By Ashley Forrest, Spring 2012
We've been told all our lives to not take things personally; they're just jealous of you, they're insecure, they're this and that and blah blah blah! This was hard enough as a child, now fast forward 20 years and we're supposed to be performing this impossible feat with our clients?! It should be easy enough, just know that when they comment that you suck, it's only because they have issues with their parents. Or they only know how to get attention by being mean. Or they started using drugs at age 11 and even though they're now 45, they're emotionally stuck at that scary adolescent phase where they sit silently. How can one begin to NOT take a client verbally attacking you personally?
I had to ask myself this question when I set a limit with one of my clients at my practicum. Did I get the response, "Gee Ashley, I know what I did was not only against clinic policy, but also illegal and could jeopardize the funding of the clinic. I'm so grateful that you were concerned about me relapsing and reported my actions to your supervisor"…? NO! I got "Well I'm going to find a real therapist. You were pretty unprofessional, but it's ok…you're a student. You're still learning." Gah! How can you not take that personally?? I found myself in supervision flushed with embarrassment and concerned that I was a terrible therapist who had blown thousands of dollars on a career I sucked at. Thank goodness for my supervisor and colleagues who supported me and helped me view my client with a framework of empathy, compassion and understanding. Don't get me wrong-it was REALLY hard, but ultimately I was able to see a client who was pushing back against limits because he had had painful limits set on him his whole life (for many of our clients, this includes abuse) and who hadn't learned how to accept boundaries.
I attempted to maintain this view at our next session and low and behold- his words didn't have the same effect on me! I was nervous as all get out, but I found myself dodging his words like Jackie Chan dodges fists. I had built my first therapeutic wall! I've since had several moments in sessions where it was hard to block verbal attacks; some I've won and some I've lost. Ultimately, however, our growth as therapists will be similar to the growth we expect to see in our clients. When we're faced with difficult moments, it's important to extend the empathy, compassion, and understanding to ourselves as well.