Years ago, when John Duffy, Ph.D, was training to become a clinical psychologist, he asked his supervisor to stop seeing a client. The man was brash and rude and shamelessly cheating on his wife. There was absolutely nothing redeeming about him.
His supervisor, however, had other plans. He encouraged Duffy to empathize with the client instead. “He suggested that I consider what it must be like to be this man. How difficult must it be that I myself, trained to be thoughtful and empathic, could not find empathy for him.”
When Duffy changed his approach, he saw something he hadn’t seen before: His client’s “unlikability” was really a defense mechanism, a kind of “pre-emptive strike” that he developed as a child to protect himself. His father abused alcohol and abused his son. He was highly unpredictable. The only way Duffy’s client could survive was to construct his emotional armor.
Couples therapist Susan Orenstein, Ph.D, also assumes that her clients are doing the best they can and take “unattractive” actions, such as belittling or attacking their spouses, to protect themselves.
Clients adapt in all kinds of ways to navigate their worlds. For instance, psychologist and writer Ryan Howes, Ph.D, shared these examples: “A fake, superficial exterior may actually be a mask they adopted to hide deep insecurities. An obnoxious sense of humor may be the way they learned to get attention from negligent caregivers. An annoying quirk may actually be the way an under stimulated brain tries to stay alert.”
Early in his training, Howes worked with a client who had a hard time making friends and always said “yes, but…” any time Howes shared his suggestions. No matter how hard Howes worked to help this client, he felt like his efforts were useless and unappreciated. “While I appreciated the fact that he was seeking therapy to help find solutions to his problems, I began to resent how dismissive he was of the time and energy I was providing.” Howes felt like he was being shut out and spinning his wheels.
After consulting a colleague, Howes realized that the client’s dismissiveness was precisely the reason he was having a hard time making friends. “If he was having this much difficulty connecting with me, a professional connection-maker, how well would this work with a relative stranger?” Howes said. “This insight was huge for our work. It wasn’t just about meeting compatible people, he’d also need to learn to let them in to his world.”