Many therapists, under pressure of feeling like they must ‘fix’ their clients, or hold all the answers for them, resort to panic measures when feeling out of their depth.  The most important thing to get right with your client is your relationship with them.  This requires genuine interest, a conscious sharing of feelings and impressions with them, and a capacity to hold still when they are losing it.

Here are 8 mistakes to avoid when feeling out of your depth with a therapy client:

#1  Don’t jump in with sympathy

You know, your client’s journey is theirs to make.  When your client pulls on your heart strings and you feel sorry for them, first be aware that this is your feeling. Your client is simply your external stimulus to pull this feeling out of you.  If you’re brave hearted, you can share the feeling. But avoid the rescuing that goes with it. Instead, listen and question your clients so they get the opportunity to allow their emotions to air and to complete themselves and be fully acknowledged by you in the here and now.

#2  Don’t become clinical and head bound

What I mean with this, is I have heard many stories from clients who describe their counsellors as too removed and academic about their situation.  There is nothing worse than your theories when a client is really opening up and sharing their deepest stuff.  Be aware that your need to theorise or package up into manageable ideas may well be a reflection of your fear of intimacy.  If you feel that, you need to explore your own fears before projecting solutions onto your clients. So instead of your theories, learn to sit with your own discomfort and then seek answers to your own distress either with a competent someone or by your own meditative practice outside of the therapy room.

#3  Don’t make assumptions based on theories

I have had to treat so many people who have had assumptions made about them by therapists who are working by the book. One 14 year old school phobic girl, it was assumed, was being abused at home. The counsellor treated her family with utmost suspicion. This worsened her phobia.  Another client, based on her evident panic and anxiety, was told she had been sexually abused as a child though she couldn’t remember it at all. This drove her into a worse fear and panic.  The former therapist was a psychodynamic counsellor and the latter a hypnotherapist.  Instead, question your assumptions before you commit to anything. Could there be an alternative answer that you haven’t even yet considered?

#4  Don’t take your clients outburst personally

Your clients are bound to get angry and annoyed at times – even with you – it’s par for the course.  And you may have provoked it deliberately or by accident.  Either way, obvious client distress is an opportunity for you to explore their frustrations and annoyances and flush out what it is about you, that annoys them.  That doesn’t mean you’re bad or wrong, it just means there is something in you that reminds them of their distress.  You can learn a lot about yourself if you stay present, and if you can work with the transference, the client gets to have some genuine and real feedback about how they operate in the world.

#5  Don’t refuse to answer your clients questions

I’ve been on the receiving end of this many years ago with person centred counsellors, and I’ve heard stories of this in my clients.  Some schools of therapy believe you should NEVER share anything personal about yourself and others are less prescriptive.  I would say, if a client asks you a direct personal question, have the courtesy not to do a body swerve on it.  Be clear if you don’t want to answer it and say why.  But don’t just turn their question back on themselves.  It’s so text bookish and impersonal and makes you sound phoney and insincere.

#6  Don’t make inane suggestions of starting a hobby

Many of my clients have come with very low expectations of me as a therapist – unless they’ve been referred. And usually it’s because they have been on the receiving end of therapists who are doing things by rote and not making a personal or meaningful connection with them.  Now, I do suggest hobbies and interests for people, but I do it based on a very intimate knowledge of the person with me. If you are doing it out of a desperation to be able to offer some kind of constructive help, stop it!  The clients know you’re lost – it’s in your energy field. Instead, really tune in to your client’s dilemma. If you can’t, look at some of the above issues that affect you and decide to work on them.

#7  Don’t avoid the ‘elephant in the room’

I’ve heard supervisees talk to me about their fears and their guesses about their clients intention, even as they’re sat in the therapy room with them.  Either it boils down to a sexual attraction or some kind of competitive posturing that the client is using to regain the control of their most vulnerable sides.  If you are absolutely clear about who you are, this does not need to become a problem.  Instead, name the game that you can feel is playing out between you and the client. Have some courage and gently draw the game to your client’s attention.  If you’re feeling it, I can assure you that other people feel this with them. This is important feedback for the effect they have on people.

#8  Don’t make things up

Admit what you don’t know and share it. If you are lost with your client and they ask you for direction, admit that you don’t have their answers.  Admitting your own fallibility is something many counsellors, psychotherapists and hypnotherapists do not do. However, in doing so, it can reinforce with your client that they are responsible, not you, for their development.  What they put into their sessions they should get commensurate out of them – as long as you stay present and conscious with them.

In conclusion, when feeling out of your depth brings up your performance anxieties, be conscious of them and be aware of the kinds of strategies you use to avoid feeling it fully. All of the above ‘mistakes’ are ways in which we try and keep ourselves safe as therapists.  All the while we’re thinking about ourselves, we are not thinking about our clients’ journey. Getting your relationship right with them requires genuine interest, a willingness to be uncomfortable alongside them, and a capacity to hold your energy very still and stable while they sort through their confusion.  Thinking is not enough. We need to feel centred and at peace.  Join me at http://theopenmindtherapist.com/membership/free-membership/ if you would like to take this one step further.

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