The Myth of the Good Client

So you want to be the best, most gratifying client ever? You want to insure that your therapist adores you, always looks forward to your sessions, gets as much out of working with you as you get from them? Thinks of you as polite, funny, intelligent, astute, self-reflective?

All that probably makes you totally anxious, ties you in knots, and blocks your ability to teach your therapist what it is you actually need from them. And what you don’t.

But it won’t make you a good or a bad client.

There are in fact clients that I’ve thought of as “bad clients” – and I’m certain that if you are concerned at all about “being good” that you are probably not one of them.

“Bad” therapy clients are those have presented in therapy with completely ulterior manipulative non-therapeutic motives (See Deliver Us: Thoughts on Evil in Psychotherapy http://wp.me/p1AOzF-74) who want nothing to do with engaging in a therapeutic relationship. They come because they think it will help them win a legal case, to create false “pain and suffering” for a spurious lawsuit, to establish trumped up psychological disability to subsidize leave from work while they look for a better paying job, to inflate their insurance claims following an accident, to do some seat time to placate the demands of some other person who has “forced” them into treatment – to prove to their employer or their partner that they don’t have a substance abuse problem (when they do), to try to coerce me into helping them rationalize abusive or destructive behavior toward others, to prove to themselves that therapy and therapists are all full of shit and therefore they won’t have to take responsibility for the pain they inflict on others or on themselves.

Those cases usually come to an impasse in a few sessions and they leave quickly as it becomes obvious that I will not provide whatever it is they are seeking from me.

But, not every “good” client shows up because they want to.

When I was in agency based practice, I worked with many legally mandated clients – clients whose probation or alternative to incarceration requirements (or parents or school principals – practically all kids and teens are “informally mandated” clients) required that they remain in some form of treatment. The first step was to assess the client’s capacity to engage in the process on their own, for their own purposes and to “undermine the mandate”:

“I know that to avoid trouble that you are required to be in treatment, but you are not required to be in individual psychotherapy with me – and there are many kinds of appropriate treatment I could suggest to your P.O. or to the courts (or your parents). I have a good communication with them and it won’t put you in harm’s way at all if I say that you would benefit more from an anger management group, or a recovery support group or some other kind of help. You’ve shown up at this appointment to meet your requirements, and part of my job today is to see if this is the right kind of support for you or figure out what might work better. Also, I am not mandated by anyone to provide services to you or anyone that I think will be ineffective, destructive, or waste my time or yours. So can you think of anything that you would like to talk about in therapy with me, or work on for yourself, to make your own life feel better? In other words: Is there is any part of you that might actually want to be here?”

Many stayed because they wanted to and to fulfill their mandate simultaneously, and we went on to do constructive, deep pride-inducing work together -and some were referred to other kinds of services.

Perhaps the rest of us are just mandated to seek therapy by Life Itself.

Ultimately what is a “good” case and what is a “bad” case has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with the hope and fears, world view, strengths and limitations, and unconscious processes and projections of the therapist.

A “bad” case is lazy language for a case that activates the therapist’s sense of inadequacy.

I have no specialized training in eating disorders for example, and although I did a brief tour of duty in drug rehab and recovery for a few years – and have a working knowledge of the most basic treatment methods for both issues, I know that I do not have the skills necessary to support anyone but those in the very earliest stages of either of these conditions, those with the very best prognosis, or already well along in their recovery.

Sometimes clients don’t view themselves as having an eating disorder, or substance abuse problem – and present to therapy trying to address their depression and anxiety without treating the addictive or compulsive disease. Answers to assessment questions are minimized, or denied along with the painful core issue. No matter how much I may like someone, no matter how much I may wish to attach, support or help them, I will experience these as ill-fitting cases for me, cases where I will not be of use, where my hands are tied, my skill set the wrong one, or the modalities I offer are inappropriate to apply to the issues at hand. I will end up – in service of best practice and the clients well-being – referring the case on, (sometimes sadly and unfortunately experienced by such client as “sending them away” no matter how I try to articulate my limitations)

But these are not in any way bad clients, they are merely clients for whom I would be an expressly bad, or at best a not-good-enough therapist.

I have also been the wrong therapist for clients who may think that they want analytically informed therapy, but who in actuality want a great deal of concrete advice, or for me to dictate the number of sessions, focus exclusively on symptom reduction (rather than also searching for deeper understanding, more meaning in life, and greater acceptance of themselves) assign homework sheets, want me to provide concrete answers and prescriptions to “so what should I do now?” or expect that I will be the one to somehow “fix the problem.”

There are plenty of respectable therapists and coaches who work in a variety of cognitive, behavioral, and solution focused models, many of whom I admire, as well as groups and programs which will also offer more highly structured services. I begrudge no client (or therapist) their path or their process – it simply isn’t mine.

I’m going to ask you about your night-time dreams and try to engage you in exploring the symbolic content within and around you. I’ll ask about your past, your future, your relationships other people animals, the Earth as a whole, and to me. I’ll try to understand if your work and sexual life are satisfying and meaningful to you.

And if that isn’t what you want from therapy, I am sure to annoy the hell out of you. And you will blanketly reject what I do have to offer, which won’t be that much fun for me either.

(Although I do love being honestly and authentically disagreed with when my course need to be corrected. If you really want to be a “good” client, you’ll find some way, however polite and subtle to let me know when I’ve missed the mark, and hold out for being understood as precisely as possible)

There is another kind of client, that senior clinicians often call a “good training case” which is short hand for a client that would be a bad fit for their practice, but would benefit from a therapist who is building their practice, perhaps with a smaller case-load, where the client will have to share the therapist’s attentions and energies with fewer “therapeutic siblings”. There may be more space in the schedule for extra sessions, and more room to go the extra-mile for clients who may need more support, email or phone contacts than a therapist with a full and established practice can offer.

Therapists sometimes also need to balance their caseloads for their own well-being as their needs shift and change. Too many clients of one type, or with similar needs, or with one kind of presenting problem can leave a therapist burned out, overwhelmed, or as disconnected as a flight attendant offering instructions on how to buckle a seat belt. Too many challenging cases can fatigue a therapist, rather than keep them on their toes: too many easy-going clients can let a therapist phone it in as they lay back in their recliner.

Winnicott used to only allow one or two clients at a time to move through regression to stages of intense dependency as he would become too overwhelmed otherwise – and would either need to hold their dependency at bay until he was emotionally available, or refer the case to another analyst.

Therapists also balance their caseloads out by modality – (couples, individuals, groups, supervision etc) by diagnosis, by areas of speciality, and by fee. Early in my practice, I was firmly instructed by supervisors who cared about me, that I was not allowed to take on any more sliding scale clients – no matter how connected I felt or interesting the case until I had cared for my own basic financial needs. I now pass the same instructions on to overextended supervisees.

And by the way: A “good client” can look an awful lot like a “bad client” before trust, and an alliance is earned:

I remember presenting a case at my first clinical conference about a client I cared deeply about. During the question and answer someone asked if I had felt connected to him right from the start: In fact, when the case was assigned to me at the clinic where I was working at the time, I’d had an immediate and intense aversion to his written case history, for no obvious reason. After our first meeting I’d entertained the fantasy of handing his folder to my supervisor and refusing the case outright because I was confident I could not connect to him.

Yet, quickly, I developed warm affection for him, the work had been rich and rewarding and my understanding of symbolic content archetypal forces cracked wide open. The very client I’d imagined ducking out on became a profound honor to serve.

I realized then, that quite often my first response to a client that I was about to connect to deeply, who was going to require a new level of intimacy from me, who was going to change me, move me, press me into new terrain, was likely to be a semi-conscious sense of dread.

(In total honesty – I felt a similar fear, trembling and sickness unto death the week before I moved to NYC, on my first date with my now husband, and of course again in the hours before we married. I was filled with terror on a Biblical scale the evening before becoming an adoptive mother to both of my children, and immediately preceding every single good, disorienting, transformative blessing that has ever befallen me)

Even now, still, with many years of this awareness, the unconscious resistance to being changed asserts its self, as many cherished therapeutic partnerships tease me about how I didn’t return their initial calls right away, or lost their initial emails, or sent them back to the preceding therapist for further closure, or how I just sounded “weird” on the phone, or somehow unwittingly made them run some minor obstacle course to get to the first appointment.

When my son was in kindergarten he once said (after several readings of Pickles the Fire Cat – which I highly recommend for the under 6-year-old set) in words that might make my favorite non-dualistic theoretical and spiritual mentors proud:

“You are not a Good Mommy.
And you are not a Bad Mommy.
You are a Mixed-Up Mommy and that’s the Very Best kind.”

And you, in all likelihood are not a Good client or a Bad client.

But, the Very Best Mixed-Up kind.

And nothing is better for a Good-Enough therapist than that.

copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

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