Work with, not around, chaotic clients

Therapists can either work on, or work around, the chaos in client’s lives. Identifying clients, rather than their circumstances, as chaotic risks disempowering the client.

“Chaotic” seems to be one of the mildest “unofficial diagnoses” a therapist can apply to a client: it seems more descriptive than derogatory. “Chaotic” is defined as being “in a state of complete confusion or disorder”. This would be an accurate description of the circumstances of a large number of mental health clients, especially those who come to the attention of psychiatric services.

The stereotypical “chaotic” client would be someone who misses appointments, over- or under-uses prescription medication, has disrupted and disorganised home and work routines and struggles to achieve any consistency or reliability in their interactions. This state of affairs would usually have been at least part of their reason for seeking therapy.

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Helpful patients are not hateful patients

Therapists should encourage and support, not dread, “helpful patients”. Internet or other research by the client can indicate active involvement in treatment.

In 1978 JE Groves described four categories of “hateful” patient, ie: the patients most physicians dread:

  • dependent clingers
  • entitled demanders
  • manipulative help-rejecters
  • self destructive deniers

To this list a fifth category appears to have been added: “helpful” patients, who search the internet for details of their condition and treatment and provide these to their therapist. Comments from colleagues (in person and via blogs), as well as cartoons and the popular press, suggest that these folks inspire almost as much dread (or, at least, derision) as the other four stereotypes.

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Leave contracts out of the first session

Many therapists set explicit goals and use treatment contracts with their clients. Goal setting provides a focus for therapy: contracts indicate that both parties have agreed to the terms of the therapy (or should: the contract you use does bind the therapist as well as the client, doesn’t it?)

Some therapists aim to conclude this business by the end of the first session. While this gives a nice structure to therapy (1st session: agree goals, 2nd session: work toward goals), this may not be the best way forward.

Setting goals and signing a treatment contract is a big step for a client. Although clients may have been awaiting their first appointment for weeks, months, even years, the assessment process may bring to light new information and perspectives which could alter their aims significantly…given time to think things through.

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My client is crying

Trainees (and clients) need to know that crying is common in therapy. Experienced therapists need to remember that crying may be common in therapy, but that crying in front of a stranger is probably a rare experience for any given client: you may now be relaxed about the situation, but they aren’t!

Every trainee dreads this moment: your client is crying. You probably are unaccustomed to strangers crying in your presence. The fear is that their distress is your fault, that you weren’t sufficiently sensitive or supportive: now you have to manage the situation you’ve “caused”.

More experienced therapists will have seen literally hundreds of clients cry. You know that people in therapy will cry for a variety of reasons, usually unrelated to the therapist. Knowing how common crying is, you’ve evolved your own set of responses. You’ve probably forgotten how awkward you used to feel…and how awkward the client still feels.

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Overusing clients’ names can mask inattention

Use of a client’s name to foster engagement may mask flagging concentration and inattention. Using a client’s name sparingly permits more accurate judgement of attention to the conversation or task.

“…a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” (Carnegie, 1936).

Whilst using client’s given names uninvited can backfire, a genuine (and successful) attempt to remember and recall someone’s name can pay dividends.

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What is your one aim for any session?

Having too many goals can be as bad as having no goals. This is as true for therapists as for our clients, yet therapists may enter into a session with far too many goals to achieve in one sitting.

Trainees often struggle with first appointments, in which there is so much to do: establish a rapport, take a history, establish a diagnosis or formulation and agree a treatment plan. These would be the achievements of two, three or even more sessions but the impression given by many text books is that all of this must take place in the first session.

More experienced staff may feel the same pressures, but may also feel obliged by waiting lists and the need to demonstrate turnover to look for opportunities to discharge the case. Some may also feel that they must be on their guard against potential attempts at manipulation by the client.

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