Taking the hits in therapy , or what my counselling tutor would refer to as ‘copping the flak’ is part and parcel of being a therapist – it goes with the territory and rightly so.
About this time of year, I give those students who want to progress on to become counsellors a overview of the Diploma course.
The first statement on the PowerPoint presentation asks “Are you emotionally robust? “, the response to that question never alters, the response from learners is always the question – “What does that mean?”
Let me explain, a few years ago I was supervising a female student that was working with a male client who had relationship issues with his wife.
During one session, the client pointed at her and stated, “I have been let down all my life by women – women like you!”
The rest of the session consisted of the client projecting all his pent up frustration on to my supervisee, he believed she represented every woman who had ever hurt him, culminating in him storming out of the session and slamming the door.
Now at this point it would be have been easier for her to refer him on to, anger management or even a male therapist, we explored all these options (including assessing physical risk to herself) , however she would not give up on him , she was willing to take the emotional ‘hits’ in the hope that he could see women not as abusers but as equals.
That’s emotional robustness…..
As the sessions continued he projected his frustration at her again and again, instead of attacking or being defensive she empathised was non judgmental and allowed him to vent his anger.
Make no mistake this was a high risk strategy, in supervision we always had the option to throw the towel in and discussed issues self protection and explored who was this client to her, any transference which may be taking place , supervision became more frequent,
However as the sessions progressed he ran out of ’steam’, then in one session he plonked himself down and apologised, he stated that he expected every woman he met would hurt him so why wouldn’t she be different? , …. Then the real work began.
As a male counsellor I have had to deal with projection from female clients, who literally saw me as the enemy, I represented a gender that had hurt abused and in some cased destroyed part of themselves.
I can remember working with someone who had gone through a horrific time in her life, every week it felt like she got angrier with me – or more to the point the gender I represented,
I began to notice that on the morning of our sessions I always woke up with a stitch in the left side of my torso, I mentioned this to my supervisor and we both wondered if I was experiencing some somatic symptoms – my body physically reacting to the emotional attack.
Then one day the person I was working with sat down and said that the worst of the crisis was over, and that although life was far from good she had something to say.
She apologised for giving me a hard time, but I was the only person in her world, who would listen to her anger and not judge or advise her.
Sometimes clients will test you out and try to push your buttons, so they can prove to themselves you are like “the rest of them”, reflecting to them how you experience the projection can be a powerful ally in building a therapeutic alliance.
Sticking with clients when you are under the emotional attack of projection is one of the most demanding parts of being a therapist, when it happens don’t be afraid to address what is being said in the therapy room.
Having good regular supervision is essential because working with projection can connect deeply with our own sense of self and our feeling of competence.
Most of all understanding the clients ‘right’ to project on to you is part of therapeutic change can be very emotionally sustaining in the early part of therapy when the bell rings and you find yourself emotionally on the ropes …. again !