Lately I’ve noticed that people have been finding my blogs by searching things like “when you hate your clients” or “What to do about terrible clients?” Since I don’t have any blog posts on this subject, I thought I should address it. Now, I’m not sure if these people are therapists or not, but I’m sure there are therapists out there that are struggling with “difficult” clients. If you are such a therapist, I want you to ask yourself why you think that is. Do you take any ownership for your client’s upsetting behaviors or do you think it’s purely the client’s fault? True, some clients are really just difficult, but I think that there is a lot the therapist can do to improve the situation. Have you ever heard the saying “No one can mistreat you unless you let them?” The same is true for therapists! If you don’t like the way your clients are treating you, it’s because you are letting them treat you badly.
I was talking with some medical doctors recently and they were complaining about the way their patients act. Now, let me start off by saying that I’m a very courteous and respectful person. I would never intentionally disrespect a service provider, be them a doctor or waitress. Surprisingly, I realized that the things they were complaining about were things I do! I told them that as a patient I had no idea that what I was doing was annoying to doctors, no one had ever told me no to do these things, etc. The doctors responded by saying “Oh come on, these things are common sense!” I realized then that there are a lot of things we therapists expect from our clients that we think are common sense, but our clients have no idea. If your clients are doing things that you find annoying or upsetting, you should let them know that you would prefer that they did otherwise. They probably had no idea that what they were doing was so upsetting.
Setting boundaries with your clients (letting them know what’s okay and what’s not okay) is the first step to having better clients. You can start by writing these boundaries down in your office policies and then reminding the client of the policy again if they violate it. Setting boundaries doesn’t have to be harsh or mean. I find it better if you explain the policy matter of factly and then explain why you have the boundary. I’ve found that once the client understands why it is important to you, they don’t violate the boundary again. Never assume something is “common sense” or that the client can some how read your mind. They can’t.
I think it’s important to remember that just because we’re therapists doesn’t mean we deserve to be tortured. We deserve to be happy just like our clients do. If your clients are doing things that are making you happy, have a frank discussion with the client about the situation. If the client doesn’t change and is truly making your life miserable, it may be necessary to let the client go. However, I would never fire a client before having a talk with them about what changes they need to make specifically. Does setting boundaries with clients sound too selfish? I don’t think it is. If the client is having difficulty interacting with the therapist in a mutually respectful manner, they are probably having problems with other people in their life. Setting limits may be a very important lesson for them in how to interact with people. You could even consider it therapeutic.
Just remember: you are not a victim here. If your clients are causing problems for you, it is probably because you haven’t set firm boundaries with them. You have a responsibility to teach your clients how to treat you.