Clients no doubt learn a thing or two from their therapists. They may learn to cope with painful emotions. They may learn to set boundaries. They may learn to accept themselves or to build healthier, more fulfilling relationships. But clinicians also learn quite a lot from their clients.
“One of the things I value most about working in this profession is the deep privilege and honor of being able to reap great wisdom from my clients,” said therapist Joyce Marter, LCPC.
Below, therapists spill the different lessons they’ve learned over the years — lessons that’ve influenced how they approach their work and their own lives.
Clients do well when they want to.
Several years ago, clinical psychologist Christina Hibbert, PsyD, worked with a client with depression. In her early 20s, this client was living with her parents and couldn’t take college courses or keep a job. They worked together for three months on strategies to overcome her depression. But she didn’t seem to be getting any better.
I decided to carefully approach the fact that she didn’t seem to really be applying the things I’d taught her. She agreed she hadn’t put forth much effort into her own treatment. I gave her what I thought was a motivational speech, telling her how, if we both worked hard, together we could help her beat her depression.
“So, what do you say?” I asked her. “Are you with me?”
She looked me in the eye, hesitated, and then said, “No.”
She never returned to therapy.
This experience taught Hibbert two lessons: She shouldn’t be working harder than her clients; and there’s only so much she, and anyone else, can do to help another person.
“Ultimately, it’s up to them whether they choose to be well or not.”
Life is a gift.
“Having counseled countless clients through grief and loss, one blessing of this work is the awareness of the preciousness of time,” said Marter, founder of Urban Balance, a counseling practice in the Chicago area.
She was reminded of this lesson by a longtime client, who explained how mindfulness practices were helping him cope with stage four cancer:
“I realize now that it is as if in life, the needle sets on a record album the moment we are born and continues to cycle as we live. If we bring our awareness to the past or to the future, we scratch our record and there is no music. If we stay in the present moment, we hear the beauty of our song.”
Psychotherapist and relationship coach Susan Lager, LICSW, has learned a similar lesson. Because she’s seen her clients go through many tragedies, she tries to live every day with a sense of wonder and appreciation.
“Life is full of uncertainty, and offers no promises, so live each day without a sense of entitlement, treating it as a precious gift.”
You can’t change anyone.
Lager also learns this lesson every day in her work: “You can make a lifetime project of trying to change someone, but until they decide they want to change, your efforts will be futile. The only person you can change is yourself.” That’s why she focuses on “being the change that I seek.”
Connection is key with clients.
Clinical psychologist Ryan Howes, Ph.D, has learned the importance of understanding, compassion and connection for working with his clients.
“Sure, I need to know the disorders, treatments, and techniques, but many clients feel helped most when I’m able to put the textbook aside, pay attention to how they feel, and just be with them in their grief and pain. Theory and technique matter, but a genuine human connection matters more sometimes. Through that caring connection they feel empowered to do the work they need to do.”
Authenticity also is key.
In her first job out of graduate school, Marter worked with clients who grew up in the Chicago projects, were ex-convicts and had been addicted to heroin. When she started, she took an intensive training course to learn slang terms so she could communicate with her clients. Over time she built a strong rapport with them.
However, in one group session, she made the mistake of using a term she normally wouldn’t. She asked her client about his “old lady.”
“The silence in the room was palpable. My client looked at me and said, ‘You are white. You should say girlfriend.’ I remember feeling shame, embarrassment, discomfort, and anxiety about racial identity and attitudes. After I had some time to process the exchange, I realized that if I expected my clients to trust me, I needed to be genuine and not behave differently in an effort to assimilate. The next day, I apologized to the group and my client said, ‘We’re cool. Just be real.’ I’ve taken this important lesson to heart, both inside and outside the office.”
You can create a “better story.”
Clinical psychologist John Duffy, Ph.D, learned his most profound lesson from a young man he was working with several years ago. The client was functioning fairly well, but wasn’t inspired by his job and felt disconnected from the people in his life.
After several sessions, he realized that he was disengaged from others and even himself because of fear. From then he decided to pause each day and for each decision and consider the “better story.”
“He became more generous, offering his sister free rent in his home while she attended graduate school, because that was the better story. He committed to client service in his work, and made his family business far more profitable in the process, because that was the better story. He reconnected with, and ultimately married, a former girlfriend, clearly the better story.”
Today, whenever Duffy is confronted with any kind of decision in his personal life, he too, considers the better story.
“Writing a book, saying yes to certain speaking engagements and television appearances, saying no when it made sense, have all been decisions in my life inspired by the better story. I often suggest this method for other clients as well. I will forever be grateful to that man for this simple yet enormous gift.”
People have a vast capacity for courage, love and forgiveness.
“I routinely work with clients who have been deeply wounded by parents, siblings, or friends, yet they demonstrate open-heartedness in their willingness to forgive and preserve love,” said Lager.
Her clients’ resilience, humanity and courage have helped her put into perspective her own emotional grievances, and move toward love and forgiveness.
Howes has witnessed the same in his office. “People who survived more loss than seems fair, have received more abuse than anyone should experience, and suffered longer than anyone would deem tolerable somehow find the energy and courage to face another day and tackle these issues in therapy. It certainly puts the obstacles in my life in perspective and gives me an important outlook on the work I do.”
How you talk to yourself deeply affects your life.
Through her work with clients, Lager has seen a link between the quality of people’s thoughts and the quality of their entire lives. “I have borne witness to people’s negative and positive formulations about their lives and themselves, and seen the profound impact this has on them.”
Clinicians learn invaluable lessons from their clients. As Marter said, “Every clinical relationship and each session provides opportunities to view life, the world and the human experience from the eyes of another.”