How To Cope With Your Client’s “Stuff”

In my recent article ‘Is your client poisoning you?‘ I wrote about the potential interactions between client and therapist and said

‘Afterwards I do work to dismantle those unhelpful reactions in me (this is why ongoing self-development and clinical supervision is so important for therapists).’

However, I didn’t say what I do to work with those reactions, sometimes referred to as transference and counter-transference.

Before I start: a short note readers who are not therapists.

I wrote this article for therapists, if you are a lay person who wants to get the best out of this article, I need to explain what this is all about, especially if you are a client or thinking about becoming a client.

In spite of what you may think, or have been led to believe, therapists are human beings just like everybody else. Hopefully they have been well trained and have many therapeutic skills, which is why you might want to see one in the first place.

But like all humans they are a work in progress and need to monitor their work and nurture their development to do the best they can for their clients.

In this article I discuss three ways that I use to improve my clinical practice so I can do the best for my clients. Other therapists use other approaches.

Now, back to the article.

In my opinion there are three essential practices that help you keep your therapeutic relationships clear and helpful:

1. Eliminate Limiting Beliefs

Find and eliminate all the unhelpful ideas that may be floating in the back of your mind that will impact on your work with clients.

Here is a small selection of some of the ones I found (and resolved) over the years in my own professional development work.

  • I don’t know what I am doing
  • I have to get it right first time
  • I am afraid of being overwhelmed by clients
  • I am responsible for my client’s feelings

Beliefs like this are very dis-empowering and are well worth eliminating because they lie around like little land-mines waiting to be triggered.

Unfortunately rooting out these beliefs is easier said than done, because, if you could see them easily you would have taken care of them by now.

See How To Find Your Limiting Beliefs With Just One Word! for suggestions or check out Getting Out Of Your Own Way for a more thorough system of belief resolution.

2. Get Clinical Supervision

In my opinion this a must for anyone working as a therapist. It is very difficult for us to see what’s going on because we are in the thick of it.

Having an experienced therapist on the outside of the situation as a guide helps us to reflect on what is going on and to get new ideas for ways to go forward, as we continue to learn.

A clinical supervisor acts as a safety net for both clients and therapist alike.

3. Use Effective Self Supervision.

Between supervision sessions you are left to your own devices. One process that I find very helpful is 3 Perspective Tapping. It is a step by step approach to neutralising unhelpful patterns of reaction and interaction using imagination and tapping.

I originally developed this blend of NLP and EFT for use with clients to help them clean up their interactions with the ‘difficult’ people in their lives, but it works really well to unpack and resolve difficulties in therapeutic relationships, especially those currents that are running just below the surface out of conscious awareness.

Using The 3 Perspectives Tapping Process

In this process you use your imagination to explore what is going on for you and the client (who isn’t present) by marking out three positions on the floor in the form of a triangle. Each position is about a couple of paces apart. I use two chairs facing each other and a third chair as a position for the observer.

To illustrate the process I’m going to ‘role-play on paper’ a scenario with an imaginary client to illustrate how the process works in the therapeutic situation. I’m going to call this fictitious client Mike.

When I met Mike, my first impression was that he was quite fragile although in good health and about the same age as me.

I noticed during our first session together that I was being very careful and cautious when I was working with him, in a way that was quite different to my usual style.

After this session with Mike I decided to use the 3 Perspective Tapping process to work out what was going on between us and how I could change it.

I arranged my chairs in a triangle formation and sat in the ‘therapists chair’ and looked at the ‘client’s chair’, imagining the client sitting there, being himself.

Using this procedure will typically provoke thoughts, feelings and reactions in me which I can work on using EFT.

In this case let’s say I had the thought ‘he is fragile and weak’ mixed in with a little anger.

I tapped on those reactions using ‘Even though he is fragile and weak, I accept myself and how I feel’ as the set-up statement. A couple of rounds of tapping using the reminder phrase ‘fragile and weak’ removed the charge on that perception.

Note: This process requires that you are very aware of what is going on in your own reactions and responses and that you can accept and work with what you find. However since this is what you expect your clients to be doing it’s not unreasonable to expect it of yourself also.

Then I checked again by ‘looking’ at ‘Mike’ to see if there were any other reactions being triggered. There was no residual charge so I could move on.

Then I got up and sat down in the chair I use for the observer. From this dispassionate perspective I imagined myself and Mike sitting opposite one another and observed the quality of the relationship between them.

From this observer’s perspective I could see that I (as the therapist) was frightened of challenging him. I tapped out this reaction using ‘Even though he is frightened of challenging him, I accept him and how he feels’ as the set up statement.

Notice that I tapped on behalf of that other me in the third person as if it was somebody else, as I would if I really was an independent observer looking on.

When the charge on that had dissolved I looked again how I and my client were interacting.

I noticed that they were walking on eggshells. Another round of tapping using ‘Even though they are walking on eggshells, I accept them both and how they feel’ took care of that.

With those aspects cleared I moved from the observer’s position to the client’s chair, as I sat on it I imagined sitting down ‘into’ my client’s experience. Imagining how this situation appeared to him from his own perspective.

The thought ‘I am incredibly weak’ arose in my mind. So I tapped out this perception using the set-up phrase ‘Even though I am incredibly weak, I accept myself and how I feel’. When the charge on this statement was cleared. I, as the client, imagined looking over at myself as the therapist and noticing if there were any untoward reactions.

A thought arose that ‘He is judging me’. I tapped out this perception with a few rounds of EFT and checked again, this time there were no reactions.

I returned to the observer position to check how the relationship was. There were no apparent glitches so I moved back into myself as the therapist.

When I was back in my own seat ‘looking’ at the client I felt much more relaxed and open, the previous uncertainty and inhibition was gone.

When we met in person for the next session, I was much more direct and helpful and my client seemed much more robust than he had at the first.

Even though Mike is an imaginary character and this is an invented scenario, this account is typical of the kinds of thought processes that can be uncovered and resolved using EFT.

You could ask: Aren’t you making up all these reactions and perceptions?

All these interactions are going on in your head not the real world.

The answer is yes but it probably doesn’t matter for two reasons:

First, if you have any degree of empathy (and if you don’t what on earth are you doing being a therapist?) then you will have at least some reasonable understanding of other people’s experience to go on.

Second, your reactions in the session are going to be to your ideas and projections of what that client is like anyway.

Think of a difficult client for a moment.

Notice your reactions to them as you think about them. You probably get a similar reaction when you are with them in person.

The fact that you can get these reactions without being with them in person tells you that these reactions are due to your inner representations of this client as much as to the client in reality.

In this process you are changing your inner representations of the client so your reactions and behaviour will be different when you are with them in person.

You could ask: Isn’t this process going to take hours for each client?

No, because once you have addressed this particular kind of entanglement you will be much less snagged by it in the future, so that all your future encounters of this type will be smoother and easier.

Although it takes a little time to run this process, in the long run it will make you a better therapist.

If you don’t do it then you run the risk of being snagged and snagged again by the same kinds of triggers. How much trouble is that going to be.

I have used the 3 Perspectives Tapping process many times to untangle therapeutic relationships that seemed to be off balance in some way.

Each time I have learnt something about myself and the client and been able to respond in a better way. It’s been a valuable part of my work to become a more effective, less entangled therapist.

Image courtesy of Cea

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