Jeff Guenther on Mar 10, 2019
Today I released the second episode of my new podcast, Say More About That, and it got me thinking. In the first 30 seconds of the episode, a client recounts a time where her therapist knew exactly what to do. The therapist held emotional space and kept her words at a minimum while the client revealed something deeply shameful. Click play below to hear the clip. It’s pretty heavy. (Also click here to listen and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. All the episodes are illuminating. Especially for counselors that want a candid look at what clients really think of their therapists.)
The new episode goes on to talk about a therapist who was incredibly well matched with the client. The therapist knew when to speak up, shut up, push back, be caring or stay neutral. There was a natural and obvious chemistry and rapport in their relationship. The way the client in the podcast describes her relationship with her therapist sounds magical. As a therapist myself, I know the feeling of being in sync with a long-term client – and it’s a great feeling! And when I feel that connection and sink into it and trust it, what I say to a client can often seem profound. However, as meaningful as my words might be, the client needs to be open to receiving them. Over the course of my 15 year career, I’ve had a number of times where the stars were perfectly aligned to create a profound or particularly meaningful moment in session – as I’m sure you have to. The following examples stand out in my mind as times when I tried to be profound and it actually worked!
First of all, we all have a version of this phrase so I’m not going to take credit for it. However, it takes a bit of finesse, good timing and a solid relationship with your clients to pull it off. I had been seeing this couple for months. They originally came in to work on “communication” issues. Which actually meant they wanted to come in, have a fight in front of me and then have me pick a side. They imagined that’s what couples counseling was for. They’d state their arguments in front of me. They’d tear down their partner. And then I would announce the winner and they’d have to live with the decision. Simple enough. Of course that’s not what happens in couples counseling. And even if it did, I didn’t want to take either of their sides. So in the middle of their millionth fight in front of me, I finally stopped trying to get them to empathize with their partner’s feelings, butted in and sternly said, “would you rather be right or be connected?” I then went on a diatribe about how I can’t sit through their fights anymore and they were both acting like children and I feel bored every time I see them. A little harsh? Sure. But the question of being right verses being connected really resonated. They finally shut up and were able to connect with each other. I was able to re-use that question many times as their therapy continued and it always held the same weight.
Not too long ago I was working with a client I’d had for years. This client was great. He loved coming in. He asked for homework. He wrote things down in session. And he was always happy to see me. I felt like an awesome therapist. But eventually we hit a snag. His fiancée was complaining that he played too many video games. They had just moved in together and he wasn’t making space for her in his life. He was also putting off going to nursing school because he was comfortable at his job at the supermarket. In session, he started to complain about these things. He wanted his fiancés to get off his back. And he didn’t want to go to school if he was doing fine at his current job. He was in his early 30’s and I started to think of my clients in their 40’s that regretted not making changes in their lives a decade earlier. During one of his venting sessions, where he was saying he didn’t want to change, I interrupted and said, “Do you want to be an adult or would you rather stay a child forever?” That shook him. He didn’t like being compared to a child and I knew that. He sat there in silence for a while thinking about what I said. And then stated he’d rather be an adult.
Similar to the client in this week’s podcast episode, I was recently talking to a client that was filled with deep shame. The shame centered around one incident that happened as a child. It was a defining moment in his life that he had carried with him for over 25 years. And he hadn’t told anyone about it. It was the reason he came in to see me. The only problem was that he didn’t tell me it was the reason he came in until two years into counseling. And even after he revealed it was the original reason for seeking therapy, I had to tread lightly whenever it came up in session. Finally, after a new year’s resolution where he decided he had to tell me about it, he finally spilled the beans. He was nervous and scared and decided to speed through what had happened as a child. And to my surprise, it seemed incredibly anti-climactic. It was so shockingly mundane that the first thing out of my mouth was, “That’s it?!” And with that, all the shame, guilt, humiliation and embarrassment that he had been carrying for practically his whole life just melted away. He was shocked by my non-reaction. And because of that, he was able to let go and move on.
I guarantee that we have all had this client. It’s the client in a relationship who just can’t end it. For whatever reason, I kinda love these clients. I’ve been in relationships where I stayed way too long. I get what it feels like to feel trapped with someone and too scared to break it off. I can hold a ton of compassion for this client. But eventually you gotta be direct and challenge the client to take action. And that’s what I was doing with a client a few years ago. However, nothing I was saying or doing was working. The relationship was, by that point, obviously unhealthy – none of her needs were being met and she was being used and taken advantage of. I decided that I was going to start off the session instead of allowing her to take the lead. I began by saying, “why is it okay to be in a relationship with someone that doesn’t meet your needs and never will meet your needs?” I had said versions of this before, but I’m not sure I was ever this straightforward and direct. And the fact that I spoke up before she was even able to say hello to me somehow made my words feel important and resonate in a way they hadn’t before. We went on to have an honest and objective conversation about her toxic relationship and she was finally able to end it soon after that session.
First of all, I’m all for blaming parents. I used to work exclusively with children and without a doubt, the parents were the ones that created the vast majority of the problems the kids were struggling with. So if a client wants to blame their parents for their mental health issues, I’m on board! But there eventually comes a point where it gets a bit tiring and can impede growth and healing. A client of mine that has legitimate reasons to be disappointed in the care, or lack of care, he received from both parents was going off on them during a session. He blamed his intimacy issues and fear of getting close to people on the fact that his parents abandoned him multiple times in childhood. While it’s true that his romantic relationships were littered with defense mechanisms created by neglectful parents, he was way too attached to this narrative and wore the pain like a badge of honor. Which of course was annoying to his partners and deeply unattractive to most people. So in the middle of his latest rant about his crappy parents I said, “How much longer are we going to blame your parents? Because honestly I could do this forever. But you’ll never be in a healthy relationship until you let it go.” Even though my client’s first response was anger, he eventually let that statement sink in. Together, we were then able to move forward and figure out how to give his parents’ actions less power over his current relationships.
I love when I am able to connect with a client and figure out the right thing to do or say in the moment, and the therapist and client relationship described in this podcast episode is everything I aim for. Give it a listen and please subscribe to the podcast on whatever platform you use to listen!
Jeff Guenther, LPC, is a therapist in Portland, OR. He has been in private practice since 2005. Jeff is the creator and owner of Portland Therapy Center, a highly ranked therapist directory. Jeff, and his team, have launched a new progressive therapist directory, TherapyDen.