Michael Soth thoroughly impressed us with his workshop on “How to Work When the Client’s Conflict Becomes the Therapist’s conflict”. We examined the issue of enactments, or impasses in the process of therapy, when we are suddenly feel the resounding weight of how our therapy will impact a client, and how their psychological issues will impact on ourselves. Akin to a therapist’s version of writer’s block, we discussed how best to overcome the feeling of being stuck.
It was a hugely informative day, and left us feeling reassured about how often we, as therapists, feel stuck.
How to Work When the Client’s Conflict Becomes the Therapist’s Conflict – Six Takeaways
1. Remember that the relationship is what is important
Therapy is a relationship between two people, and change happens within the relationship.
It is a common misconception that therapy is applying a theory or technique to somebody, and helping them to change (from point A to point B). This medical model misses the heart of what therapy is; a relationship where change can happen through shifts in the relationship dynamic. Most therapy happens between the right brain of both the client and the therapist, meaning that the learning that happens in therapy is embodied, and experiential.
2. Think of the client as a dynamic system in conflict with itself
It is a mistake to see the client as a broken individual that needs to be fixed.
The client is not a static object. The person sitting before you is not a ‘depressed person’ – it is better to think of a ‘depressing dynamic’ which is co-constructed between you and the client. The clients’ issues should be considered as a way the client relates, rather than a problem that lies within the client.
Consider that the client is a dynamic system, in conflict. We, as people, are in constant conflict between our habitual mode (the way we have learnt to be in the world), and a sense of emergency (a desperate need to change). We simultaneously want to stay the same, and desperately want to change. Hence, we feel stuck.
If the client feels in conflict, then the counsellor with inevitably become entangled in this conflict. The more entanglements like this, the better. It is in the “stuckness” we feel which can help change occur.
3. Rupture and repair is necessary for change
Just like in childhood development, growth happens when there is a rupture in the harmony. The mother will make mistakes, but the key is how they are repaired. This is reflected in the therapy relationship. Conflict, entanglement and rupture provide a basis for this to be repaired within the relationship. We do not need perfect attunement with the client; we just need to know how to process those points when a rupture occurs. When we feel completely stuck, incompetent, angry and frustrated… that is when therapy is about to start working!
We have been trained that the working alliance is of utmost importance in therapy, which can mean that we can cling on to this, and end up not being challenging (always being on the same team as the client). The working alliance needs to break in order to become deeper. If we cling onto the working alliance, we might miss the rupture.
Think about this, the next time you are feeling cosy with a client. We need to let go of our attachment to the working alliance. It’s okay if this is broken, as long as we are able to process the rupture.
4. Work with enactments
Accept that enactments will occur in the therapy relationship.
The client approaches therapy through their prior wounding experiences, which are contained in their character. The client has already decided to dream you up as the person who will continue to repeat their wounding. An enactment is the repetition of some wounding dynamic, which the client is used to repeating in a relationship. The client may respond to my stern look as if it were coming from his father. I may indeed feel like his father while I give him the look. The client may respond by asking ‘why do you always disapprove of me?’ – this co-constructed enactment may repeat a wounding dynamic.
What might you do if an enactment occurred? You may ask the client to discuss what just happened, you might feel angry and defensive, you might comment on the process, or make an interpretation. As therapists, we can feel inclined to want to maintain our therapist role, and to rise above such enactments by behaving like a therapist – trying to make the enactment therapeutic by maintaining our role.
However, the more entangled we are, the more real we are, the more we stay with the wounding dynamic, the more likely that the enactment may be transformative.
5. Don’t be afraid of being ‘the bad object’
We are likely to be framed as the ‘bad object’ in the therapy relationship. We need to stay with being the bad object; it is okay to be the bad object as this could be the road to transformation.
If we become entangled in the wounding dynamic, this is okay. Therapy is about the conflict between change and stability. Next time you are feeling stuck in a dynamic; think to yourself “this conflict is being maintained somehow, what might make a difference to this?” Act from within the relationship dynamic. If we can begin to process the rupture, we can begin to repair it. This could be profoundly transformative.
6. Be prepared
Think about the possible enactments as early as the first phone call. This way, you will be more prepared for the enactment when it occurs. Anticipate the rupture before it occurs. In doing so, we can trust our embodied experience of the relationship dynamic.
In using our felt sense of the client to gather information on the possible wounding dynamic, we can begin to anticipate possible ruptures and enactments. This is important in order to be able to process the enactment as it happens.
A final point…
Remember, the relationship is of the utmost importance. This means that if we are fully engaged with the relationship, we will be changed by it. Don’t be afraid to feel – you will be hurt and changed by your clients!