There are certain things that therapists hear from significant numbers of their clients. I’m not arguing that clients are all experiencing the same things or that they even mean the same things when they say the same words.
As a therapist, it’s my job to meet clients where they are and to take them at their word when they tell me about their feelings and experiences. This does not mean that I don’t sometimes have a reaction to the things they say – including doubt or resentment – but it is my job to process that reaction and to provide empathic and nonjudgmental support to my clients.
That said, there are times when it is hard not to react when clients say certain things.
“I’m desperate to feel better”
I believe that my clients believe this will all of their hearts. What I sometimes have reason to doubt is that they are truly desperate. I believe firmly that clients are coming to therapy because their current circumstances have become too hard to cope with. But desperate?
A desperate person will cut off their own arm to escape from a trap. I think we often use desperate to mean willing to do anything.
The reality is that I have found a lot of clients come into therapy wanting to feel better but not necessarily ready to do things differently or to change in order to make that happen. A therapist hears desperate and often believes – yes, here is a client willing to radically alter their behaviors and beliefs in order to change how they are feeling and experiencing the world.
The reality is that desperate is hopeless. It’s overwhelmed and stuck. It’s lost. The clients that I have that are desperate aren’t feeling willing to do anything. They’re not desperate to feel better -they’re desperate to find the answer to the hopeless conundrum of how their life can become more livable.
This leads me to the next common thing I hear and respond to:
Why haven’t you done more to help me with this?
I always feel frustrated when this one comes out in therapy. I know it’s a client who is feeling frustrated too. A client who feels overwhelmed and scared about whether they ever will feel better.
This, to me, also reflects a client who hasn’t internalized the need for them to help themselves. A client who hasn’t come to terms with the idea that therapy is not a magic wand.
I wish therapy was a magic wand. I wish that I could make things better for my clients from the first session. I wish I had the answers. I wish there was some right thing that I could say that would help clients to move past the things that have hurt them. The relationships that have brought trauma and pain into their lives that continue to affect them months and years later.
I hear this and my skill crawls with shame and anxiety. I worry about whether I’ve not done enough. I doubt my skills and my assessment of the situation. I question whether I’m the right therapist for the client. I question whether I’m capable of helping this or any client.
The answer, and it’s never the answer the client wants, is that there is no fix. There is no undoing the past and the pain it has caused. There is grieving and processing and a consequent reduction of pain that can come from building a life worth living and staying focused on the present moment.
But fixing it?
It’s not possible.
And this is probably almost as hard for me to accept as it is for clients.
Because no therapist got into the profession wanting to hurt people. No therapist does the work because they don’t want people to feel better.
But the thing I have learned is that I am largely powerless to ACTUALLY MAKE people feel better. I can provide support and I can provide care and I can teach skills and suggest solutions to problems that inhibit people’s ability to pursue their goals.
But I can’t make anyone do anything. I can’t make anyone feel anything.
Which leads me to the last common thing that I hear from clients:
“All you want to talk to me about is how I feel about things”
This usually goes along with a demand that I tell them what to do or that I tell them what goal they should set.
Yes. I want to hear about your feelings. The facts matter less to me because I want to know how you feel about them. I’m willing to stipulate the facts are as you experienced them. I’m not here to cross-examine. I’m not here to doubt your story about what someone said to you or what happened to you. I believe that it is your experience that matters.
I’m on your side.
But therapy is about feeling your feelings and becoming aware of how they drive one to act in certain ways and how those ways can be counter-productive to actually getting one’s needs met.
In order to change how you act, you need to know how you feel.
So yes. I want to know how you feel just as much as I want to know what you did.
They’re inextricably linked.
One is just harder to access for most people. One requires a lot more vulnerability to share and report.
But here’s what I want to say to clients when I hear this: I promise that I won’t judge or reject your feelings. I promise that I will hear them and empathize with them and tell you that you’re not crazy for having them. I promise to be a safe space to talk about them. And I promise to help you put yourself back together after we do.
Feelings are scary. They’re uncomfortable to talk about and experience. They often make clients react – through tears, through anger, through physical tension. And it feels like pandora’s box if we open up the feelings box will the client ever be able to shut it and go about their day?
I don’t know.
But yes. Your feelings are what I want to talk about. You’re the expert on you and your circumstances. It would be too easy for me, from the safety of my therapist’s chair, to tell a client what to do without full understanding of the consequences of those actions. Without the ability to adjust to the client’s lived reality.
Your guess is as good as mine about what to do. Your instinct is better.
I think many therapists are feeling overwhelmed and frustrated right now. I know I am. COVID is making us all feel out of control and frustrated with the inability to make a plan or to imagine what will happen in the future. We want to solve it and figure out what comes next. Clients want this too and they’re, naturally, coming to their therapists for it. But therapists, right now, it seems are feeling so much internal pressure to fix and to know and to solve and we’re carrying that into sessions and feeling pushed to fix and to know and to solve.
And we’re overwhelmed.
Like our clients. We’re desperate and we feel shame that we can’t fix and know and solve. Where normally we would also be able to reassure ourselves that it’s not our job to actually fix someone’s life – we want to because it would show us that it’s still possible to fix and to know and to solve.
But we still want to hear about your damn feelings.