- A parent used to try to help his child, age eight, understand and agree with the parent’s decisions. This father had had a painful childhood himself, and he kindly did not wish the same for his son. The boy would go along with decisions he liked, but learned to rage violently against the others until father gave in. He typically refused to cooperate with bedtime. He would say, “I don’t want to go to bed,” and then he would ignore or fight with father.
- “So I used to think, ‘Oh, his body knows what it needs better than I do,’ and leave him alone.”
- “But now when he gets oppositional and combative I move in closer and give empathy but also bring in limits, allow fewer choices and less freedom.”
- How’s that working?
- “His rages are shorter and less frequent.”
- I notice that formerly ‘fun’ father also seems calmer, less reactive, more confident, more serious, and makes fewer crisis calls between sessions.
- How’s that feel?
- He looks at me seriously. “It’s hard work.”
- This father who previously worked hard to avoid his son’s frightened and frightening feelings, has stepped up to the plate, taken charge and given his son the parental attention, limits and guidance the child has been both demanding AND rejecting at the same time [classic example of children’s Ambivalent attachment style.]
- It was as if by sharing so much inner confusion and chaos the son was saying, “I feel too much in charge of myself and need help. But I also will reject help, so you should expect to feel as confused as I do. Help me please!!” Parents and caretakers must then rise above the child’s helpless logic, see the big picture, take over, and free them both from the old stuck pattern.
- This little thought struck me gently enough that I want to park it here on this blog. It is not often we tie individual psychology to our need to save the earth. Here is one example.
- New counselors soon encounter a phenomenon which becomes familiar over the years. A client will finish a decent therapy session, get ready to leave the room, put their hand on the doorknob and then say, “Oh, by the way….” and suddenly introduce some powerful new information which can change a lot of things. But there is no time to process it — they are on their way out.
- In the field this is commonly called “doorknob therapy”. All the therapist can do is thank the client and make a note to reflect on this next visit. It is too late for today.
- I wondered why this happened until I watched the way car drivers will stop and talk to a friend through their rolled down car window – without turning off the car which may idle away, uselessly polluting for half an hour or more.
- It struck me that these two behaviors share something in common: they provide safety to the speaker.
- Why? They surround the speaker with a context – the context of being about to escape. When we are on the verge of leaving a situation, it feels safer to speak freely. Think of that song about quitting a job, “Take This Job and Shove It, I Ain’t Workin’ Here No More.” Pure freedom to finally say what the worker has wanted to say for a long time. Because if I am leaving, you can’t do me any harm.
- Not that my two examples are dangerous situations to begin with. But unconsciously we do carry with us remnants of childhood when we were not certain what social situations were actually safe. So at the moment of leaving a situation, all fear that the response by the other person might be unpleasant, unsatisfying, or simply unexpected, is lowered. We can always say, “Well, I gotta’ be going now….” Almost the definition of safety.
- The doorknob in hand and the sound of the purring engine both tell us we can rush off at a moment’s notice, lowering our unconscious fear of being rejected, found unacceptable or threatened with abandonment. We can speak with less inhibition and more courage.
- Of course there is still just plain overconsuming pollution. I am reminded of going to our town’s general store last summer. Out front by the parking lot sits an old piano where anyone can stop and tickle the keys for awhile. In front of the piano was parked a huge gas-guzzling SUV, idling away. It had out-of-state plates, not uncommon in tourist-filled Vermont. The ample-sized driver had one arm out the window and the other helping him inhale a mega-calorie Dove bar.
- Being who I am, I went up and smilingly offered to play him a tune on the piano if he would turn off his engine (and stop polluting our town.) He smiled back and laughed, snorting through his ice cream, “I don’t think so!”
- Sigh. At least he smiled.
- Sometimes a parent will bring in a child – natal, adopted, foster, etc. — who functions well enough in school and in public, but who has recurrent rages toward the parent at home. Rages only at home, and only at this parent.
- The parent is typically a very nice and kind parent – undeserving of any violent treatment (assuming anyone anywhere is deserving of violent treatment.) So the parent is mystified. “What’s going on? She needs help!”
- A case example walked into my office in Ontario soon after I finished graduate school. A single father complained about his nine year-old daughter. “Sometimes she is fine, but suddenly she’ll be frustrated or upset by some little thing, and she starts attacking me or trying to break something precious to me! I feel so helpless. Why does she do that!?”
- Does she say anything? I asked.
- “Mostly just screaming. Sometimes she’ll say odd things like, “I don’t deserve to be in this family!” or “You hate me!” or “I hate you!” or “You don’t love me!” What should I do!?
- This question, “What should I do!?” is a red flag for most psychodynamic therapists. We know so well that our goal is not to give advice but to help reflect, help with process. However “What should I do?!” is one of my professional weaknesses.
- Too often I head off into advices:
- Try to not reassure, but give Empathy for how she must be feeling….“I tried that.”
- …and be in charge of yourself so there are not TWO dysregulated people in the room…
- “I did that.”
- ….and remember that the more you want to get away from her, the more she needs you nearby….
- “I remembered that.”
- Finally I heard myself rattling off ‘advice’ to an emotionally exhausted parent who needed my empathy for himself – my empathy for how he was feeling, my empathy for how hard he was trying, and my empathy for his own unresolved past traumas.
- I apologized.
- Beginning with the last item, this father’s own traumatic past left him determined to keep things positive for his own child. He dealt with his despair by disallowing any ambivalent feelings of his own such as resentment, until it burst and he would lash out verbally, after which he felt horrible.
- Thus when he felt frustrated at his child’s blind, out-of-control behavior, he would bury his frustration so that it came out sideways – tearful pleadings with his daughter to “Tell me what’s wrong so I can help you!!” and “What is it you want!?”
- And when she of course could not explain herself on a conscious level, but kept expressing her sense of shame and worthlessness preverbally and violently, he would eventually blow up in exasperation, desperately wanting to help.
- This explosion would leave him burdened with shame and fear that he had wounded his child. However it sometimes had the paradoxical effect of calming his child. At last she could finally see in this repressed father some real feelings she could trust.
- I now had a helpful map of their double-bind. In a double-bind, people are stuck in a dilemma: feeling bad if they act, and equally bad if they do nothing. Lose-lose, what do you choose?
- Father could try to be direct about his own anger and resentment, but then would beat himself up for expressing negative feelings to a child, his suffering daughter no less. Or he could keep repressing his own resentments and continue to feel unable to connect to her in her own struggles.
- The daughter was also in a double bind: When I get scared that I’m not lovable, my dad doesn’t get it and wants me to explain it and tell him what I need. But I have no idea how to articulate that stuff – I’m just a kid! — so my sense of being not good enough increases….(begin again)….
- Finally, as the therapist, I also enter the double bind (though I am the one who can best reflect productively on the experience of being there.) Heck, I offered this father my best ideas and advice, yet was repeatedly dismissed with “I tried that.”
- Rather than start arguing with father about whether or not he ‘tried that’ the proper way, my path forward is to recognize my privileged position. I am experiencing what the father AND his daughter experience – frustration, helplessness, hopelessness and the resentment at doing ones best and receiving no results, appreciation or recognition. If my ‘best’ was not good enough for father, perhaps I am not good enough.
- When I can reflect on this, perhaps right away or later in clinical consultation, I feel honored to have been allowed to experience their stuck system for myself. I am grateful for an inside view of the emotional challenge which faces father: to find a way to tolerate standing with old intolerable feelings and reflecting from that place until it is safe for his daughter to recognize her own feelings in him, allowing her to sense (over time) that there is less need to maintain the fierce, defensive walls between them.
- This is the therapeutic potential of allowing ourselves to sit inside any client’s paralyzing double-bind. Just not for too long.
A 12 y.o. adoptee was brought in for bully behavior at school and at home. He was intimidating his new parents and classmates, and was recently charged with bringing a weapon to school — a sharpened stick which he could both use to threaten and technically argue that ‘it isn’t a weapon’. He loved to debate like a lawyer with anyone who would listen – but his strategy was to never give up because his goal was to always win.
The school psychologist had tried a shaming tough-guy approach. He called the boy “a creep!” This attempt to isolate by shame was gasoline on the flames of the child’s negative internal working model. (Since I’m so bad that even the helpers reject me, I’ll go for the gold – ‘success’ is now to be the worst kid ever.)
Because of a long early history of abject maltreatment, he had learned to recreate the “bad kid” response in the eyes of caretakers and other adults in charge. Using kids’ normal, unsound logic – which never gives up a point because they are really craving our attention and closeness – he would engage adults in endless arguments where he would always ‘prove’ the adult to be wrong, unfair, hypocritical, or otherwise unfit.
I think this re-creation in others of the intense feelings of rejection and inadequacy from his own early years displayed the bully’s signature brilliance of forcing others to feel his unresolved feelings for him.
When we were introduced, this boy saw me as simply the latest challenge for his undefeated debating skills. He looked me grimly in the eye.
“So. Do you believe in Creationism?”
Five possible responses were immediately on my plate. But he would have been familiar with only four of them.
A. “Uh…well, I….uh….haven’t really studied it…”
B. “What — now you want to argue religion?! What next!!”
C. “I’m asking the questions here, Buster!”
D. “Yes.” [or “No.”]
My fifth option was to go relational. I could reflect with complete acceptance, AND include my feelings of being at risk of losing a potential friend – a place he had been so many times:
E. [with feeling] “Wow, you want to know my personal beliefs! (Acceptance) Now I’m afraid of giving the wrong answer, because then you might not like me; I like you a lot, but I’m afraid you won’t like ME if I don’t answer right……What am I going to do?! [etc.]”
This was empathic mirroring of the child’s own unspoken fears from similar situations in the past. As we talked, I repeated this in various combinations and permutations, until to argue with me was to reject his own long-sought yearning to be accepted.
As Dan Hughes once pointed out with a smile, “It’s hard for any of us to reject for very long being totally accepted for who we are in this moment.”
- A very good lawyer, who was a kind, single parent of two young children, once shared his anxiety that, “I don’t understand kids — I don’t know what they need. I’m afraid I’ll make a mistake.”
- Thoughtful, gentle……and serious.
- I offered the following short version of children, recalled here as best I can:
- Barring very unusual situations — like at the extreme ends of the relational spectrum — what most kids need, bottom line, are two things from at least one safe adult (preferably a caretaker, but not necessarily):
- 1) pay attention
(“She thinks about me.” “She remembers me.” “She asks about me.” “She keeps me in her thoughts!”)
- 2) care enough to be in charge
(“She has boundaries she won’t let me cross.” “She sets limits for me.” “She corrects me.” “She has rules I am expected to follow!”)
- If the adult is safe and reasonably consistent, the affected child will likely be okay –- able to learn appropriate dependence as they grow. (I.e., they feel safely contained by and connected to a safe, caring adult.)
- Later, as adults themselves, they can transform that safe childhood experience of appropriate, vertical dependence on caretakers -– think caterpillar metamorphosis -– into a safe, mutual, horizontal, adult interdependence with a partner.
- I.e., achieving dependence as a dependent child supports appropriate interdependence as an independent adult. Conversely, it can be hard to manage adult interdependence if we failed to experience safe dependence in childhood.
- Sexual boundaries make sense in this context. Whereas the childhood dependent relationship with an adult makes overt sexual relations developmentally premature for the child and pathologically exploitative for the adult, the later, interdependent relationships of adults can accommodate overt and mutually enthusiastic sexual relations.
- Sometimes adults show up for counseling with their own early, unresolved issues getting in the way of parenting the way they would like. We may end up working with the parent or caretaker to resolve this, and it can take time. It may require an extended, boundaried counseling relationship with a safe therapist who can stay empathic to the testing and stumbles which were never allowed or possible during childhood.
- Because children slowly but progressively develop their independence and identities as people, infants will need more physical care, while older children will need more social and emotional care and attention to their increasingly complex inner thoughts, feelings and concerns.
- Finally, as adolescents, they re-introduce us adults to the exciting-frustrating integration of living in the home while working on peer and other outside relationships. (Who am I really? How do I fit in? How do I get physically close outside my family in ways that feel safe and good?)
- Sorry, is that more than you asked? I asked.
- “Wow, no, that’s really helpful!” said the lawyer. “Thanks!”
3. “What about setting limits and boundaries?”
Limits and boundaries mixed with sincere appreciation of the young person’s inner life (their thoughts and feelings) is something which young folks desperately need from adults. Their early childhood experience of rules, boundaries and limits from adults who cared about them (and for them) is their best chance to internalize a sense of safety and security later in life. Rules mean structure, and structure is a form of attention. (This is why children usually enjoy school.) Teens, of course, need to push, challenge, and test the rules all over again. They can evade and avoid rules and even brag about it, but what counts ten years later is that adults never changed the rules or limits under pressure or threat. “You returned an hour late. I am not happy. I expect better from you. And the rule stays the same.” Done. Don’t apologize, and don’t explain twice. (Saying it twice is lecturing.)
Put another way, kids who grow up learning that ‘rules don’t apply to me’ stumble into adulthood without key skills in self-control and self-discipline. They usually work out their impulses and emotional needs against police, mental health agencies, and other systems of authority for floundering adults.
4. “What are appropriate expectations?”
Appropriate expectations increase with age, and are best set slightly higher than a young person’s emotional age inside. (A growth challenge.) Does that make sense?
Try increasing choice, freedom and options. When they test and take advantage, you can apologize for moving too fast, and dial things back a notch. An adult’s job is to help young people grow at a pace appropriate to their emotional stage. And to do it without shaming.
Struggling young person?
Is the teen still denying, projecting, and hiding, as if much younger? Dial down the choices, freedom, and independence because they are crying for more structure, limits, and eyes-on supervision until they can catch up emotionally. And do this without shaming. Finally, the same young person may swing from one extreme to the other and back in a matter of days. Be prepared.
5. “What about suspending judgment?”
Openly judging actions, choices and events is important in a democratic society. However, judging people is best done discretely because people need one anothers support and encouragement to stay connected in community and to grow through struggles.
Put another way, when I am struggling and making quite a mess of it (“It’s all your fault!!”) what is most helpful is to continue to see a better image of me in your eyes as you continue to relate to me and share your observations. A judgment from you, on the other hand, can nail my sense of myself to my worst and hardest moments.
1. “What Does It Mean to Listen?”
Parents who listen are paying attention to both the words and the feelings, because a parent’s role is a) to keep their young person in their thoughts (I love to learn about you and your life; I can’t learn enough), and b) to care enough to respond at any given moment with a brief mix of support and limit-setting. Parents then keep paying attention so they can respond in a timely way when the limits are tested. If this sounds hard, it is probably because we did not have it modeled enough when we were young people.
Tip: “It’s my job to keep you safe,” (i.e. like the dog) is less helpful than talking relationally. “I want so much to feel close to you.” Of course, you may expect snarly in return. But speaking relationally out loud is what counts.
Bigger tip: Reassuring (“It will be okay,”) is less helpful than giving Empathy (“That sounds hard; I’m sorry it’s hard,”) and Curiosity (“How did you find out? Huh. What did you do then?”).
Young people who listen are highly sensitive to three things: a) the word “but”, b) feeling judged, and c) lectures.
a) Try “and” instead of “but”. In most cases it works.
b) Judging others can sneak up on us, as in “constructive criticism”, arguing about who is right, and compliments! Compliments are judgments with a positive coating. Try starting compliments by asking, “May I give you a compliment?” It feels very respectful to be asked before being judged, either positively or negatively.
c) At about word three of a lecture, young people stop listening. We all do.
2. “What is respect?”
Respect is an attitude which reflects our perception of worthiness. To respect a person reflects my own respect for myself. If my history gave me enough positive images of myself as I was seen in the eyes of others (especially adult role models), I will have internalized a sense of self-respect; and I can give respect to others with little difficulty.
If I show a lack of respect (i.e., disrespectful behavior) that is often my hidden request for help. I may also have a rule that I don’t deserve any help, so while asking indirectly for help I will also reject attempts to help me. Welcome to my confusion. Please find a way to help. Your motives are good.
(Next blog: “What about setting limits and boundaries?” and “What are appropriate expectations?”)
- Occasionally someone will call to ask how long emotion-focused therapy for their child would take if they were to come in. I find two variables affect this.
- One variable is the severity of the child’s current and previous dysregulation. I.e., what is the width and depth of disruption so far?
- The other variable is the capacity of the adult attachment figures to apply therapeutic parenting at home between sessions. I.e., can they manage to shift to counter-intuitive responses when provoked? Can they shift to time-ins instead of time-outs? Shift to empathy versus reassurance? Can they privilege preverbal and relational messages over cognitive logic? (One adoptive father declared, “It’s like thinking backwards – and then it works!”)
- Not every parent is ready to do this immediately.
- Let me illustrate with two examples – one a typically short case, and one lengthy.
- Typically short case:
- A child adopted from overseas was doing fine in his new home until parents decided to adopt a second child. He then regressed to his old orphanage behaviors. Parents called for help.
- Parents were first seen without the child, to help them focus on his underlying fear (fear of abandonment, fear of being exchanged or replaced, fear of not being good enough, etc.) Then they practiced how to respond to the child with P.A.C.E. instead of reassurance. I.e., “You will be alright” does not reduce anxiety, but Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity and Empathy do. (But postpone playfulness if a child is upset. They hear it as sarcasm.)
- Then they brought the child in for family sessions. Because he was nervous – (thinking Now I’m in for it!) – we let him just sit between parents on the couch and listen like a very young child is allowed to do. He could soak up the safe atmosphere of feeling wanted, surrounded, contained, and clearly in our thoughts as we talked kindly (with PACE) about him, his struggles, and the fears driving his acting out. The adult talk finally met and matched the needs of his inner thoughts and feelings! He felt secure and accepted again, and we were done in four sessions, plus parenting homework.
- Typically longer case:
- An adopted child with a history of severe maltreatment in Maine was brought into therapy by his new parents in Vermont. He was picking fights and seeking conflict with everyone. The adoptive parents were raised harshly themselves and continued to take everything personally. They were easily hooked into big surface conflicts about behavior.
- I spent much time shoring up these parents, helping them to depersonalize things they had long ago learned to personalize. “His behavior is not about you. It’s a message about his inner life – his thoughts, feelings from the past….but you must feel so frustrated, having to work so hard!”
- Two years later the child is stable in school (schools are structured to meet children’s needs), but only a bit more secure at home. Parents feel a little less rejected, but still have ambivalence about their decision to adopt.
Increasing control is a common and logical response to rising anxiety. Yet sometimes reducing anxiety by increasing control can get out of hand, hurting relationships through pain and confusion. At a meta-social level, author Alan Johnson points out that men in a patriarchy find the fastest path to control is violence. (“Don’t make me hurt you…” “She threatened to take the kids, and I lost it….”)
Children can also project commands, threats, and other attempts to find safety through control. My first experience with such a child occurred early in my job at a Canadian mental health clinic.
A lovely but angry nine-year-old girl was brought in by her legal guardian. As usual, I asked the safe adult attachment figure – in this case the guardian — to stay in the room with us. [The four major benefits to this will be listed in a future essay.] And as usual, I accepted the child’s symptoms as clues to what she had been through. I knew from her history that she had grown up between divorced parents. She visited one parent who would avoid her strong feelings as much as possible (resembling the “dismissive” adult attachment style). And she lived with the other parent who treated her sometimes warmly and sometimes coldly, depending on her own mood (similar to a “preoccupied” adult attachment style.)
Consequently, the girl’s rude demands and commands in session were accepted as invaluable clues to her own attempts to make sense of her confusing history. The challenge for me was to respond with Acceptance, Curiosity and Empathy — versus either opposition or cooperation. (Note: it is best to avoid Playfulness with an upset child. It can sound a lot like sarcasm.)
With children like this girl, who bullies, my initial hypothesis (to be tested) is usually that she is trying to put her anger and frustration into others, where she can observe it outside herself – giving her a rare moment’s relief from experiencing those feelings within, 24/7. Peter Fonagy in the U.K. explains in a brilliant essay that the bullying person can experience brief relief from their own internalized shame and terror by forcing those feelings onto another person, whom they can then attack, drive away or even kill in an attempt to be rid of the feeling forever. (Note the routine daily news of murdered women in patriarchal societies.)
I did not have long to wait.
“Robert! Sit over in that chair!”
I let my jaw drop and outwardly reflected my experience of HER inner sadness and scaredness which she was trying to relieve by commanding ME. Matching her ‘vitality affect’ (Daniel Stern’s fine term), I used her commanding voice, but my words.
“You want me to change chairs! And if I do, you hope that you feel better! And I so want you to feel better!”
At first she registered only my failure to obey. “Go!! Sit there!!”
I continued to keep my voice loud, like hers, but my words empathic, like mine. “And if I don’t sit there, you’ll get more upset!! Oh dear!! I feel terrible!” I appeared visibly and audibly distressed — loud and vulnerable and without mocking sarcasm. I was reflecting from a stuck place, a spot she had experienced so many times in her short life.
“GO!! SIT THERE!!” The only response to non-compliance this girl had ever learned was her parent’s escalation.
Without mocking (practice this), I continued to mirror her affect (her outer expression of her inner feeling) and reflect on how it was affecting me as I cared about her. This ability to reflect is something she should have learned early in life, instead of being made to feel ashamed of her own feelings.
Me: “Now I am stuck!! I want you to be happy, because I like you, but if I don’t do what you want, I’m scared that I’ll disappoint you and then you won’t like ME!!!”
Being one-third my size, she did not try to push me, but she did try the other parent’s response: abandonment. Looking away she announced, “I’m ignoring you.”
I then shared my sadness at feeling ignored by her, whom I liked, and said in a hopeful, lonely voice that I hoped she would talk to me again soon! (This modeled for her how to articulate a complex relationship with feeling. I suspect she had never heard this before.)
She suddenly became vulnerable herself. “You’re scaring me, Robert!…..You know how come I’m afraid of you?”
Me: “How come you’re afraid of me?!” (Repeating her phrase tells her both that I’m listening, and avoids distracting from the huge window she is about to open onto her own thoughts and feelings.)
“Because,” she nearly spit in self-protective anger, “I WAS TREATED LIKE A LITTLE STUPID IDIOT MY WHOLE ENTIRE LIFE!!!”
I quickly reflected my feelings, while matching her vitality affect. “I AM SO SORRY TO HEAR THAT!!!” And I continued to share my own affective response to the thought of a child being treated like a ‘little stupid idiot’ her whole entire life. Almost wailing I said, “Oh! I am sad to think of you being treated that way!!”
Then, I introduced my curiosity: “What did you do?! How did you cope?” (Note: It sometimes requires a cool hand at the tiller to steer away from knee-jerk reassurances such as, “You’re NOT an idiot! How could anybody treat you like that!!?” But reassurance shuts down feelings, while I wanted to articulate her need for a way out – What shall I do? How shall I cope!?)
Now she deepened into her memory but still could not differentiate her inner life (remembering the past) from her outer life (being here now). She could not yet reflect from the safe emotional present, as most adults do. She was still emotionally in the past, stuck in the memories and trying to manage her old feelings by making others change (“instrumental” use of affect) instead of describing her feelings to deepen connection (“signal” use of affect).
Suddenly she glowered fiercely at me. “If you ever hit anybody in my family – I’ll shove that notepad down your throat!!”
That was low-hanging emotional fruit, for which I was extremely grateful. It is important to not waste it with the following abstractions: (‘How do you think that makes ME feel!?’) would demand of her a complex ability to feel empathy for others. (‘I can teach you to relax and let go of those old hurts.’) would go prematurely to cognitive solutions while she is stuck in a state of highly dysregulated emotion; I would be abandoning her in freefall with her scary feelings. Such a response would be congruent with van der Kolk’s theme of The Body Keeps the Score, emphasizing meditation and other pulse-slowing approaches to stored childhood trauma. Yet this path would be premature to where she was in this moment. I still had to establish safety, and co-regulation of her affect.
Accepting the low-hanging emotional fruit (“…I’ll shove that notepad down your throat”) I match her harsh vitality affect again: “(gasp!) Somebody shoved something down your throat!!”
Immediately she is able to reflect on the past, protected by the empathy I am giving her in the present.
“Instead of spanking me every time I was naughty I had to bite into the bar of soap and chew it and swallow it! And I didn’t get any water!”
She is tearing up. And as I imagine being her being made to eat soap, my own eyes fill, I bite my lip, and my mouth turns deeply down in empathy.
She looks at the ceiling. “And if you cry, Robert, I’ll burst out into tears!!!”
For the rest of our session we had trust. I had helped her feel understood beneath all her fierce threats, by responding only to the feelings under the behavior, and responding preverbally (voice, facial expression, mirroring affect) instead of with cognitive insight.
Co-regulated at last, this aggressive child was finally free to reflect on her life from a safe, outside perspective, something parents usually, unconsciously, provide to children from birth onward.
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.”)