Are you a patient or a client?

Kimberly Mathis, LMFT on Jun 11, 2018 in Treatment Orientation

Clients often call asking to make a “new patient appointment,” though I never use the term "patient" when talking about the individuals who work with me. Let’s talk about the impact of words on the therapeutic relationship and how that relationship manifests in my own practice.

What is the difference between a "client" and a "patient"?

While it may not seem like an important distinction to everyone, the term that I use to refer to people working with me can tell you a lot about how I view the help I offer.

The term “patient,” is medical in nature, and often suggests that there is a) a diagnosis, b) something to be “treated,” and c) a professional in a position of power in which he/she is the expert deciding on and providing appropriate treatment.

Using the term “client” refers to my core belief that individuals are the ultimate experts on their own lives. You have the right to choose what you feel is best for your life, and I respect your autonomy. While a diagnosis can be helpful in providing insight and context, I greatly value the philosophy that individuals’ problems are not always illnesses to be cured, but rather social and emotional difficulties to be clarified and solved using the input of that individual.

What does this look like in session?

Partnership: We work together. I check in with you to see how the process is working for you, and if there is something we need to do differently. I also check in with you to see if suggestions or comments I make feel helpful or like a good fit. Likewise, you’re also welcome to jump in at any moment to clarify something, change direction, or tell me when I’ve said something that doesn’t sit well with you.

Focus on Strengths: We talk about things that get in your way, but we also talk about all of your strengths and how you can better lean on them to help you gain the life you want. You’re not broken, or weak, or incapable.

Validation: Your experiences, your feelings, and your beliefs are all normal and important to openly talk about. The conversation won’t be about whether these things are right or wrong, but about whether or not they are helping or hindering you.

Self-Disclosure: This is a tricky subject among therapists and counselors, because who wants to pay for a session only to have the therapist talk about the bad day they’re having? Nobody, that’s who. But because I believe in a partnership between therapist and client, it’s helpful for my clients to know that I’m a person too – I have good and bad days, I don’t always respond to situations the way I wish I had, and I’ve had many great – and also difficult – experiences in my life. I believe that the careful and intentional sharing of stories can be an extremely effective way to validate another’s experiences, and to normalize feelings and thoughts.

Your Timeline and Goals: Again, you are ultimately in charge. I will, of course, provide suggestions for topics and areas of growth, but all suggestions are based on your goals for change. And unless there is a concern for your safety or well-being, you’ll get to decide how often you have sessions and how long you want to work with me.

The way your counselor or therapist talks about their relationship with you can be significant.

There is no "right" or "wrong" way to refer to an individual looking for counseling, but you'll learn a lot about a professional by observing their language. Ultimately, it's just more information to help you decide who might be a good fit for your personality, your reasons for seeking counseling, and your goals.

Kimberly Mathis is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in Chattanooga, TN.

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