In my consultations to emotion-focused therapists, some common requests for help suggest areas in which many good counselors may struggle. A very normal pitfall is moving away from affect (how feelings are expressed) and prematurely into cognition (thoughts and ideas) before emotional safety is established. This is an easy slide because most outside conversations are cognitive: “How about those Red Sox last night – lost (or won) another one!” Clients may expect, and sometimes hope, that our focus will remain there. So easy for everyone to avoid big or complicated feelings.
When speaking to groups of therapists about this, I sometimes challenge them with the following list of blunt client statements which have been a source of struggle for consultees over the years. I ask the audience to try answering each of these statements without explaining, reassuring or arguing, and instead answer the question beneath the question, using empathy and acceptance.
“Am I the problem in this divorce?” [If I take the blame for everything, will it shortcut all this pain?]
(Counter-intuitive sample response: “How simple it would be to finally just have a yes/no answer for the complexity of a painful divorce! It must be so tempting to just take all the responsibility in hopes of putting an end to this slow process, which heals at about the speed of a dormant, wintering garden. Thank you for helping me understand how intolerably long and painful it feels.”)
“Are all your clients as difficult as I am?” [Am I going to drive you away?]
(Counter-intuitive sample: “Sounds like you’re scared that you will burn me out and then have to start over with someone else. It makes me wonder whether you have been judged harshly in the past and you remember feeling rejected and blamed.”)
“You’re not very good at your job.” [I expect you to reject me, as other people have, so I will reject you first to get it over with, because waiting to be rejected is a living nightmare.]
(“I’m sorry it feels like things are changing too slowly. Thanks for helping me understand how disappointing it can feel, and I would love the chance to do better at helping you.”)
“Hey, you didn’t answer my question!” [If I can’t fill the session hour with questions you have to answer, how will I be safe?]
(“It would feel so much easier and more familiar to have this be a question and answer process. Sometimes I wish we could do that too.”)
“I’m not talking to you. I have nothing to say.” [My life has too many risks already.]
(“That’s okay. You don’t have to talk or do anything else that feels risky right now. Thanks for letting me know. It is an honor just getting to meet you.”)
“Do you see my friend Rhonda? She says she’s your client too.” [I worry that I’m the only person who seeks professional help. It would reassure me to chat about someone we know in common.]
(“Everybody may feel a little lonely going for counseling. I wish I could help that easily. Talking in sessions has to be a little different than on the outside, and I apologize that it’s not as simple.”)