It’s not a politically correct statement, but, sometimes, clients are tough to like. Yes, counselors are supposed to remain professional at all times and practice unconditional positive regard. But they are also human, and fending off creeping feelings of “dislike” can be a challenge, especially when clients espouse racist, misogynistic or homophobic beliefs; have abrasive personalities; or simply remind counselors of someone in their own lives whom they find difficult to be around. So the question becomes, how do counselors handle that reality?
Tamara Suttle is a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in Castle Rock, Colorado, with more than 30 years of experience in mental health. She also runs a business in which she provides supervision, consultation, private practice coaching and counseling for other therapists. In her opinion, most counselor education programs and the counseling profession itself don’t do enough to prepare future clinicians for those instances when they will experience negative feelings toward a client. In truth, she says, it’s a bit of a taboo topic.
“If your professors don’t talk about these things and our clinical supervisors don’t talk about these things and our colleagues and our friends and our bosses and our professional associations don’t talk about these things, then we learn pretty quickly that we aren’t supposed to talk about these things or even experience these things,” says Suttle, a member of the American Counseling Association.
But in reality, all counselors experience discomfort with and dislike of a client at some point in their careers, says Keith Myers, an LPC and ACA member in the Atlanta metro area. “If someone tells you that it does not [happen], they’re not being honest with themselves,” he says. “We are counselors who also happen to be human beings.”
The key is being able to set aside and even learn from those negative feelings when they pop up, Suttle says. To do that, counselors need to discern what is truly at the root of those feelings.
Lauren Ostrowski, an LPC at a group private practice who also works at a community mental health agency in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, agrees. “To me, what is far more common [than fully disliking a client] is working with clients who do things or have traits that I don’t like,” says Ostrowski, a member of ACA. “Even if I feel like I have a client I don’t like at all, I make it a point to figure out what it is they are doing or saying that I don’t like. Then I figure out whether the problem is really me — [making] a value judgment perhaps — or whether they are doing something in session that also affects their everyday life that they are motivated to change.”
Suttle acknowledges that after reflecting on her negative feelings toward a client, she sometimes discovers that the problem actually resides with her. She is reacting with dislike because the client triggers personal issues she has struggled with herself, such as having been raised to be a people pleaser.
“I’m sure many therapists can relate to having a certain type of client that they simply prefer not to work with,” Suttle says. “For me, that has historically been a client who is so focused on people pleasing and [is so] passive or passive-aggressive that she is often unable or unwilling to own her truth and … tell the truth.”
“After years of struggling with this type of client and [having] lots of opportunities to reflect on my struggles, I now recognize my discomfort as being much more about me and my own people-pleasing tendencies than those of my clients,” she continues. “It’s one of those issues that I must continually be cognizant of and work on in order to work with clients.”
Likewise, Myers says that his feelings of dislike or discomfort with a client are often about him. “Most times … it’s [dislike] about an interpersonal issue or a client reminding me of someone I know or knew,” he says. “I think, for me, it comes down to countertransference and how a client may stir up my own unconscious — or, at times, conscious — parts of me.”
Myers and Suttle both stress the importance of counselors practicing self-reflection to identify personal issues that can creep into counseling.
When Suttle works with other counselors who are struggling to like one of their clients, she looks for what she calls “signature issues” in the counselors’ backgrounds. She does this by helping them to construct genograms. The purpose is to identify how a counselor’s family members interacted in relationships going back several generations, such as Suttle’s long line of people pleasers.
Together, Suttle and the counselor search for behavior patterns related to family relationships. For instance, passivity might be a pattern in the counselor’s family. Suttle also asks about how conflict was handled in the counselor’s home growing up. As an example, a counselor whose father punched walls when he was angry might not be comfortable with conflict. This could engender a negative reaction to clients who push back, are stubborn or struggle to control their anger, Suttle notes.
Identifying the personal issues and biases that contribute to a counselor’s dislike of a client is an important step, but that alone will not solve the problem, say Myers and Suttle. Both stress the importance of counselors receiving supervision and even engaging in individual therapy when their personal issues trigger feelings of dislike toward a client.
“Supervision and consultation play a huge role in processing the material and my own internal responses that occur within my counseling relationship with clients,” Myers says. “Having someone who comes alongside me in my process of helping others and is willing to see me through a different lens … who is often challenging me and exploring my conscious and my unconscious feelings. … [That] is so important to me keeping those ‘dislikes’ [about a client] in check.”
“Another thing I do is participate in individual therapy,” Myers says. “Sometimes if a client is rubbing me the wrong way or I feel irritated or agitated with a client, my therapist provides me with a safe space to be able to process those things.”
In addition, Ostrowski urges counselors to seek more informal supervision when struggling with negative feelings toward a client. “This doesn’t have to be the official [type of] supervision with a contract and consultation agreement, etc.,” she says. “While I think that kind of supervision is important, here I’m talking more about a trusted co-worker or another clinician where you can just have a discussion about exactly what you are reacting to, how you reacted in session and what you are going to do moving forward.”
Suttle has a consulting group that she meets with regularly, and she urges other practitioners to participate in similar groups to help them deal with problematic feelings toward clients.
Setting aside personal beliefs
In accordance with the ACA Code of Ethics, counselors know that they must not force their own beliefs on clients, but what happens when a client espouses beliefs that are hateful, personally hurtful or just uncomfortable to the counselor?
“Sometimes working with clients who have different values can be challenging,” Ostrowski says. “In that case, I really try to learn more about the client’s worldview and, in some cases, ask about how looking at a situation in a certain way may affect them or their family. Often, they are already aware of these things and will say that they understand that it causes certain trouble with extended family dynamics or may be part of why they don’t have a relationship with someone important to them. There can be some very fruitful discussions about how important their beliefs are to them compared to what it is that they want in life and whether there is some sort of balance that they see.”
When Myers, a past co-chair of the ACA Ethics Committee, is working with a client who has strong prejudices or biases against certain groups and is making judgmental or harsh comments in session, he tries to tie it back into the therapeutic process.
“I normally use this time to explore these comments so that I can gain further insight into the client’s background, values, beliefs [and] family-of-origin issues,” he explains. “This is usually an opportunity to hold the tension while exploring deeper with the client. And if we believe it’s important to be fully accepting and nonjudgmental with all clients, then it’s important for us to accept those who are different from us and who hold very different values and opinions, even when they are being judgmental.”
Although Ostrowski often manages to make therapeutic use of a client’s biases or prejudices, she acknowledges that it isn’t always easy, recounting the story of one of her recent cases as an example. “A few days after the tragic shootings in the Orlando nightclub [at Pulse in Florida on June 12], I had a client discussing his beliefs on the whole idea with me. Let’s just say that [the client’s beliefs and Ostrowski’s beliefs] were about as far opposite as one can get, and on top of that, he had a lot of the facts incorrect. I did mention that I had heard different facts on the news, but he disagreed,” she says. “I stopped trying to point out things that were different from what I had heard, and I allowed him to discuss how all of this had affected him, restating what he was saying and asking for more information.”
Ostrowski says the situation served as a good reminder for her to closely monitor her reactions when faced with a client’s prejudicial statements and biases. “I will say that for the rest of the session after the topic was brought up, I was checking every statement or question I used before I said it to see whether it was to benefit me or my client,” she notes.
It is important for counselors to know themselves well so they can better guard against their personal beliefs and biases slipping into the counseling session, Ostrowski says. However, that doesn’t mean that counselors have to give up their personal beliefs.
“We can keep our worldview [as counselors] and simultaneously learn more about the world as our clients see it,” she explains. “For that matter, it’s not even about hiding our beliefs, but more about disclosing only those that would further the conversation we are having with our clients about what they believe and leading them in the direction of their therapeutic goals.”
Regardless, hearing a client spout hateful or misinformed comments in session can still take a toll on counselors, Myers and Ostrowski say, and that is one reason why they think counselor self-care is crucial in these situations. Myers take breaks to walk in nature after client sessions that may have been upsetting because the activity helps him clear his head. Ostrowski, meanwhile, has found that staying grounded helps her and can be particularly useful while in session.
“[Staying grounded] may decrease the feeling of being emotionally flooded or overwhelmed,” she explains. “[It] can be as simple as taking the time to notice your feet on the floor or your hips in the chair. The possibilities are endless. Each and every one of us can find some way that we can move or notice the location of our body in the room or the chair in a way that is not distracting to a client. It takes only a matter of seconds and can change the trajectory of the session because of having an increased ability to stay present with the client in that moment.”
‘Liking’ versus ‘accepting’
Other clients can be difficult to like not so much because of their beliefs but because they possess abrasive personalities.
Christine Moll, an LPC who practices in the Buffalo, New York, area, points out that no one ever said that counselors have to like every client they come in contact with. She cites the writings of Carl Rogers — one of the founders of the client-centered approach — to support her statement.
“He called for empathy,” Moll explains. “Nowhere did he say like, but [rather] embracing the person with concern or care, wanting the best for that person.”
Moll, an ACA member who is also a past president of the Association for Adult Development and Aging, says she has definitely encountered clients whom she didn’t like, but she always tries to put her personal feelings in perspective. “I have worked with clients that I have found difficult, arrogant, elitist or biased,” she says. “But I am not in their lives. I don’t need to share a fence with them. I think to myself that if I [have to put my reactions] aside, it’s just for 50 minutes, and I tell myself, ‘It’s not about you.’”
Regardless of how a counselor feels about a client, the goal should always be to help that client find and attain a good quality of life, says Moll, who is also a counselor educator at Canisius College. “I try to use what I’ve not liked about a person and figure out how to reframe it,” she notes.
For instance, clients might come to counseling complaining that no one likes them and they don’t know why. Moll explains, “I might point out a [client’s] passion for life that other people might see as a chip on the shoulder and say, ‘I see your energy and your passion for life, and if you feel threatened and put up against a wall, you are going to fight back. That’s great. That’s a gift. But can you see how that can lead people to see you negatively?’”
Ostrowski suggests exploring whether a client’s difficult personality is connected to the reason that person is seeking counseling. “For example,” she says, “if clients come across very gruff and unpleasant, it could be that they have emotions that they don’t understand or they struggle to have effective conversations, thereby leading them to react in ways that are perceived as unpleasant because of self-protection strategies.”
Moll also tries to identify positive aspects in even the most unpleasant client. “I was raised with the idea that everyone’s got something [good] about them,” she says. “If I find a glimmer or find a good quality, I praise it.”
Myers comes back to the importance of always putting the client first in the counseling relationship. “I will say, yes, it is harder to work with a client that I don’t like, at least at first. But then I remind myself that I must accept each client where they are in their lives and that I don’t have to like them necessarily to fully accept them, support them and offer them respect.”
To contact the counselors interviewed for this article, email:
- Christine Moll at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Keith Myers at email@example.com
- Lauren Ostrowski at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Tamara Suttle at email@example.com
Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Letters to the editor: email@example.com
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.