The difficult client, or is that the therapist?

Anyone counsellor will tell you that the work is hard. Some sessions may be exciting and invigorating, while others are draining and discouraging. Over the years, I’ve seen the occasional client whom I felt ill equipped to help due to the nature of the presenting concerns or simple personality differences. In these situations, therapists often presume the client is being difficult, but what if the therapist is inadequate?

Allow me to betray my own confidentiality here. Many years ago, as I was finishing my clinical training, I sought help because I wasn’t coping well following a series of break ins. I nervously attended my first session with this psychologist I knew nothing about. She was very nice and I’m sure very competent but I knew within the first session that we couldn’t work together. I learned a lot from this experience both as a client and as a therapist.

Adult hand shown finger painting

I can assure you that this is not my hand.

The psychologist asked me, at age 29, to draw my feelings. I refused politely. I can’t imagine how she understood my noncompliance, but I trust she was relieved when I didn’t rebook. I don’t know if I could have worked things out with that therapist because I didn’t address my discomfort directly with her. In retrospect, I regret my cowardice.

I don’t draw because it’s not a way I express myself. I have never been artsy or craftsy. Although I can colour within the lines, I can’t make the lines myself. Even as an adult, when J. and I leave sidewalk-chalked notes for the neighbourhood kids, J. draws the dog pictures and I fill in the cartoon bubbles. The visual arts are not my thing.

If this same psychologist had asked you to draw your feelings at 5 or 25 or 50, you might have felt immediately at ease. Maybe you’re not a talker; maybe you prefer to express your feelings in other ways. This psychologist might have been the perfect fit for you. She just wasn’t for me.

Over the years, I have had many clients who have come for just one session. Sometimes they’ve let me know they didn’t like my approach and wanted to go elsewhere, but most often they’ve not rebooked, just like I did with that psychologist.

The drawing incident seems insignificant in the retelling but its effect on me was profound. It helped me gain perspective on my challenging interactions with clients. I was trained to view a client as noncompliant or resistant if we were not working well together. What if, instead, my client didn’t feel comfortable with my approach? Maybe my feedback was poorly suited to that client or my intervention was poorly timed. Maybe I misjudged my client’s needs because I wasn’t listening carefully enough.

I carry this knowledge with me today. Just as that psychologist was not a good fit for me, and ultimately I found a therapist who let me talk about my feelings, I am not the best clinician for every client referred to me. After many years of questioning my competence, I think I’m finally okay with that.

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