I often think about the pursuit of potential and try to imagine what “reaching potential” would look like exactly. I think about how it could be helpful to assist my clients in identifying their beliefs about personal potential and then developing a navigational tool to assist them in moving toward that potential. The concept is fascinating to me.

For a few moments, I’d like you to sit back and think about what it might be like to have GPS navigation aimed at routing you to your potential as a human being. My theory is that, as counselors, in a lot ways, we help individuals do just that.

All of us acquire beliefs about our potential from what we are told as children. We also acquire beliefs about our potential from what we observe as children. Our families, friends, caretakers and siblings all contribute to this cognitive framework of the ideal image of ourselves that we GPS navigation in carcontinuously pursue. I believe that when individuals experience a traumatic event, or suffer a significant loss or endure a situation that provokes emotional struggle, it can interfere with their ability to effectively navigate the pursuit of their personal potential. In other words, this is depression.

I believe a key component to helping clients work through their depression is assisting them in the identification, exploration and challenging of beliefs related to individual potential and its pursuit. I believe there is certain “word choice” in our thoughts that increases what I refer to as “internal pressure.” What is internal pressure? It is simply increased emotional distress.

Being trained in cognitive theory, I believe it is important to help clients examine their word choices in thought. For example, the word “should” can be reflective of a rigid demand. Therefore, “should” will likely intensify emotional distress by creating a strong sense of guilt for being unable to continuously achieve the imagined rigid demand.

I work in a partial hospital setting. Often, I work with clients who are struggling with continued depressive symptoms due to repeated thoughts of “I should be better than this.” I believe this thinking interferes with their ability to effectively pursue their desired level of individual potential.

I remind and educate my clients that emotional response is a normal human experience. I tell them that when considering the history of events leading to their treatment, it would be “understandable” if they were struggling with levels of depression at this time in their lives. Therefore, it might not be totally fair to assume that they “should” be better (emotionally) than they are at this time.

In defining the legitimacy of their emotional struggles, we can help clients access some self-validation and acknowledge the need to take the necessary time to patiently work through their current experience with depression. In doing so, we create a less rigid view of their achievable potential “at this time” in life.

I think that individual potential is something that changes. My individual potential today might be different from my individual potential tomorrow.

Potential is a belief system. Potential is a series of thoughts. As human beings, we have thoughts in response to events and emotions in response to thoughts. If we can help clients focus on examining their “daily” potential, we will help them to increase self-esteem and self-confidence through the implementation of daily achievable goals and assignments. They will become the sole directors of their individual potential each day, using their “evidence of success” (accomplishments) from prior days to achieve tomorrow’s tasks.

Our job as counselors is not to increase clients’ potential for them. It is to offer a less rigid framework for balanced thoughts and considerations. This in itself serves as the client’s GPS navigation for reaching individual potential. The difference is that in the beginning, these clients might have felt extreme emotional pressure to “be better right away.”

My hope is that my personal approach will allow other therapists to help clients take beliefs about individual potential that were once rigid, extreme and demanding, and modify them into expectations, goals and daily achievable tasks that will increase self-esteem. This approach can also provide a foundation for continued growth (progress) by suggesting alternative routes rather than assuming that all detours lead to increased distress or misery.

By the way, it is always OK to stop and ask for directions (help) despite what your belief system tells you that you “should” or “should not” do.




Brandon S. Ballantyne, a licensed professional counselor and national certified counselor, has been practicing clinical counseling since 2007. He currently practices at Reading Health System in Reading, Pennsylvania, and Advanced Counseling and Research Services in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He has a specialized interest in using cognitive theory to help his clients enhance their abilities to recognize and change problematic thought patterns to achieve more desirable emotions and healthier behavioral responses. Contact him at Brandon.Ballantyne@readinghealth.org.