Tag Archives: resistant clients

Building trust with reluctant clients

By Bethany Bray June 22, 2022

The Washington Post’s “Dear Carolyn” advice column recently fielded a question from a person who was unsure if they were ready to seek counseling to cope with a strained relationship with a parent. Although the person was aware that counseling could be helpful in this particular situation, they were still reluctant to seek services. “I can’t bear the thought of sharing any sort of emotions or history with a complete stranger, especially when I hear people have to reshare as they try two or several counselors to find the right one,” they wrote.

In her response to this letter, advice columnist Carolyn Hax advocated for the person to try counseling and addressed their hesitancy by saying, “The ‘total stranger’ is actually the point. … That extra, disinterested, trained, and informed set of eyes can help any of us see things we’re too close to see.”

The author of this letter is hardly alone in their hesitance. Data from the National Alliance on Mental Illness indicates that roughly one in five American adults experienced mental illness in 2020, yet less than half received treatment.

And part of this reluctance may stem from the fact that counseling does involves being vulnerable to a stranger — albeit a professional stranger — and working through emotions, trauma and issues that can be painful, sad or fear-provoking. When combined with feelings of shame, stigma or bad memories of a past therapy experience, it’s no wonder that clients are often nervous, fearful or hesitant to start counseling.

Counselors understand the importance of the therapeutic relationship. But when a client is hesitant or reluctant, practitioners need to make trust and relationship building the central focus of counseling work, along with a little extra patience and unconditional positive regard.

An extra dose of validation

Bri-Ann Richter-Abitol, a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) in New York and a licensed clinical mental health counselor and supervisor in North Carolina, has worked with clients who were so apprehensive about trying counseling that they were visibly shaking in their first few sessions.

Richter-Abitol owns a private practice in Wake Forest, North Carolina, that specializes in counseling for anxiety disorders. She and her staff offer individual and group counseling with a focus on creating a welcoming, nonintimidating environment.

When a client’s body language indicates that they’re nervous or hesitant as they begin counseling, Richter-Abitol uses it as an opportunity to acknowledge their concern and validate that what they’re doing is hard. Her focus becomes normalizing the therapy process, rather than jumping into any kind of assessment or intake regimen.

“This [hesitancy] is extremely common, even for clients who have been in counseling before. … If I notice that a client is really anxious, I use immediacy and point out that it is scary to be here, and I applaud them for coming in,” says Richter-Abitol, an American Counseling Association member.

Clients who are hesitant to try counseling need transparency, patience and an extra dose of validation from their counselor, agrees Megan Craig, an LMHC who counsels clients at a community mental health agency in the Boston area. She often emphasizes to clients that they’re not doing something “wrong” if they are having trouble opening up or aren’t immediately comfortable in therapy. Applauding a client’s bravery to walk through the door also creates an opportunity to ask them what motivated them to make that first appointment — and, in turn, helps the counselor learn more about the client, Craig adds.

Validation played a key part in fostering connection with a female client Craig once worked with who kept being referred to different clinicians within Craig’s agency because of staff turnover.

By the time she was put on Craig’s caseload, the client was “exhausted” and fearful of losing yet another practitioner. So, she had spotty attendance and would often cancel appointments.

“She felt like she hardly wanted to be there [in counseling sessions]. She had told her story so many times, only for her clinician to leave. She kept having to start over from scratch and be vulnerable with a new person,” Craig recalls.

Craig was honest with the client and broached the subject directly, validating that her exhaustion was understandable and warranted.

Craig also realized she needed to slow the pace of therapy with this client. Their early counseling sessions focused on lighter topics, such as work stress. It was one year into counseling before the client was comfortable enough to begin talking about heavier topics, including her trauma history.

The client’s attendance eventually improved but not until Craig spent months building a relationship with her.

“At first, I second-guessed myself and wondered if this [early work] was ‘therapeutic enough.’ But that’s what she needed. That was what was therapeutic for her,” Craig says. “She needed to establish the trust that I wasn’t going to leave and would stay with her. Just me showing up [to counseling sessions] is exactly what this client needed.” 

Fear of judgment

Counselors are no strangers to the importance of the therapeutic relationship, and decades of research show how central and essential it is to client engagement and growth, says Michael Tursi, an LMHC in New York. Counselors, however, must make relationship building an utmost priority for clients who are hesitant. They have an opportunity to display nonjudgment every time they respond and interact with a client, he notes.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘the therapeutic relationship is essential,’ but there are some clients who really might not be willing to engage at all until they see certain things, especially nonjudgment, in their counselor,” he says. “When counselors meet with clients, right from the beginning, they have an opportunity to display nonjudgment.” 

Tursi, an assistant professor in the mental health counseling program at Pace University’s Pleasantville, New York campus, has done research on client experiential avoidance (i.e., when a person is resistant to experiencing strong or adverse sensations, emotions or thoughts) and engagement in counseling. For his doctoral dissertation, Tursi interviewed a cohort of clients in counseling who self-identified as experiencing this phenomenon, and he, along with two other colleagues, published the findings in a 2021 Journal of Counseling & Development article.

Tursi measured his study participants’ level of avoidance by having them complete the Multidimensional Experiential Avoidance Questionnaire developed by psychologist Wakiza Gámez and colleagues.

According to Tursi, one data point in his research quickly became very clear: Each and every one of the participants talked about fear of judgment from their counselor. The study participants acknowledged that they became more engaged in counseling once they established that their counselor was trustworthy and nonjudgmental.

In fact, the participants viewed counseling as a potentially harmful or threatening relationship until their counselor had fostered a trusting relationship with them and eased their hesitancy, Tursi adds.

Some participants talked about “testing” their counselor by intentionally saying something to elicit a response to gauge how trustworthy the counselor was. Even if a client does not do something like this intentionally, Tursi notes, they are very aware of how a counselor is responding to them.

“Nonjudgment is central to working with any client. But these clients might need a counselor who is quite in tune with [the fact that the] client is concerned about judgment and be patient with that,” says Tursi, an ACA member.

A key aspect of creating an atmosphere of nonjudgment is for counselors to be aware of a client’s comfort level, he says. This includes keeping an eye out for indicators that a client is anxious, such as body language, and checking in regularly with the client to talk about how they feel things are going.

A client should never feel pestered or pushed into talking about issues; they should come to the decision to disclose on their own, Tursi emphasizes. Counselors need to temper the expectations of what they think or expect a client will need or be willing to do. 

“Attending to where your clients are is important. We shouldn’t go into therapy and assume clients are going to disclose right away rather than do the therapeutic work that we think they need to do,” he explains. “Counselors should make sure they’re focusing on providing conditions for these clients to engage. … The client is never going to get there [make progress], in any kind of meaningful way, unless they’re engaging in sessions.”

Tursi hopes his research spreads awareness among counselors that experiential avoidance is very common and that some clients may come into counseling believing — for a variety of reasons — that it could be a relationship that is potentially harmful. Tursi draws on the work of Barry Farber, a professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, when he emphasizes that it’s easy to have unconditional positive regard for clients who come in ready to trust and work with their counselor. But it’s equally important to provide that regard for clients who are hesitant, although it may be more difficult. Patience should be a counselor’s watchword, Tursi adds.

“As counselors, we have to be aware of situations in which we have difficulty providing positive regard and continue professional development to improve our abilities to provide nonjudgmental acceptance at times that it is difficult,” Tursi says.

Check yourself 

As a practitioner who specializes in counseling clients with anxiety, Richter-Abitol finds that rapport building with clients who are hesitant must involve self-awareness on the part of the clinician. This includes keeping her own wants, expectations and assumptions about work with clients in check, she says, and asking for client input on the pace and direction of their treatment.

Richter-Abitol is transparent with her clients: She lets them know that they are “in control” of what they want to talk about in sessions and emphasizes that she won’t “make” them talk about anything they’re not ready to.

“You have to meet the client where they’re at and let them set the agenda. I have had clients who have taken months to build rapport, and if you [the counselor] are not patient, you may never get to that point,” Richter-Abitol says. “You have to constantly check yourself outside of sessions and tell yourself that even small successes contribute toward long-term goals. Small things add up.”

polkadot_photo/Shutterstock.com

Richter-Abitol, like Tursi, argues that the therapeutic relationship must take priority with these clients, rather than diving into a treatment plan based on their diagnosis or what the practitioner thinks they need. Counselors should get creative to find ways to bond with the client prior to moving into heavier work, she suggests. For young clients, this might be therapeutic games or activities; for adults, it might be a discussion of lighter topics that help paint a picture of who they are, including things that they like, dislike and what motivates them.

“Those conversations can lead to deeper ones,” she says. “It’s not helpful to be too rigid. You can have things that you’d like the client to work on, but ultimately it has to be up to them. Flexibility is important.”

Richter-Abitol has found that clients feel more empowered when she lets them take the reins in this way. And many begin to open up naturally when they don’t feel pressured to do so.

This approach requires counselors not only to be in touch with and sensitive to their client’s needs and level of readiness in counseling but also to check their own inclination to take charge when a client is slow to make progress. It’s all too easy to assume that a client who isn’t making progress — or not progressing in a way the counselor might want or expect — isn’t benefiting from counseling, Richter-Abitol notes.

Instead, she advises practitioners to take a step back and consider the client’s full context, including the barriers and challenges that are making it difficult for them to engage with a counselor.

“Their fear or discomfort can come off as resistance or presenting a vibe that ‘I don’t want to be here.’ … They just don’t know how to feel about this space yet, and you need to give them time to figure that out,” Richter-Abitol says. “Don’t make the assumption that someone who is uncomfortable isn’t gaining anything from the experience. It might not be that they don’t want to be there but they just don’t know how to be there yet.”

Have honest conversations 

If patience is the first thing that clients who are hesitant or slow to engage in counseling need from a practitioner, transparency is the second. For Craig, this comes in the form of direct questions to the client to gauge their comfort level and an honest invitation to let her know when things aren’t working.

If a client appears uncomfortable or is hesitant to engage in counseling, Craig will address it directly, saying, “Here is what I’m picking up on. Tell me if I’m right or wrong.” She emphasizes to clients that she cares for their well-being and genuinely wants to hear how they’re feeling — and that they have a choice and a say in the counseling process.

Sometimes what counselors view as resistant behavior in clients can be caused by the use of methods or techniques that aren’t a good fit for that individual, Craig says, or it can be that the practitioner themselves is not the right fit. Because clients may not bring up problems to a counselor on their own, she makes a point to broach the topic with honesty, explaining that no therapist is going to be the best match for everyone who walks through their door.

“If someone is taking the huge step to start counseling, I want them to benefit from it as much as possible. I’m honest and tell them that they’ll never make progress if we are not a good fit,” says Craig. “People are not ready for different reasons, and that’s why I like to have such open conversations. … I might not be able to give them everything they need, but I certainly want to talk about it and I want to try.”

She not only checks in regularly with clients throughout therapy but also makes time for a deeper conversation about what is and isn’t going well once a year (on their anniversary as her client). 

During these check-ins, she prompts clients with questions such as:

  • How do you feel about our work together?
  • Do you respond well to me taking the lead in counseling, or do you prefer to take the lead?
  • What has been helpful during our work together?
  • What do you need more of? And less of?
  • What did you expect from therapy and how has this not met your expectations?
  • What’s working and what’s not?

Not only do these conversations provide Craig with valuable feedback, but they also help set an example for the client to advocate for their own needs outside of counseling, she notes. Learning to be able to communicate their needs and expectations is a big — and important — milestone for many clients.

Craig recommends clinicians ask clients directly about how things are going in counseling rather than fall into an easy pattern of making assumptions about individuals who are avoidant or hesitant to engage. Honest feedback from a client is a good thing, Craig stresses, and not something that a counselor should take personally.

Overcoming cultural barriers

Counselors also need to take a proactive approach when clients are hesitant because of challenges and barriers related to their cultural background, says Camila Pulgar, a licensed clinical mental health counselor associate who is a research faculty member at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Building trust and forging connection with clients who are from marginalized cultures require a counselor not only to be comfortable broaching the subject of culture (and cultural differences) in client sessions in an ethical and compassionate way, Pulgar says, but also to be fully aware of and sensitive to the many barriers that keep them from accessing counseling or being fully comfortable in the setting. 

A native of Chile, Pulgar specializes in the mental health needs of Latinx clients, including suicide prevention. She does clinical work once a week in her faculty position at the medical center, and she is the only bilingual (Spanish/English) provider on her team. Being the only bilingual counselor is not unusual for Pulgar; in fact, this has been the case for most of her professional career, she says. The mental health care system in this country is simply not built to support the needs of clients whose first language is not English.

Language is only one of many barriers that can deter clients from minority cultures from seeking or becoming fully engaged in counseling, Pulgar points out. Individuals may face logistical challenges such as trouble accessing transportation to appointments, finding child care or affording the cost of sessions. They may also be fearful or have adverse feelings about counseling because of stigma, past harm or skepticism about therapy within their culture or family group.

“If people make it to my office, they’re usually hesitant to share their mental health journey with their family members because of stigma. I often hear ‘I don’t want anyone else to know I’m here’,” says Pulgar, who also sees a small caseload of clients at her private practice in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “When we talk about their supports and who they can reach out to in times of crisis, they often don’t list anyone [in their family] because they don’t want their family to know they’re struggling.”

Shivonne Odom, a certified perinatal mental health provider whose private practice is the only practice in the Washington, D.C., area that specializes in perinatal mental health care and is owned by an African American therapist, says this is also common among her clients, the majority of whom are African American.

She’s had clients whose families reacted very negatively when they found out the client was attending therapy, and other clients have chosen not to disclose the fact that they were seeking counseling to their families and, in some cases, even their spouse.

Hesitancy is very common among Odom’s clients; she recently had a client tell her that she needed to take an hour-long walk to calm her nerves before logging in for her first counseling session.

There is an extra layer of stigma for minority clients who are seeking perinatal mental health care because pregnancy and childbirth are often assumed to be a joyful and happy time — not one of despair. All of these challenges add up and severely affect clients’ help-seeking behaviors, says Odom, a licensed professional counselor in Washington, D.C., and a licensed clinical professional counselor in Maryland.

Pulgar notes that conversations around challenges in minority mental health care often place the blame on the stigma that many cultures have regarding counseling. In reality, minority populations face many barriers when seeking treatment, and that should be an equally, if not more, important part of the discussion.

This issue is compounded by the fact that most of the evidence-based treatment methods that students are taught in graduate counseling programs were created by and tested within members of the majority population. So, it makes sense that many of counselor’s go-to methods may not be a good fit for some minority clients, says Pulgar, an ACA member.

Clients can also become discouraged if they are referred to counseling by a medical provider and none of the counselors on the referral list look like the client, Odom adds. Because of this, she goes out of her way to accept many different types of insurances and often consults and works with multidisciplinary professionals in related fields, such as lactation consultants, to advocate for her clients and ensure that other providers know of her services.

Counselors should also be aware that these clients are often unfamiliar with the process of counseling. A first step toward forging a therapeutic connection can be to explain what therapy is (and isn’t) and why it’s helpful, along with the concepts of privileged information and confidentiality, Odom says.

Pulgar and Odom emphasize that one way to reduce these clients’ stress and barriers to treatment is for counselors to become knowledgeable of culturally connected resources in their area, such as nonprofit organizations and support groups and services.

Free support groups can be very helpful to validate a client’s feelings and experience in a way that individual counseling can’t, Odom says. And if there isn’t a group that matches your clients’ culture and identity (e.g., single mothers by choice), she suggests that counselors consider seeking training to start and lead one.

It’s equally as important for counselors to forge a connection with the marginalized community in their area as it is to build a strong therapeutic relationship with individual clients, Pulgar says. She suggests that practitioners start by becoming involved with organizations that serve the local marginalized community and participate in events such as health fairs.

“Get out of the four walls of the office,” Pulgar stresses. “Marginalized communities are so collective, and community is an important part of life.”

Small changes, big impact 

Counselors have an opportunity to build trust with a client with every interaction. And sometimes, seemingly “small” things that are outside of the core work of counseling can make a big difference to a client. Here are just a few small steps clinicians can take that will make a big impact on clients. 

Explain the process of counseling and why it’s helpful. Don’t assume that clients know what therapy is or what it entails, Tursi advises. “If they’ve never been to counseling previously, the idea of connecting with feelings might be very foreign to them,” he says. “They might start counseling thinking that the counselor can just make these [difficult] feelings go away. When instead, counseling [works to] change their relationship with their feelings — and a practitioner may need to explain that.”

Remember that a breakthrough does not mean clients are completely comfortable in counseling. A counselor whose client makes a significant gain toward trusting their practitioner in one session may feel that they’ve built their relationship enough to move on and address other issues. However, the only way to truly build trust is to have patience and show a client, over time, that you are trustworthy, Craig says. This is especially true for clients whose trust has been broken by others in their life, including health care providers. “Remember that even if they open up about their fears, it doesn’t mean they’ll be less fearful at the next session,” she adds. “It’s about patience and giving them that chance to warm up.”

Welcome clients before they even sit down. Forging trust with hesitant clients takes “more than what you are doing in the [counseling] room, it’s the whole experience,” Richter-Abitol says. “And we want to make people feel as welcomed as possible. … I know what it takes to walk through that door, and how hard it can be.”

She has taken client comfort into consideration in every aspect of her practice, from choosing cozy décor for the waiting room to a casual staff dress code. She built her website to be particularly user-friendly and extend a welcoming vibe before clients even set foot in the door. For example, she provides a detailed biography of all members of the clinical team, including photos of the practitioners, adjectives that describe them (e.g., bubbly, enthusiastic, loyal, creative, motivated) and a description of what a client can expect when working with them. 

“We try and dial down the clinical and dial up the parts of our personality” on the website to make potential clients feel comfortable, Richter-Abitol explains. “With the anxiety population, fear of the unknown is a big issue, so seeing the office and the pictures [online] helps fills in that space [and] helps people form connections before even coming in.”

Pronounce their name correctly. And if counselors are not sure how to pronounce the client’s name, they should ask and remember it, Pulgar says. This is a seemingly small thing that can be overlooked by practitioners, she notes, but it lets the client know that a counselor values their identity.

Don’t assume they’re resistant. Clients who are opposed to treatment and those who are hesitant or slow to engage in counseling can exhibit some of the same behaviors, such as canceling appointments frequently, answering a counselor’s questions with one-word answers or avoiding talking about heavier topics. However, counselors have an opportunity to build trust and explore the reasons why a client appears reluctant, rather than labeling them as resistant.

“We have been taught [in counselor trainings and graduate programs] that it’s a normal way to view clients. It’s really discouraging to know that [the word ‘resistant’] is even part of the dialogue,” Craig says. “Just because your perception as a clinician is that a person is not trying doesn’t mean that they’re not trying. They might not be doing the homework you assign, but they’re showing up every week. And that may be all that they can do right now. That is trying for them. Be sensitive to what they need to make progress.”

Do no harm and seek training. An important aspect of building trust with hesitant clients is ensuring that a practitioner is providing ethical, appropriate and competent care to keep from exacerbating their hesitancy or repeating any bad experiences they might have had previously in therapy. This includes seeking training, consultation or supervision when a counselor has a client who comes from a culture or is dealing with a challenge that the counselor is not familiar with.

In the case of perinatal clients, clinicians who are not trained in the needs and nuances of work with this population risk providing inaccurate — or even harmful — care, Odom says. Some of the symptoms that can be common in perinatal clients, such as intrusive thoughts about harming their baby, can easily be misinterpreted, she explains.

“We [counselors] have an ethical duty to only practice in areas in which we are trained, and if we’re not, we have an ethical obligation to reach out to providers who are and consult with them,” Odom says. “Don’t be afraid to take a training on perinatal [mental health]. I have seen way too many clinicians treating these clients [inappropriately] and it leads to clients having to unjustly interface with systems that will do harm.”

Leave the door open for them to return. Clients who are hesitant about counseling are more likely to drop off a practitioner’s caseload. Counselors should take measures to focus on retention with this client population, but they should also understand that when the client stops counseling, it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t beneficial. Sometimes people simply have so much going on that life “gets in the way” and they can’t come to regular sessions, Pulgar points out.

Practitioners should emphasize to these clients that they’re always welcome to return to counseling whenever they’re ready. Instead of placing blame and asking the client not to return after missing multiple sessions, a counselor can instead say, “I understand this may not be the best time to start counseling in your life, but please do reach out when it is. I am here for you, please keep my number,” Pulgar says.

“The truth is, not everyone is ready for counseling when it comes time for the appointment, even if they made the phone call [to schedule]. They may not be ready to engage yet in the process of what counseling demands,” Pulgar says. “Stay calm and don’t overthink ‘What am I doing wrong?’ or ‘What more can I do?’ Take a couple of deep breaths and think about ways that the door stays open. … If clients get a good sense of counseling just with that interaction with you, maybe in a year or five years, they will come back. That interaction, although brief, can give them a positive feeling about counseling.”

 

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Reasons why 

Many different factors and barriers deter people from seeking counseling or feeling comfortable in sessions. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but some common client fears and concerns include:

  • The client (or someone they know) has had a bad, hurtful or unhelpful experience previously with a mental health or medical practitioner.
  • They come from a culture where counseling is not widely accepted or a culture that has been historically maligned or harmed by mental health professions.
  • They are struggling with an issue that involves feelings of shame. 
  • They are afraid to confront the issue they are struggling with; this can include hesitancy to relive trauma as they process it or fear of showing vulnerability or imperfection.
  • They fear being given a diagnosis and/or being misdiagnosed.
  • They worry the counselors will judge them.
  • They fear meeting and opening up to a person they don’t know. 
  • They experience overwhelming negative or catastrophizing thoughts (e.g., “Counseling is not going to work”).
  • They face logistical challenges (lack of insurance or inability to pay, trouble finding child care or transportation, etc.).
  • They worry that others (family, peers, etc.) will find out they are attending counseling.
  • They do not have a choice in attending counseling (e.g., a person who is mandated to complete therapy, often as the outcome of a court case).
  • They are hesitant or unable to connect with a practitioner who doesn’t come from the same background or experience as them (e.g., a Latinx or LGBTQ counselor, one who has served in the military, one who understands miscarriage and infertility).

This information came from interviews with the following counselors: Megan Craig, Shivonne Odom, Camila Pulgar, Bri-Ann Richter-Abitol and Michael Tursi.

 

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Bethany Bray is a senior writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.

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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.

Voice of Experience: Why would he lie?

By Gregory K. Moffatt June 30, 2021

It was more than 30 years ago, but I remember the following experience with great clarity. I was relating to my supervisor an interaction with one of my clients — a tiny 10-year-old boy who probably didn’t weigh 50 pounds — simply giving her a quick summary of the beginning of our session before we got into more important things regarding my work with him.

Nonchalantly, I said, “When I asked him what he did for the weekend, he said he ‘went to the moon.’ Obviously, he was making that up.” I was about to continue, but my supervisor interrupted me — as she should have. More on that in a minute.

I was in my first year of supervision, but I was feeling confident in my work with children. This was 1987, seemingly a very long time ago, a time when almost nobody specialized with children. While some theorists such as Anna Freud and Clark Moustakas invested in children close to a century ago, it had not become a common specialty when I was a graduate student. From the outset, I knew I wanted to work with children, but there wasn’t a single class available in my graduate program that focused specifically on that client population.

As I scoured academic catalogs, I found very few resources available that focused on therapeutic work with children. Therefore, much of what I learned back in those days, I learned the hard way — either by guessing the correct action or, equally often, incorrectly guessing the right thing to do. This interaction with my client, as small as it might seem, was one of those times I made a serious mistake. So, let’s get back to my supervisor.

Igor Kisselev/Shutterstock.com

I sat in silence for a moment in front of her wondering why she had stopped me at such a seemingly trivial point in my summary. “Why would he lie?” she asked me. It was such a sincere question that it took me aback. Surely she wasn’t suggesting that my young client had actually traveled to the moon over the weekend.

“You are assuming your client is lying,” she continued. “What do you think that says to him about you?”

Ah! That was a great question, and I was embarrassed that I had not considered it. I had automatically discounted his story when I should have at least acknowledged and respected it.

What if my client had needed to tell me about some scary secret he carried? My attitude showed him that I would decide whether to believe him based on my own feelings of the story’s worthiness. What a disrespectful way to approach my client.

It would be easy to think that this situation applies only to children, but it doesn’t. We are all trained to respect diversity, and a foundational tenet of nearly all diversity theories proposes that our inner biases will show if we haven’t dealt with them. For example, if I harbor negative feelings about my transgender clients, they will eventually see through my smokescreen regardless of how I try to convince them that I value all people.

In my interaction with this little boy, I had assumed he wasn’t trustworthy by disrespecting his story. But if he couldn’t trust me with something like this, I could never expect him to trust me with experiences that might seem equally unbelievable. I shouldn’t have needed to be reminded that the fear of not being believed is one of the scariest things our clients face.

I have written before that all of our clients deceive us at one time or another. They might diminish or alter their behaviors, omit information or just flat out lie. There are many reasons why our clients deceive us, but a common one is because they are testing our trustworthiness. How easy it is to test us with one story when there is a much more important story they really need to tell.

Since this experience with my supervisor, almost no matter what a client tells me, I accept it as truth. If nothing else, it is their truth at the time. I won’t risk my biases interfering with what they need to tell me. Of course, there are times when we might need to confront or challenge our clients, but I rarely do that in the rapport-building stage.

If I could revisit that moment with that little boy again, I’d do what I have done thousands of times since then and respond, “You did? Wow! Tell me about that.” I have learned to be much more worthy of my clients’ trust.

 

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Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years and the dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Point University. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.

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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.

Engaging avoidant teens

By David Flack May 4, 2020

Ben** is a 16-year-old high school sophomore. He completed a mental health assessment about four months ago, following a referral from his school due to behavioral concerns, poor attendance and “possible issues with marijuana and other substances.” He previously attended school-based mental health counseling in seventh grade and has been meeting periodically with a school counselor for about a year.

(** Ben is a former client who gave permission to use his story. His name and some identifying details have been changed to protect confidentiality.)

At the time of assessment, Ben was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, moderate. He also completed screening questionnaires for trauma, anxiety and various other issues. All scores came back well below clinical levels. Despite the school’s concerns regarding substances, a formal drug assessment didn’t occur.

Todd and Julie, Ben’s parents, have been divorced since Ben was 3. Ben lived with his mother until about a year ago. Todd now has full custody but frequently travels for work. Both parents have been fairly disengaged in the counseling process. In fact, Doris, Ben’s fraternal grandmother, was the only family member to attend the assessment.

At the assessment, Doris appeared overly enmeshed with both Ben and Todd. She also reported that Julie “has bipolar but won’t take any meds” and “drinks too much, at least if you ask me.” Doris also stated that Ben “probably was abused” by Julie’s ex-boyfriend but refused to provide further details. “I don’t think I should have said anything.”

Following the assessment, Ben entered services reluctantly, meeting with his original counselor for almost two months. At that time, he was referred to me because the original counselor decided, “I can’t be effective with such a resistant kid.” The counselor said Ben’s attendance was poor and that he displayed an unwillingness to engage when present, did not complete treatment homework, and “showed up high at least a few times.”

During our first meeting, Ben reported, “All that other therapist did was keep saying how her office was a safe space to talk about feelings and crap like that. You know, the bullshit therapists always say. The bullshit I bet you’ll say too.”

Numerous studies show that an effective therapeutic alliance is essential for engagement, retention and positive treatment outcomes. However, many teenage clients simply aren’t interested in counseling, let alone creating connection or building rapport with some strange adult. This is especially true when it comes to avoidantly attached teens such as Ben.

Building effective therapeutic alliances with these youth can seem daunting to even the most seasoned counselor. In this article, we’ll explore practical, field-tested strategies for cultivating rapport with avoidantly attached teens. First, though, let’s briefly review some core attachment ideas.

We aren’t sea turtles

When a mother sea turtle is ready to lay eggs, she heads to a beach and digs a hole in the sand with her rear fins. She lays her eggs in this rudimentary nest, covers them, and quickly returns to the ocean. At this point, the mother sea turtle has completed all her parenting tasks and has nothing more to do with the eggs. Male sea turtles have nothing at all to do with their offspring.

When the eggs hatch, the newborn sea turtles awkwardly scamper to the ocean, using fins meant for swimming, not avoiding predators on land. If they survive this mad dash, they’re fully ready to live on their own. No caregiver ever provides nurturing, teaches them life skills or protects them in any other way.

Humans aren’t sea turtles. In our early years, we need caregivers just to survive. If these caregivers are attentive, protective and nurturing, human babies quickly learn that the world is a safe place, their needs will be met and people are glad they’re here. These children will be securely attached. However, if their primary caregiver isn’t dependable, then this healthy attachment process can be disrupted, resulting in an insecure attachment and possibly lifelong challenges with relationships, self-esteem and personality development.

There are three styles of insecure attachment: avoidant, anxious and disorganized. Avoidant attachment is the most common style of insecure attachment, with studies indicating that up to 1 in 4 Americans fall into this category. Undoubtedly, this percentage is higher in clinical settings.

Young children who develop an avoidant attachment style predictably have caregivers who are emotionally unavailable and ignore the child’s needs. These caregivers may reject the child when hurt or sick, typically encourage premature independence, and sometimes are overtly neglectful. As a result, the child learns, “I’m on my own.”

Attachment styles are continuums, so avoidantly attached teens don’t all act the same. That said, these youth often appear defiant, defensive or dismissive. They’re likely to present as highly independent, oppositional and unwilling to change. They’re also likely to be suspicious of any empathetic gesture.

A little more about empathy

Simply put, empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of another person. As counselors, we’re taught that empathy is an essential component of all effective therapeutic relationships. I certainly don’t disagree with this. However, it seems to me that empathetic gestures are far from one-size-fits-all.

With reluctant clients of all ages, many counselors demonstrate empathy by saying things such as, “Seeking support is a courageous step” or “My office is a safe space to explore your feelings.” It’s like turning the volume up on some secret empathy knob. With anxiously attached clients, this could be quite effective. For avoidantly attached teens though, this is often overwhelming. Life has taught these youth to be cautious of such statements. So, when they hear such statements, they retreat.

I’m certainly not suggesting that we turn our empathy off as counselors. However, in the early stages of building therapeutic alliances with avoidantly attached teens, we need to turn the volume down. With this in mind, don’t congratulate avoidantly attached teens for starting counseling, especially if doing so is simply their least bad choice, and don’t declare your office a safe space. They know better.

I believe this more nuanced perspective of empathy is an essential foundation for engaging in the attachment-informed strategies that follow.

Starting out right

With avoidantly attached teens, first impressions are essential for starting out right. Here are four tips to help ensure that first meetings are therapeutically productive:

Emphasize rapport building. First meetings often involve stacks of paperwork, required screening tools and initial treatment planning. I encourage you to put that stuff aside and spend time getting to know the teen sitting across from you. You’ll have to finish all those forms eventually, but if this new client never returns, tidy paperwork and a well-crafted diagnosis won’t matter much. Besides, you’ll get better answers from teens such as Ben once you’ve developed some rapport.

Get parents out of the room. Unlike Todd and Julie, parents or caregivers almost always attend first meetings. When they do, I meet with everyone to cover the basics, such as presenting concerns, my background, and confidentiality issues. I then ask parents what they think I should know. After I get their perspective, I have them leave. That way, most of the first meeting can be focused on learning what the teen wants from services and cultivating rapport.

Focus on what they’re willing to do. Therapists love to focus on internal motivators and lofty treatment goals, but this isn’t useful with avoidantly attached teens, who want one thing — to leave and never come back. You’ll get further by helping them identify external motivators, such as fulfilling probation requirements or keeping parents happy. Helping avoidantly attached teens move toward these concrete goals proves that you’ve actually listened to what they’ve said, makes you an ally, and keeps them coming back.

Don’t hard sell therapy. When confronted with resistant clients, it’s easy to overstate the advantages of engagement. After all, if we didn’t believe in therapy, we wouldn’t be therapists, right? However, our enthusiasm may be exactly what an avoidantly attached teen needs to justify a quick retreat. Instead, objectively present your treatment recommendations, then explore the pros and cons of engaging. In my experience, most avoidantly attached teens agree to services when they don’t feel coerced.

With the first meeting successfully concluded, our next task is to cultivate an effective therapeutic alliance. Edward Bordin (1979) wrote that the therapeutic alliance is composed of
1) a positive bond between the therapist and client, 2) a collaborative approach to the tasks of counseling and 3) mutual agreement regarding treatment goals. When we strive to fully integrate these elements and genuinely embrace a teen’s motivators, we stop being an adversary and become an ally. For avoidantly attached teens, we also become a much-needed secure base — maybe their only one.

Building a strong therapeutic alliance with avoidantly attached teens requires us to focus on being trustworthy and creating connectedness.

Trustworthiness

Avoidantly attached teens have learned to continuously question the honesty of others. As a result, it is essential for us to be absolutely impeccable in our trustworthiness as counselors. It isn’t enough simply to be trustworthy though; we must demonstrate it — and not just once or twice but during every single interaction.

Brené Brown (2015) likened trust to a jar of marbles. Every time that we demonstrate our trustworthiness, we put a metaphorical marble in the jar. As the jar fills, trust grows. When it comes to building therapeutic alliance with avoidantly attached teens, there are five especially important marbles:

Authenticity. In the context of therapeutic alliance, authenticity means being our true, genuine selves during interactions with clients. In other words, we set aside therapeutic personas and canned responses. Instead, we show up as who we really are. This should be our goal with all clients but especially so with avoidantly attached teens, who are often quite sensitive to insincere behaviors or actions — a skill they learned to help them navigate difficult relationships with the adults in their lives.

Consistency. Being consistent means acting in ways that are predictable and reliable, something avoidantly attached teens probably haven’t experienced much. When we are consistent in our interactions with these teens, we are not only demonstrating trustworthiness but also modeling a new way of being in relationships. A few ways to demonstrate consistency include always starting and ending sessions on time, scheduling appointments at the same time every week, and following through on any promises we make.

Nonjudgment. Avoidantly attached teens have often learned to notice seemingly minor cues, such as a slight change in facial expression. This is a useful skill to have in situations in which care is unpredictable. With that in mind, it is important for us to avoid comments, gestures or facial expressions that could be interpreted as judgmental. This seems obvious but can be harder than it sounds, especially when a client is frustrating, evasive or baiting us — you know, like teens do sometimes.

Usefulness. Another way to demonstrate trustworthiness is to provide something useful at every session. This doesn’t mean achieving a major clinical breakthrough every week. That wouldn’t be realistic. However, there should be a tangible takeaway of some sort each time that we meet with an avoidantly attached teen. Possibilities include a helpful skill, a solved problem, an opportunity to vent or a meaningful insight — as long as it adds value to the youth’s life.

Transparency. This means being completely open about the therapy process, including our intentions as a helper and what clients should expect from services. Truly transparent therapists spend time exploring the pros and cons of counseling, reasons for discussing certain topics, and the theoretical underpinnings of proposed treatment approaches. In other words, transparent therapists strive to eliminate the mystery from the process. Like a good magic trick, knowing how it works should make it more engaging.

Connectedness

According to Edward Hallowell (1993), connectedness is “a sense of belonging, or a sense of accompaniment. It is that feeling in your bones that you are not alone.” I often describe this deep connectedness as feeling felt. In order for any of us to truly feel felt, we must believe that we are understood, respected and welcomed. We must feel as though we’re interacting with another person who has purposefully chosen to join us in this exact place and moment.

Avoidantly attached teens haven’t had this lived experience of connectedness. When working with these teens, we should always strive to model connectedness in ways that honor their implicit suspicion of empathy, while simultaneously helping them move toward more secure attachment styles.

Allan Schore (2019) refers to these as “right brain to right brain” connections. We can intentionally create such connections by using approaches that focus on emotion, creativity and attunement. It seems to me that teen therapy typically focuses on problem-solving, decision-making, psychoeducation and similar left-brain approaches, ignoring the importance of helping clients become more comfortable using their whole brain.

Here are five simple yet effective strategies for intentionally fostering right-brain connections:

Validate and normalize. Viewed in the context of his lived experiences, Ben’s distrust, oppositional behavior and even substance use were functional. In other words, Ben found value in these behaviors. In fact, he once said, “I guess what I really want is to push people away, and I’m good at it. Really good!” We can validate intentions without endorsing problematic behaviors. With avoidantly attached teens, this is often an essential step to building therapeutic alliances.

Use first-person plural language. The words we use matter. Here’s one example: Instead of using the pronouns “you” and “your,” shift to “we” and “our.” This shift results in a subtle, yet tangible, change in our interactions with avoidantly attached teens. It also helps reinforce that we’re together in the process and that the teen’s experiences are understandable. I’m not sure that clients overtly notice this word usage, but I definitely believe there is value in making the shift.

Use more reflections, ask fewer questions. Most therapists ask way too many questions. To an avoidantly attached teen, questions can seem intrusive, annoying and disingenuous. It may seem counterintuitive, but fewer questions from you will actually result in more talking by the client. Instead of all those questions, use reflections. While you’re at it, avoid cautiously worded reflections. Instead, commit to what you’re saying, with statements of fact such as, “That was tough for you.” Such statements demonstrate connection, not interrogation.

Talk less, do more. From a developmental perspective, full-on talk therapy isn’t the best fit for teens, especially for avoidantly attached ones who don’t want to engage in the first place. I suggest incorporating some no-talk approaches for building rapport and addressing therapeutic goals. The card games Exploding Kittens and Fluxx are excellent choices for building rapport. They are teen-friendly, easy to learn and filled with opportunities for making metaphors. Favorite therapeutically focused activities include collages, creative journaling and walk/talk sessions.

Be fully present. Being present means having your focus, attention, thoughts and feelings all fixed on the here and now — in this case, the current session with the current client. From my perspective, this requires more than a basic attentiveness. It requires being fully engaged, human to human, with no judgment or agenda. This level of presence can feel risky at times, for counselors and for avoidantly attached teens. However, the connectedness it brings makes the risk well worth taking.

Relationships are reciprocal

Imagine your response if a client reported being in a relationship in which the other person refuses to share personal information and frequently makes statements such as “I’m curious why you want to know that,” even when the question is fairly innocuous. Perhaps you’d amend this client’s treatment plan to include working on healthy relationships or building appropriate boundaries. I sure would. Yet, this is what we do all the time as counselors, based perhaps on an assumption that self-disclosure is inherently bad.

It seems to me that we shouldn’t expect teens, especially ones who are avoidantly attached, to be open with us if we aren’t open with them. I’m certainly not suggesting that we share every detail of our lives with teen clients, but I do believe we should be willing to disclose relevant information, answer questions asked out of true curiosity, and be as honest with clients as we expect them to be with us. By doing so, we model effective interpersonal skills, demonstrate healthy ways to connect with others, and solidify the therapeutic alliance.

When teen clients ask questions of a personal nature, some therapists view this as a form of resistance, as a way to avoid the topic at hand or as behavior that interferes with treatment. I disagree, at least sometimes. Perhaps the teen is making an initial attempt to cultivate a relationship with us. Perhaps these questions are a sign that we’re becoming a secure base for the teen. Perhaps we’re witnessing a little nugget of change. Why would we shut that down?

When we deflect all questions of a personal nature, maybe we aren’t reinforcing appropriate therapeutic boundaries or challenging client avoidance. Maybe we’re rejecting a tentative attempt at connection. Maybe we’re demonstrating that we aren’t a secure base. Maybe we’re reinforcing the client’s avoidant attachment style.

For the first several weeks, sessions with Ben were slow going. He often showed up late, sometimes refused to talk and frequently stated he didn’t need or want help. One day, I taught him Fluxx. He commented that the game was about unpredictability. “I hate that,” he said.

The next session, Ben brought his own game, Unstable Unicorns. “It’s a complicated game,” he said, “but I’m a complicated person, and you seem to understand me.”

I let that register, picked up my cards, and lost three games in a row. At the end of the session, for the first time ever, Ben said, “See you next week.”

John Bowlby (1969) described attachment as a “lasting connectedness between human beings” and stated that the earliest bonds formed by children with their primary caregivers have significant, lifelong impacts. When meeting with avoidantly attached teens, it’s essential that we remember the ghosts in the room with us. It’s essential that we intentionally earn marbles. It’s essential that we slowly, but steadily, create connectedness. When we do, we invite teens such as Ben to move toward a more securely attached way of being.

 

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David Flack is a licensed mental health counselor and substance use disorders professional located in Seattle. For 20 years, he has met with teens and emerging adults to address depression, trauma, co-occurring disorders and more. In addition to his clinical work, he regularly provides continuing education programs regionally and nationally. Contact him at david@davidflack.com.

Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

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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.

Voice of Experience: Giving away power

By Gregory K. Moffatt July 11, 2019

“Are you Dr. Moffatt?” a soft voice said as Antoine (not his real name) stepped into my office.

I nodded. He was a 20-something African American male. He explained that he had been arrested for assault. His court requirements included completing 12 counseling sessions for anger management. I quickly perused the copy of the court mandate Antoine had brought with him as he stood by respectfully.

“So, let me get the picture,” I said. “You got in a fight. A white guy arrested you. A white guy represented you in court, and a white guy sentenced you and sent you to see a white guy for 12 weeks. Is that about right?”

Antoine tried to stifle a smile but failed. “Yeah, that’s pretty much it,” he acknowledged.

“Well,” I said, “according to this court document, the only mandate is that we have to meet for 12 weeks. We can do whatever you want. We can talk about life, sports, or stare at the wall. Whatever you like. At the end of 12 weeks, assuming you show up, I’ll sign off. Or, if you like, we can work on what might have led to your arrest. If we do, then maybe I can learn something about you, and you can learn something about yourself and hopefully never see a jail cell again.”

When I tell that story to new clinicians, they argue that it would have been unethical to see Antoine for 12 weeks but not do therapy. We would have done therapy, but that isn’t the issue. The mandate didn’t require that I show progress or that the client cooperate. The document only required him to attend.

I’m not playing word games. Alcoholics Anonymous has done this since its inception. Individuals can attend, not say a word, be resistant, and they can show little or no progress or even relapse. Showing up is a giant step on the long road to recovery.

Predictably, mandated clients bring resistance with them. We have no power to force any of our clients to change. The wording of the court mandate allowed me to give away power from the get-go by stating the obvious: I couldn’t force Antoine to change or engage in therapy. (Be aware that some court mandates do require growth.)

I also gave Antoine power by stating something else that was obvious. He was nonwhite, and I was just another white man in a system in which he had no power. I gave him permission (power) not to trust me, and in so doing, ironically, I began to earn his trust.

Mandated counseling makes giving power to our clients especially challenging, and resistance is predictable. Because I’m white, I was pretty sure Antoine assumed that I wouldn’t understand him or his culture. He had no reason to trust me. If I had been in his shoes, I wouldn’t have trusted me either.

Giving away power is one of the things in our therapeutic tool boxes that can help us earn trust very quickly. My technique worked. Within minutes, Antoine was at least willing to give me a chance.

I do something similar with child clients because children are also mandated in a way. Guardians bring them to me — a stranger — often without even asking these children their thoughts about it.

But like Antoine, young children learn to trust me almost as soon as they cross my office threshold. I meet them at the door, welcome them in and say, “You can do about anything you want in here. If there is something you can’t do, I’ll tell you.”

Some children test me with a question such as, “Can I break something?”

“If you feel like you need to,” I reply.

I often watch them as they roam around my playroom, shooting occasional glances at me, seemingly waiting for me tell to them what they can’t do. Saying “no” is rarely necessary.

Antoine turned out to be one of my favorite adult clients. If I hadn’t given him power from the start, he probably still would have shown up and been respectful and cooperative. But growth may not have happened.

Instead, over our 12 weeks, he was fully engaged — starting with our very first session — and he grew tremendously. Several times I saw his eyes light up as he had epiphanies about his decision-making processes. He gained insight into his behavior and developed numerous coping and problem-solving strategies that make it unlikely he will ever see the inside of a courtroom again, at least as a defendant.

I still think about Antoine and his sly smile during our first meeting. Witnessing his growth was satisfying, and that is why I became a counselor in the first place. I doubt I would have ever earned his trust without giving him power from the beginning.

 

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Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.

 

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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.

Counseling encounters with the puppet masters

By Gregory K. Moffatt February 5, 2019

Utter the words sociopath or psychopath in any public forum, and everyone knows what you’re talking about. “Like serial killers, right?” Yeah, like serial killers. Even in clinical settings, these dated terms are sometimes still used. They’re simply easier to say than antisocial personality disorder (APD), the label currently given in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

Years of working with law enforcement agencies on cases involving shootings, serial crimes and sexual homicides have given me plenty of exposure to APD. But diagnosing was rarely my role with those cases, and the subjects were always men in trouble with the law — a distinctly biased sample. In clinical settings, I rarely found use for the APD diagnosis until about a dozen years ago, when my entire perspective was transformed by reading Martha Stout’s 2006 book The Sociopath Next Door. Stout, a clinical psychologist, does a masterful job of describing the disorder and providing examples of the various ways in which the disorder manifests. As I should have known, not everyone diagnosed with APD is — or will become — a serial killer.

As a young clinician many years ago, I assumed that I wouldn’t see APD in my general practice. After all, serial killers weren’t known for voluntarily pursuing psychotherapy. Knowing what I know now, however, I must have seen clients with APD many times without realizing it. Estimates on the frequency of the disorder vary widely, but according to the DSM-5, the presence of APD in the U.S. population is about 4 percent. Given the broad effects of APD, this is a very large number, and mere probability means that most clinicians will be exposed to APD at some point in their careers. After reading Stout’s book, I began to understand why. My two experiences — homicide work and the clinical office — might also explain the wide-ranging estimates. My law enforcement sample increased my exposure to individuals with APD. In the clinical setting, on the other hand, I was misdiagnosing or underdiagnosing — thus limiting my perception of the existence of APD.

Hiding in plain sight

This is an oversimplification, but I probably missed correctly diagnosing APD because I associated it only with criminals. Although many individuals with APD are criminals, there are many other manifestations of the disorder.

In brief, the DSM-5 criteria for APD require that a person be at least 18 years of age and do the following: lie, deceive, have a reckless regard for the safety of others, be impulsive or irritable, manipulate, lack remorse for actions, fail to conform to social norms and behave irresponsibly. This very broad and generalized set of criteria can be exhibited in a variety of ways. According to the DSM-5, APD is much more common in males than in females, and my experience — both in the world of criminal justice and in the clinical setting — reflects that claim. 

Some years ago, I was consulting with a business, helping with team building among its upper-level administrators. One senior administrator in particular frustrated me. Alex (not his real name) would give the impression that he was working on something for our project, but then it would become evident that he had no intention of doing anything. If I asked Alex directly if he planned to do the project work, he wouldn’t come right out and say “no” in defiance of his superiors. Rather, he was simply evasive.   

I didn’t trust Alex, and he gave me little reason to. He gave slippery answers to simple questions, and more than once, I noted contradictions in things he told me. On some occasions in private conversation with me, he would slip into an arrogant attitude regarding his bosses, as if he perceived that he — rather than the CEO — should be leading the company. A time or two he even tipped his hand to me, describing how he had lied to his co-workers or others. He seemed quite proud of getting away with his deceptions. I reasoned that if Alex lied to others and was proud of it, he would probably lie to me too.

In the few meetings Alex attended and in conversations in the hallways, he could be kind and often flattering. He used all the right lingo, especially if the boss was around, and in my view seemed so overly effusive on occasion that it bordered on disingenuous. At other times, Alex condescended to his fellow employees, the secretarial staff and other “underlings,” both in private and in front of others, as if these co-workers were idiots. He would then cast glances at those around him, suggesting that they were all in on some big joke of which the target was unaware. His attitude came across as if he believed everyone was too stupid to see what he was doing.

Alex consistently failed to show up at meetings where his presence was critical, including during my final week with the project, when he was supposed to lead the meeting with our team. Instead, he left us all waiting in the conference room. I found out he had instead decided to go on a picnic with his family. He had left a message with a secretary saying he would get back to me about rescheduling, knowing full well that I wouldn’t be returning after that week.

It was no wonder this administrative team had troubles. Alex wasn’t lazy and he most definitely wasn’t incompetent. In fact, he was very bright and capable. At times he seemed so on top of his game that I wondered if he might be bored with the relatively minor challenges of his job. But that wasn’t his problem.

Instead, I think it delighted him that nobody could tell him what to do. He believed he was pulling the wool over the eyes of his bosses, his colleagues and his “underlings.” I think he reveled in messing with them, making their jobs harder and knowing that they couldn’t do anything about it. For example, I don’t believe that Alex had any reservations about leading my final meeting or that he hadn’t done the work. On the contrary, he probably had. It was part of his insurance package. If the boss had asked Alex about his work, he would have pulled it from his hip pocket in a heartbeat. Instead, the picnic with his family was a way of flipping me the bird and knowing that I couldn’t do anything to stop him. After reading Stout’s book, the APD diagnosis for Alex seemed obvious. That diagnosis answered all my questions regarding his behavior with me and with his co-workers.

But these individuals with APD aren’t always men. One client from years ago was referred to me from an employee assistance program because she was exhibiting symptoms of paranoia. In my assessment, Linda (not her real name) was indeed clinically paranoid. In a cruel twist of irony, however, her boss was working hard behind the scenes to get Linda fired and, more relevant to this conversation, a fellow employee (whom I’ll call “Millie”) knew that Linda was troubled and used that realization to her advantage. So, although Linda was clinically paranoid, people really were out to get her.

Millie tormented Linda, dropping hints that this person or that person in the company was asking about Linda or questioning the quality of her work. Millie carefully crafted comments that went to the very heart of a paranoid individual’s anxieties. As Millie inflamed Linda’s paranoid thoughts, those thoughts exacerbated Linda’s annoying behaviors in the workplace — the very things that led Linda’s boss to seek options for her dismissal.

At other times, Millie would overtly lie, saying a manager or vice president had come by looking for Linda when she was out of the office. These statements would aggravate Linda’s fears that she was in trouble or that her bosses thought she wasn’t working — neither of which were true. Out of fear of confrontation, Linda wouldn’t ask any of the administrators if they had come by to see her. If she had, Millie would have been exposed, but Millie knew Linda wouldn’t risk that confrontation.

Millie did similar things to other co-workers. For example, one woman was struggling with the fear that her husband was having an affair, and she confided this to Millie. Thereafter, Millie would find opportunities when she was alone with the woman to talk about a movie she had seen in which a man was unfaithful or to gossip about a co-worker who was suspected of philandering. On another occasion, she shared details about a friend whose husband had been exposed for having a long-term affair and how “foolish” her friend had been not to have seen it.

Millie’s purpose was not to gossip but rather to cause turmoil within these two employees — throwing gasoline on the fire of paranoia with one and on the fire of emotional anguish with the other. All the while, she could innocently defend herself, saying she was merely discussing company business or the sad facts behind a broken marriage.

Antisocial personality simplified

The abridged way that I describe APD beyond the DSM-5 criteria for my students and interns is twofold, with one additional caveat. First, we have to think of those with APD as puppeteers — a metaphor that I borrow from Stout. Each time the puppet master moves the wooden cross pieces of the marionettes, the strings move the puppets below them. These puppeteers are essentially saying, “Dance for me.” Millie made my client and other employees dance any time she wanted. To Millie, these women were toys she could manipulate at will. Both Millie and Alex were very good at covering their tracks so that they could keep their jobs. They had perfected plausible deniability.

The second thing to know about individuals with APD is that they are takers. In some cases, they can be violent, such as the taking of another person’s life in the case of serial killers or the taking of someone’s sexuality in the case of rapists. But there are many other things that people with APD can take. For example, they take advantage of the goodness of others, becoming leeches who move into someone’s home under the guise of getting back on their feet. Instead, they won’t leave until they are kicked to the curb. Some people with APD become police officers and federal agents, reveling in the taking of another person’s freedom. And some of these individuals become hucksters, taking money whenever they can for the sheer pleasure of getting away with it.

Individuals with APD create chaos in their homes, workplaces, sports teams and social environments, taking peace from those around them. I served as the vice president for student life at a Southern university for several years in the late 1980s and early 1990s. During one particularly challenging year, the first several weeks of school brought one crisis after another. Issues in dormitories, in classrooms, on athletic fields and even in the cafeteria had me investing hours, on a daily basis, to manage these crises. By October, it dawned on me that one particular student had been involved to some degree in each and every major problem that had come across my desk. He was either the complainant or the target of a complaint in each instance.

In the end, this student had stolen credit cards, jewelry and cash from various students. He repeatedly lodged baseless accusations of racism against professors, staff and fellow students. He was suspended for the stolen property issue and left our campus — but stayed in his dormitory room until the very last minute he was required to vacate. And he wasn’t done yet.

In true APD style, he later filed a baseless lawsuit against our university with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and used his college mailing address on the paperwork — an address that obviously was no longer valid. He also listed me as a reference for a job he applied for just hours after leaving our campus, undoubtedly hoping that the company wouldn’t follow up on his references. In his job interview, he completely misrepresented the reasons for his withdrawal from school, telling this employer that he had decided to take some time off to figure out what he wanted to do in life. The ACLU lawsuit was dropped for lack of evidence, and the employer did, in fact, follow up on references. Fortunately for us, after this student was dismissed, peace returned to the community.

The caveat that accompanies these two descriptors regards the conscience. It is an oversimplification to claim that individuals with APD have no conscience. In fact, some argue that they must have a conscience. It is proposed that to enjoy the suffering of others, one must have at least a minimal sense of right and wrong and one must have the ability to imagine what others are thinking and feeling. We know this as empathy. Simply put, our conscience is a powerful voice that keeps our behaviors in check, even when primal urges push and pull us in other directions. This voice allows us to empathize and causes us shame when we violate its dictates. But in clients with APD, these violations cause pleasure. At a minimum, there is either a deficit in that governing voice with these clients or they lack it altogether.

Prognosis and the APD continuum

The most common question I get regarding clients with APD is whether they can be treated. That is not an easy question to answer. There is very little research on the efficacy of therapy for these clients. There is also the problem of biased samples. Most research is done on hospitalized patients or on those who have been mandated to counseling, which may not be reflective of the population of individuals with APD at large. Given APD’s symptoms, we can expect that many, if not most, of these clients won’t engage in counseling voluntarily. Therefore, in therapy we may see only those who want help (motivated clients) or those who have been mandated (resistant clients).

But there is hope. A 2010 comprehensive report by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) in the U.K. provided some important information for clinicians, including that treatments for APD do exist. The study notes that treatment is most helpful when there is early intervention. The second important bit of information is that even though there is no “cure” for personality disorders, symptoms can be treated. Medication and treatment for comorbid issues (anger management, social skills training and relaxation training) are the most likely areas of focus. 

It is important for clinicians to recognize that most mental health issues exist on a continuum. We formally recognize this continuum in several areas, including autism, suicide risk and developmental delay. Although the DSM-5 does not provide a continuum for many disorders — APD included — anyone who has been in the field for very long can recognize that the continuum exists. Most of us have seen clients with major depressive disorder who cannot get out of bed, and we have also seen clients with the same diagnosis who function far better. Personally, I miss the Global Assessment of Functioning scale in previous DSM editions because it provided exactly the continuum I’m describing.

Follow-up on Alex

The case involving Alex had an interesting conclusion. A few months after my summary meeting with Alex’s company, I got a call from the CEO asking me to see Alex on a one-to-one basis. The CEO wanted to retain Alex but was considering firing him because of a series of problematic behaviors like the ones he exhibited when I was working with the management team. 

For weeks, Alex and I worked together as I tried to help him salvage his job. He resented his employer, and he resented having to come see me. Every session was a battle for control — Alex trying to manipulate me and me trying to stay on task.

I wish I could say that I discovered some therapeutic magic trick and that Alex changed. Unfortunately, he did not. I tried anger management, relaxation, social skills training, perspective-taking exercises, problem-solving exercises and long-range planning. I repeatedly appealed to Alex’s self-interest in keeping his job. Nothing worked. Alex’s marriage was cold and emotionless, he had only cursory involvement with his two daughters, and he had no hobbies or activities that brought him pleasure outside of work — the one place where his puppet stage was always open. My therapeutic attempts were interrupting his theater.

Even though I tried to give Alex control as much as possible, just as I do with most of my clients, we butted heads repeatedly. He fought me every minute of our monthslong therapeutic relationship. Just like when we worked together on the team-building project, I suspect Alex had no intention of working on anything in counseling from the start. In the end, we terminated therapy after his required period of intervention. The CEO fired him, and I’ve never heard from Alex again. 

But this doesn’t discourage me. The NICE study confirmed what I experienced: The older the client with APD is, the harder it is to intervene. Despite my frustrations with Alex, I don’t regret trying to help him. As I tell my clinicians-in-training, anyone can work with the easy clients. Professionals work with the hard ones. Sadly, Alex wasn’t one of my success stories. Linda, on the other hand, was.

Follow-up on Linda

Helping clients whose lives are being disrupted by individuals with APD is no easy task either. Just like people who batter their spouses, people with APD are very good at manipulating others while making it appear that they didn’t. This causes the individual being manipulated to introspect rather than to see the inexcusable behaviors in front of their eyes.

Linda was mandated to counseling because of her paranoia and the challenges in her job. Yet because of her paranoia, she was convinced that people were trying to get her fired, and that was a claim that I couldn’t deny. However, by acknowledging that people really were out to get her, I risked feeding her paranoia. What a challenge.

This is what I did. We spent much of our early clinical work polishing relaxation techniques. Then we moved to reality testing. This helped Linda in two ways. First, when she feared someone was plotting something, she now had tools to evaluate the legitimacy of that claim. For example, when Millie said a boss had come by “wondering” where Linda was, we looked for ways to confirm or deny such claims.

We then worked on Linda’s assertiveness skills. This, combined with reality testing, almost completely put a stop to Millie’s manipulations. The next time that Millie said Linda’s boss had come by or implied that a supervisor might think that Linda wasn’t doing a good job, Linda confronted Millie and asked her whom she was referring to specifically. Then Linda went to that boss to see what she might do to improve. Millie never counted on Linda taking that assertive action. When she could no longer easily manipulate Linda and predict what she would do, Millie moved on to other targets.

These three skills also helped Linda salvage her job. Because she was more relaxed at work and felt more confident when she faced her fears head-on, her paranoia no longer created workplace issues. As a result, her boss who had been seeking a way to fire her backed off and let her do her job.

Summary

There is no question that many people involved in crime could be diagnosed with APD. Actions that seems so reasonable to them are sometimes comical. One individual I worked with explained his stealing behavior to me: “I saw the woman’s purse in her car and the car was unlocked. So, I’m like, ‘God brought that purse with the money in it to me, and I helped that lady because I taught her not to leave her car unlocked.’”

But as Stout so clearly outlines in her book, there are many other ways that APD is manifested. Individuals with this disorder can be cutthroat businesspeople or politicians. They can be covetous psychopaths — individuals with an inordinate desire for the possessions of others. They can be individuals who steal, lie and commit fraud. They can appear lazy — living in a rent-free house, sleeping on someone’s couch, or taking advantage of their spouse and children. They can be people like Millie who “gaslight” others, a descriptor taken from a movie of the same title in which a man tries to drive his wife mad. If those with APD are intelligent, like Millie and Alex, they can manipulate social impressions. Those with APD who are less intelligent end up in trouble, in prison, homeless or dead.

These individuals aren’t bothered by cheating on their spouses, causing chaos at work, or defrauding and stealing from their friends. They use their charisma to deflect attention from their devious behaviors, essentially hiding in plain sight. Their accomplishments, such as financial success, can conceal their dysfunctional motives. And when challenged, they use intimidation and their domineering personalities to cause anyone who might question them to back off.

And perhaps most important for us to know as counselors, individuals with APD will manipulate us if we aren’t careful. We will see these clients in our offices, but what is even more likely is that they will be the husbands and wives, sons and daughters, bosses and co-workers of our clients. The seemingly inexplicable behaviors that our clients relate to us will make much greater sense in the context of the potential APD diagnosis for these people in their lives. That powerful knowledge can help us set goals and establish solutions for managing these situations.

 

 

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Gregory K. Moffatt is a licensed professional counselor, a certified professional counselor supervisor and a professor and department chair of counseling and human services at Point University in Georgia. He has been in private clinical practice for more than 30 years, specializing in work with traumatized children for much of that time. An author and international speaker, he has also worked as a consultant to the FBI and as a homicide profiler. Contact him at greg.moffatt@point.edu.

 

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