by, whereas time for the consumer likely has slowed to a crawl. The discordance between how time is perceived can be a source of frustration for both the consumer and the provider. The consumer may feel their expectations are not being met quickly enough. The provider may feel that they have not been given sufficient time to complete the request from the consumer.
There are some distinct steps that providers can take to help reduce the frustration of consumers and help improve the strength of the therapeutic alliance.
1. Set a guideline for the time it will require to take to complete a task and intervals for updates. People want to know what progress is being made.
2. Follow up with the consumer for updates at an agreed upon time. This should be a priority.
3. Be honest. If something was not completed as anticipated, let the consumer know and what was progress was made despite any setbacks.
4. Be a proactive problem solver. If there is an unforeseen barrier, try to present the consumer with a way to resolve it, rather than just another problem.
5. Be sensitive to the differences of the perception of time for the consumer and provider.
6. Providers should be entirely focused on the consumer they are working with, as if they are the only person they work with.
Above all, providers should be generous with their time. While time may have many paradoxical traits, one trait that is always consistent is time will only be what you make of it. Spend it wisely.