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Thursday, May 3, 2018

Psychotherapists' Reactions to Their Clients - Part 2

In Psychotherapists' Reactions to Clients - Part 1, I gave a history of the early psychoanalytic views of psychotherapists' reactions to clients (also known as countertransference) and gave an overview of more contemporary views on this subject.

Psychotherapists' Reactions to Clients 

There are many ways for psychotherapists to share their reactions with the client--too numerous to write about in one blog article.

In this article, which is Part 2, I provide an example of contemporary psychotherapy with a fictional clinical vignette which illustrates one way that the psychotherapist's willingness to share her views with the client can accelerate the work in therapy and help to heal the client.

Fictional Clinical Vignette: Psychotherapists' Reactions to Clients

Nina
After struggling on her own for years with low self esteem, Nina began psychotherapy again to deal with this issue which was getting in the way of her personal life and her career.

She had been in therapy a few times before in the past and, although she developed intellectual insight into her problems, nothing changed for her.  Overall, her experiences in her prior therapy were not good because her psychotherapists tended to remain silent, and this made Nina feel uncomfortable.  But she decided to give psychotherapy another chance with a psychotherapist who was recommended to her.

As Nina was providing her psychotherapist with a family history, she discussed feeling unlovable in her family, especially after her younger brother was born (see my article: Overcoming the Emotional Pain of Feeling Unlovable).

She explained to her therapist that she found out as an adult that after her birth, her mother was depressed and unable to care for Nina, so Nina's maternal grandmother and various aunts took turns caring for her.

She also found out that after her younger brother was born a year later, her parents were ecstatic to have a boy.  They had always wanted a boy to carry the family name.  And, whereas Nina continued to be shuttled off to various relatives for care, her brother was treated as precious and special throughout his life.

Apparently, by the time Nina's brother was born, the mother was no longer depressed, but she never bonded with Nina.  Her focus tended to be on the brother.  Her father also doted on the brother.  So, from a young age, Nina felt there must be something wrong with her since her parents practically ignored her, and she grew up feeling unworthy of love.

Although she loved her brother, Nina felt angry and resentful towards him.  Intellectually, she knew it wasn't his fault if her parents favored him over her but, on an emotional level, even at a young age, she had fantasies that he would die from a mysterious cause and then her parents would love her more.  These fantasies, which continued into adulthood, caused Nina to feel guilt and shame.

Although she dated in college, at the age of 33, Nina had never been in a long term romantic relationship. Whenever a man expressed interest in her beyond casual dating, Nina would begin finding faults with him in her mind and, eventually, she would end their dating relationship.

At the same time, Nina said, she was very lonely, and when she wasn't dating anyone, she longed to be in a serious relationship.  She would tell herself that she wouldn't be so critical of the next man she dated, but it was an ongoing cycle (An Emotional Dilemma: Wanting and Dreading Love).

Psychotherapists' Reactions to Clients 

The psychotherapist listened to Nina's history with compassion.  She recognized that Nina was caught in a dilemma of wanting love at the same time that she dreaded it.  She wondered if Nina would be able to form a therapeutic alliance with her to do the work or if the therapeutic relationship would be too threatening to Nina.

She also recognized that Nina used the defense mechanism of avoidance in her relationships with men. She could see that this was a necessary emotional survival strategy that Nina developed unconsciously when she was child to ward off the overwhelming feelings of hurt and still maintain a tenuous attachment to her parents (see my article: Understanding Internal and External Defense Mechanisms).

With regard to her career, Nina explained, she lacked confidence in her ideas in a field that was very competitive.  As a result, junior staff, who had much less experience but who were more willing to take risks in presenting their ideas, were getting promoted ahead of Nina, which was discouraging for her.

In the next psychotherapy session, the psychotherapist noticed when Nina spoke, she tended to defensively avert her gaze, and she decided to ask Nina if she recognized this about herself.  At first, Nina hesitated, and then she responded that other people also told her this.  When her therapist asked her if she had any insight into what caused her to do this, at first, Nina said she didn't know (see my article: The Therapist's Empathic Attunement Can Be Emotionally Reparative For the Client).

Her psychotherapist decided to explore this further with Nina, and asked Nina if she feared what she might see in her therapist's eyes.  In response, Nina looked directly at the therapist and then looked away again.

Her therapist asked Nina what she saw when she looked into her eyes, and Nina responded that she saw a lot of compassion and empathy, which she liked, but she was not accustomed to it.

Her psychotherapist decided to share her reaction with Nina regarding the neglect that Nina experienced when she was a child by telling Nina that she was moved by what she said in the first session.  By sharing her genuine reaction about Nina, her therapist hoped this would be the beginning of a positive relationship, although she was aware that Nina might feel a little uncomfortable.

The therapist's disclosure to Nina was in stark contrast to the more traditional stance in psychotherapy  that she had experienced with her prior therapists.  In the traditional stance, the psychotherapist wouldn't disclose any personal reactions about the client because it would be considered "overly gratifying."  But, in this case, the psychotherapist, who worked in a contemporary way, used her clinical judgment with the hopes of forming a positive relationship with Nina.

When Nina heard her psychotherapist's words, she looked up and smiled, "Thank you.  No one has ever said that to me. I can see that you really are moved, and that feels good."

As they continued to work together in therapy, the psychotherapist saw that Nina sometimes minimized the neglect that she experienced in ways which Nina, unknowingly diminished her own self worth.  Minimization was another defense mechanism that Nina used.

One day Nina talked about something that occurred when she was five years old.  She said she overheard her mother tell a maternal aunt that she felt Nina was a "burden." Her psychotherapist could see that there was a moment when Nina felt sad.  But then Nina swept her feelings under the rug by minimizing the incident, "My mother was probably having a bad day, so I shouldn't feel bad about that.  Anyway, it happened a long time ago."

Rather than allowing Nina to discount her own feelings about overhearing such a hurtful remark from her mother, her psychotherapist said in an empathetic tone, "That would be a nightmare for a five year old to hear her mother say" (with emphasis on the word "nightmare").

Nina seemed surprised by her psychotherapist's reaction.  As she allowed her therapist's words to sink in, she began to cry, "Yeah, it was.  I went back to my room and cried myself to sleep.  You're the only person that I've ever told this to."

Her psychotherapist explored with Nina what it was like for her to hear her therapist express her reaction to what happened as "a nightmare."  In response, Nina said that it felt good to have someone who understands what it was like because, back when she was five, she had no one.  She said she felt it gave her "permission" to feel her emotions rather than trying to ward them off.

Then, her psychotherapist explained that, even though this incident and many more like this happened a long time ago, these experiences had a significant impact on Nina emotionally and they were at the root of her problems (see my article: Understanding Why You're Affected By Trauma That Happened a Long Time Ago).

During the course of her therapy, there were many more instances where Nina's therapist used her reactions to Nina to help her to overcome defensive strategies that worked when she was a child but were now creating problems for her.

Over time, Nina was able to catch herself as she was about to use a defense mechanism to ward off uncomfortable feelings.  This allowed the work in therapy to deepen.

When Nina was ready, her psychotherapist suggested that they use EMDR therapy to help Nina to overcome her unresolved childhood trauma and also work on current problems (see my article: Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR Therapy, Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

The work in therapy was neither quick nor easy.  But over time, Nina became increasingly comfortable with her psychotherapist's more contemporary way of working, as compared to the more tradition way of her prior therapists.

She found her psychotherapist's expressions of compassion and empathy to be healing, and this allowed Nina to open up more in therapy.

After a while, Nina was able to feel on a deep level that she had been a lovable child, and it wasn't her fault if her parents were so unloving towards her.  This understanding was not just an intellectual understanding--she felt it deeply.

Gradually, Nina became more self confident.  She no longer feared developing a loving, committed relationship with a man.  So, when she met someone that she really liked and who cared for her too, she didn't push him away like she did in the past.  She allowed the relationship to grow and flourish, and she was able to accept her own feelings and that he cared about her without feeling threatened by the emotions.

She also became more confident in presenting her ideas at work, which her director noticed.  Eventually, she received the promotion that she had wanted for such a long time.

Conclusion
In traditional psychotherapy, psychotherapists don't divulge their reactions to their clients.  They attempt to maintain a neutral stance.

In my clinical opinion, there is no such thing as a neutral stance--no matter how much a psychotherapist attempts to hide what s/he feels.  Even if a psychotherapist attempts to maintain a neutral stance, clients can be very perceptive and sense what a psychotherapist is feeling.

Attempting a neutral stance is not only outmoded, in opinion, it's actually hurtful for the client, especially a client who was raised in an abusive or neglectful environment as a child.  In many ways, attempts at therapist neutrality are often retraumatizing for the client.

But, even though the field has progressed, many psychotherapists are still being trained to be neutral with their clients, as I was when I was trained more than 20 years ago.

This doesn't mean that a psychotherapist should share whatever comes to her mind without regard for how it will affect the client.  That could be equally hurtful.  Instead, a psychotherapist needs to make clinical judgment calls with each client and in each session with each client as to what would be helpful for the therapist to share and what would not.

For many clients, as in the fictional vignette above, having a psychotherapist who can, in effect, go back in time with them to explore the client's history in a compassionate and empathetic way, is a healing experience that they might never have experienced before.  It helps the client to open up and accelerates the work in therapy.

Getting Help in Therapy
Many people, who experienced early trauma, never come to therapy because they're fearful of being retraumatized (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

A skilled psychotherapist with good clinical judgment and who is trained in trauma therapy can provide the client with a healing experience that allows them to work through early traumatic experiences (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

If you have unresolved trauma that is having a negative impact on your life, you owe it to yourself to get help from an experienced trauma therapist.

Working through your trauma can free you from your history and allow you to live a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I am a trauma therapist, who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients to overcome past and current trauma so they can move on to live happier lives.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.


















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