Tag Archives: Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience: Three pieces of anger

By Gregory K. Moffatt September 23, 2021

He was court mandated, and to stay out of jail, he was required to engage in several months of anger management counseling, among other things. I was his choice as a counselor.

An incident of road rage had resulted in this outcome. The other driver had recklessly cut my client off on the interstate. His temper flared, and he pursued the other driver, eventually bumping her car and nearly causing an accident. The other driver was a young mother on her way to work with two children in car seats in the rear of the van. She called the police, who pulled my client over and arrested him.

My client didn’t have a single mark on his police record prior to this incident and said he had never done anything else like it in his 38 years of life. In our early sessions together, he was as befuddled by his behavior as the frightened young mother must have been on the highway.

Leremy/Shutterstock.com

Anger is a fascinating emotion. It is completely visceral. You can’t “decide” to be angry any more than you can decide to fall in love with someone. Instead, in a way, anger attacks us out of the blue, as it had done to my client.

People express anger differently depending on a variety of factors, including personality, coping skills, history and context. Regardless, we are all its victims at one time or another, and sometimes this emotion deceives us. In fact, anger can be much “safer” for us to express than other emotions. A counselor once told me that depression is really hidden anger, and while that may often be true, I believe the opposite is also true. It is sometimes easier to be self-righteous and angry than it is to admit that your heart is hurting.

I’ve had clients who have threatened others with weapons, engaged in violent road rage, and even some who have killed their workmates. Very few of these people planned their behaviors ahead of time. They acted spontaneously in the heat of passion (pardon the cliché).

I have witnessed anger many times in my clients, and I’ve recognized some things that help me manage it. Early in my career, “anger management” involved a set of techniques such as deep breathing and the development of varied coping skills. While those are certainly important areas on which to focus, I was missing a piece of the puzzle at the time that is also critical in managing anger.

Anger has three common components or pieces, and if we help our clients address these three issues, they will have new tools for coping in a variety of situations.

The first component is loss of control. When all of our tools for coping are expended, we are reduced to primitive behaviors. Think about how illogical (yet common) it is to push an elevator button repeatedly. In the midst of our frustration, we push the button again and again, even though we know it won’t help. This is where the use of deep breathing (or another relaxation technique) is very helpful.

My client had been feeling a loss of control at work and a loss of control at home. When the other driver’s behavior caused him to feel a similar loss of control that day in heavy traffic, he tried to retake control by “punishing” her for her reckless driving.

A second component of anger is that the precipitating event is perceived as personal. My client perceived that the other driver was doing something deliberately to him (as if she had planned specifically to make him angry) when, in fact, she was simply in a hurry and wasn’t thinking. The irony in road rage is that we depersonalize the other driver and at the same time perceive their behavior to be a personal and intentional attack on us.

Finally, the third component is a belief that one has been wronged — that life isn’t fair. My client believed that “other drivers shouldn’t be so careless.” In a way, he was trying to make the world fair by righting a wrong. That thinking is quite illogical but very common in road rage incidents.

The rage my client experienced had occurred partially because his defenses were down. He had just wrapped up a very bad day at work, his home life was at a low point, and in the safety of his car — his own domain — he let his normal coping skills fly out the window.

After weeks of counseling work, my client went on about his life a much healthier person. By looking at these three pieces of anger, he was able to learn to recognize cues and apply anger management techniques. I hope he’ll never see the back seat of a police car again.

 

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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.

Voice of Experience: The ughly child

By Gregory K. Moffatt August 23, 2021

I was an ughly child, but I doubt that you would think that by looking at my grade school pictures. For the most part, I suppose I looked like any other kid. Nothing about me was exceptional in either direction. I wasn’t exceedingly attractive nor was I noticeably unfortunate looking.

But ughly children know who they are. They are the children teachers prefer not to see on their class rosters at the beginning of the fall semester and the ones who cause parents to grimace when they realize “that child” will be attending a birthday party. Even most therapists don’t like seeing these children’s names on their agenda for the day.

Ughly children demand others’ energy. They break things. They often rub people — including their peers — the wrong way. That is what makes them “ughly” — they cause us to go “ugh.”

Consequently, they are never the first ones chosen for games, and often their comments and thoughts go unnoticed, as if they weren’t there at all. Over time, they learn that they are irrelevant, sometimes even at home.

I run a camp for grieving children every summer. We always have a few children who demand far more of our time than do others. Some require a dedicated staff person 24/7. They force us to use all of our skills and, often, all of our energy.

Zdan Ivan/Shutterstock.com

It would be far easier if all of my campers were cute, cooperative and fun to work with. But ughly children are my favorites. I would be lying if I said that I looked forward to the hard work these children require of me. Camp is exhausting enough given the outdoor conditions, poor sleep and, of course, the energy required to help children through their grief. I would also be lying if I said that I haven’t sometimes thought “ugh” upon seeing certain names on my own therapy agenda.

I realized long ago, however, that these children are accustomed to the exasperated inflection in the voices of those who speak to them. The world these children live in is full of adults and kids alike who give clear indication that life would be much easier if ughly children weren’t in it. Mostly, that message is unintended, but it is the message these children receive nonetheless.

I work hard to communicate a very different message. I make sure to pick them first, to listen carefully to their stories, and to show patience that they sometimes don’t know what to do with. It is amazing how quickly I build rapport with these children and, consequently, how hard they will work to please me. That makes behavior modification much easier.

So, whether it is for a few days at camp or throughout months of therapy, I commit to acting like I might be the only person that day (or maybe ever) who makes these children feel that I am glad to see them rather than perturbed that they need something from me.

It would be a mistake to think that ughliness is limited to children. It isn’t. Adults can be ughly too and, like the children I’ve described, they know who they are. Their lives have been replete with rejection, and that is often at the core of some of their troubles.

Many years ago, a client of mine was an ughly child. I know because he told me so. “My teachers don’t like me,” he said on the first day we met. He wasn’t complaining. Just stating the facts. This young boy had endured several major life events that would have challenged any adult.

He was rambunctious and broke something nearly every time he came into my office. Upon his departure each day, the sand from my sand tray was always all over the floor and most of the toys were off the shelves. He was hard work, but I loved that child. I was his lifeline to a more peaceful future. We worked together for several years as he weathered many storms.

Today he is approaching 30, and I occasionally see him in the community. He is 6-and-a-half-feet tall and outweighs me by at least 50 pounds. Yet each time I see this very successful young man, he hugs me with the deepest affection. I’ll always be his “Dr. Gregory.”

Anybody can work with easy children. Professionals take on the challenge of the hard ones, and that is why ughly children are my favorites. Maybe they can become your favorites too.

 

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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.

Voice of Experience: Proceed with caution when advocating on clients’ behalf

By Gregory K. Moffatt July 28, 2021

I wish it had happened only one time, but unfortunately, that wouldn’t be the truth. Several dozen times over my career, I’ve been asked to assess a case for a business, school or lawsuit in which someone from the mental health community has written a letter on behalf of a client. That letter, too frequently, has turned out to be a disaster.

One letter I reviewed for a company in a lawsuit was from a psychologist. The clinician wrote a two-page letter full of her feelings about the client, but it did not address in a simple sentence the one thing requested by the employer. The letter couldn’t have been worse.

(Author note: Some information has been changed in each of these cases to protect the identities of those involved.)

In another case, also a lawsuit, the plaintiff’s clinician stated that she had “never” suffered from depression, which was a point of contention in the suit. There is no way this clinician could have supported that statement unless she had been the person’s clinician since birth.

One of my colleagues was about to provide a letter to the court on behalf of his adult male client. The man had been his client for some time as my friend helped him through the early stages of divorce. The man’s attorney asked for a letter stating that the man was a good father.

As was the case in the previous example, my friend couldn’t have truly known whether the man was a good father. He had never worked with the man’s children or observed him in a parenting role. Beyond that, my friend had no expertise in child custody. Testimony here would have been a huge mistake.

And here is one more example: A clinician agreed to give a deposition for her adult female client. The clinician had worked with the woman for a very long time and knew her well. She wanted to help the woman, who had sued her employer for harassment and disability. The clinician presented no doubt that returning to the workplace would have been damaging to the woman’s trauma recovery.

However, at the deposition, the attorney for the employer cornered her, and the clinician was forced to admit she had no real training in trauma, no experience in workplace disability, and had only the woman’s word for what had occurred — facts that became even more clear in the deposition.

As a result, the client lost her lawsuit against the employer and, even worse, felt betrayed by her clinician and withdrew from therapy.

It is because of situations such as these that many clinicians choose not to do this type of advocacy for clients. While we are bound by counselor ethics to be our clients’ advocates “when appropriate” (see Standard A.7.a. of the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics), our ethics do not specify how we are to do that. If you choose not to engage in court, school or workplace advocacy, it should be stated in your informed consent.

As my vignettes above illustrate, there are many hazards associated with advocacy, but those risks alone shouldn’t stop you. If you choose to advocate for your client, here are three simple rules.

Rule 1: As was presented by Jean Peterson in a 2017 article for Counseling Today, you must be clear whether you are “testifying” (either in court or in a business setting) as an expert witness or as a fact witness. As an expert, you can provide an opinion, but it must be based on your expertise (see Rule 2). As a fact witness, you are testifying only to what occurred. For example, “The client has kept all appointments as required by the employer.”

Rule 2: Never step outside your area of expertise and training. If you have expertise and are called as an expert witness, state your case. But if you are asked about something that requires you to move outside that area, do not comment.

Rule 3: If you are going to provide a letter or deposition for a client as their advocate, always get the opinion/oversight from someone with experience. Having legal counsel would be wise as well.

Summary: Most of the mistakes made in the anecdotes in this article are related to two issues. First is that we want so much to help our clients that we don’t think about the ramifications of what we might be getting into. Second, most clinicians don’t have any training in advocating for clients, and CE opportunities in this area are rare. As a result, most clinicians simply don’t know what they are doing. So, be careful.

Salivanchuk Semen/Shutterstock.com

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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.

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.

Voice of Experience: The power of a moment

By Gregory K. Moffatt May 19, 2021

He wasn’t a counselor, and I wasn’t seeking any interventions, but a single powerful moment with a mentor changed my life. His name was Mr. Rouse, my sixth-grade teacher. He had been teaching at my tiny little schoolhouse for only a couple of years. My elementary school was a brick and stone structure that was built in the 1890s and had served our rural community for decades. Nearly every student walked to school or rode a bicycle, so only two or three buses lined the curb in front of the building each day. Almost nobody rode to school in a parent’s car.

Mr. Rouse had been my older sister’s teacher during his first year at our school, and he most definitely made a splash. He was one of only three male teachers in the building. That was unusual enough, but he was anything but traditional. Bearded and rough in his demeanor, he never wore a tie — this at a time when even students sometimes wore ties and dress shirts. He would teach in the United States for however long it took him to earn enough money to go overseas, and then he was gone again to teach in some remote village halfway around the world.

I don’t know how he picked our little village for one of his money-raising sabbaticals from overseas work, but I’m glad he did. I will mark my sixth decade of life this summer, and yet his face and voice are still clear in my mind.

I was a mediocre student who never took my studies seriously. Even though I was an avid reader very early in life, I liked playing baseball, riding bikes and climbing trees far more than schoolwork, and each school day was a countdown until I was free to get on my bike and head home. Equally significant, I never thought I was very smart. Nobody ever gave me any clear reason to think otherwise until Mr. Rouse.

One of his routines was a weekly spelling test composed of 10 words. Any and all students who got 90% or higher on every test throughout the year were invited to a local restaurant with him to celebrate in May. My sister made that goal and got her picture in the local paper with her fellow classmates and Mr. Rouse at the restaurant celebration.

I stayed in the game until just after Christmas break when I missed two words on a weekly test. My score of 80 meant I was out. It didn’t really surprise me that I hadn’t made it, but I was disappointed. Mr. Rouse came to my desk sometime that day and sat in the seat beside me, his huge body squeezed into the ancient drop-down desk — the kind with the inkwell in the upper corner. We went over my spelling words, and the mistake I had made was a simple one.

“Greg, you are too smart to make a mistake like that. You could have finished the year,” he said matter-of-factly. I could see that he believed I was smart and that he believed in me. I never wanted to disappoint him again.

Many years later, after a rough freshman year in college, I thought of Mr. Rouse as I worked to salvage my GPA. I also thought of him when I applied to graduate school and yet again when I applied to my doctoral program. As some of my classmates withdrew from our Ph.D. program, I remembered his words, “You could have finished,” and I pushed through.

I’m so grateful for Mr. Rouse, but he also taught me something very therapeutic. I don’t remember anything else from that sixth-grade year or about him. I moved on to junior high the following year, and Mr. Rouse moved on to his next adventure the year after that. I never saw him again, but the power of that one moment — just seconds in my long life in a sixth-grade classroom — influenced me forever. I suspect that if I had ever gotten the chance later in life to ask Mr. Rouse whether he did that on purpose, he would probably have said no. He was just a good teacher doing his job, but it was a powerful moment that he took advantage of, and we can’t always plan those times.

So now I think of him every time a client comes through my office door. I have my agenda and activities ready to go, but it may be just one serendipitous moment — maybe even a moment I don’t recognize at the time — that changes them forever.

Raymond Fisher/Shutterstock.com

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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.