Help! I Don’t Like My Client!

Dear Ryan,

I am running into a huge issue with one of my clients. I can’t connect with them, and every session is excruciating. I dread our time together. The other day they called and cancelled their session and I instantly felt lighter and my day felt much more manageable. I’ve never run into this before, and I don’t know what to do because I just can’t even get behind the idea of liking this person in any capacity whatsoever, never mind trying to. I don’t think they’re picking up on my dislike, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to address it – I know that I need to, I just don’t know where to start. How can I summon any kind of positive feelings for this person?


A Perfectly Normal Counselor Running into a Perfectly Normal Situation

Dear Normal,

Let’s clear something up right here and right now. Your client is picking up on your negative feelings about them, sure as I’m sitting here. You may not think that they are, but they are looking for those signs 100% of the time. Unless they have no social capacity whatsoever, they’re picking up on it, even if they can’t identify the “it”. They’re looking for whether or not you’re judging them. They’re looking for whether or not you’re connected and listening. If you’re not, they know. They are making themselves vulnerable and taking a risk by even coming into the session with you, and so they are going to try to find reasons to reduce that vulnerability (because it’s super uncomfortable) every chance they get, and if they can pick up on any of your signals that you’re not attuned, there’s their out.

That said, it’s normal to not like your clients sometimes. It’s happened to me a few times. There are times I have client leave my office and say to myself, “WOW is that person a buttface.” If I can’t get rid of that feeling or find some kind of compassion in myself or something likeable about them to hang my hat on, then I’m the one that needs to do that work, not them. Are they triggering something inside of you? Do they remind you of someone in your life with whom you have an unpleasant relationship? Do they reflect qualities of you that you don’t like about yourself? Dig. Explore that reaction. If you don’t, it’s going to come up again and again and again. Moreover, if you don’t, then your capacity to build empathy is compromised. And, if you dislike someone so much that you can’t have empathy for them, you are actively doing them harm and should transition them off of your caseload.

But, before you ever consider that, get curious with them about the relationship between the two of you. You may find yourself surprised by the answer. “How are things going between us?” “Do you feel comfortable?” “Is there anything I could be doing that I’m not?” “Is there anything that I am doing that I should not be?” When I ask these questions of my clients (and I ask all of them at various points to every client), almost without fail, I get a surprising amount of vulnerability. Plus, it gives them an opportunity to give honest feedback and if they don’t, you’ve at least communicated that you’re open to hearing it if they ever want to.

Also, let’s talk about values differences. Is there a values difference between the two of you? Is there something in your belief system that you need to bracket before you meet with them again? If there’s a values difference, then this is ethically tricky, because according to ACA ethics codes, you can’t terminate with them over it. You have to be able to manage it unless you’re actively doing harm. If it’s such a huge values difference that it’s doing you harm, I encourage you to explore that. If the values difference is one that could cause harm to others, there’s explorable territory there. What fuels their beliefs? Are they aware of the impact that it’s having on other people? Is there opportunity to make them aware of the impact that it’s having on you without you getting too defensive or putting yourself on the offensive? There’s lots of grist for the therapy mill here, as well as grist for the supervision mill. I encourage you to explore it!

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