It was my first year as a therapist and I’ll admit, I didn’t know what I was doing. School had taught me how to diagnose, provide interventions, and write assessments, but shockingly did not prepare me for interacting with my own clients. This was unfortunately something I had to learn on my own through trial and error. One day I was seeing a client in my little office, and the client was very angry. Angry at his parents, angry at the system, and angry at me for being perceived as part of that “system”. The client yelled, raged, and carried on for quite some time. One of the few things I was taught was that I should provide empathy and unconditional positive regard. I interpreted this as meaning that I should just sit there and take the client’s abuse, so I did. By the end of the session I was able to get the client to calm down, so I took this as a sort of “success”. Afterwards my supervisor stepped into the office and asked me what happened. I explained that the client was angry but I got him to calm down by the end of the session, so I felt good about that. My supervisor then told me something very important,
Marina, it’s not your job to be tortured.
This will probably sound strange, but up until that moment I thought it was my job to be tortured. We therapists often think it’s in our job description to be martyrs. Client’s “vent” and we’re supposed to sit there and take it, right? And of course, this isn’t just something that’s limited to first-year therapists. A lot of very experienced therapists think that this is how therapy works. A lot of clients think this too. But my thinking on this has changed a lot and I think yours should to. As therapists we are given the unique opportunity to provide a corrective experience for the client. We have the opportunity to model to them what a functional relationship looks like, one based off of mutual respect. I think this is a very important and healing experience for the client. For some of my clients, I am the first person they have been able to have a functioning relationship with. For me to take disrespectful behaviors from them, in a way would be saying that that’s okay. Now I ask you, what kind of “therapy” is it when you teach your client it’s okay to be disrespectful or inappropriate to other people?
I have actually had a few clients take issue with me demanding mutual respect from them. In times like these I’ll often bring up “If I did this to you, you would fire me as your therapist.”
“Then why is it okay for you to act this way if it’s not okay for me to?”
“Because you’re the therapist and I’m the client”
“And what kind of therapist would I be if I allowed you to treat people in ways that were not beneficial to you?”
Most of the time the client gets it, but sometimes they don’t, and that’s okay. I still feel that I provided a corrective experience for them, more therapeutic than if I simply allowed myself to be a punching bag as their therapist. I’m sure they will treat their next therapist differently after having had this experience. And that’s where the real therapy begins; in a therapeutic relationship based off of courtesy and mutual respect. And I do mean it when I say that the client’s inappropriate behavior is not beneficial to them. If the therapist is feeling abused, most likely the client’s family, friends, and coworkers are feeling abused as well. This is why modeling a healthy relationship to the client is so important.
It’s also important to you as a therapist. You deserve respect and happiness just as much as your clients do. Being a punching bag benefits no one and will surely lead to burnout. Whenever I feel uncertain about a client’s behavior I ask myself “If I did this, would the client fire me as their therapist?” If the answer is yes, I feel that I have just cause to confront the client about their behavior and set boundaries. If the client continues to violate boundaries, it may be time to let the client go. As much as I believe in leaving firing as a last resort, I believe there is still a valuable lesson for the client to learn in it that may be beneficial. Namely that their are consequences to our behaviors. When there are consequences that people don’t like, they tend to change.