Aren’t You Supposed to Like Every Client?

Although not politically correct, sometimes it’s tough to like your client.

While therapists must always remain professional and exhibit unconditional positive regard, they are also human. So fending off those uncomfortable feelings of “dislike” can be challenging and in extreme cases downright impossible!

So how do therapists handle that uncomfortable reality?

According to Tamara Suttle, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in Castle Rock, Colorado with more than 30 years of experience in mental health counseling education programs, the counseling profession doesn’t adequately prepare clinicians for when they will experience negative feelings toward a client.

“If your professors don’t talk about these things and clinical supervisors don’t talk about these things and our colleagues and our friends and our bosses and our professional associations don’t talk about these things, then we learn pretty quickly that we aren’t supposed to talk about these things or even experience these things,” she says.

Do You Know What the Real Problem is?

“The key is being able to set aside and even learn from those negative feelings when they pop up,” Suttle says. “To do that, counselors need to discern what is truly at the root of those feelings.”

Upon reflecting on her negative feelings regarding a client, Suttle acknowledges that at times she discovers that the problem resides within her. When the client triggers personal issues she has struggled with, her reaction is to dislike the client.

“I’m sure many therapists can relate to having a certain type of client that they simply prefer not to work with,” Suttle says. “For me, that has historically been a client who is so focused on people-pleasing and [is so] passive or passive-aggressive that she is often unable or unwilling to own her truth and … tell the truth.”

“After years of struggling with this type of client and [having] lots of opportunities to reflect on my struggles, I now recognize my discomfort as being much more about me and my own people-pleasing tendencies than those of my clients,” she continues. “It’s one of those issues that I must continually be cognizant of and work on in order to work with clients.”

What if You and the Client Believe the Opposite?

The ACA [American Counseling Association] Code of Ethics prohibits therapists from forcing their beliefs on clients. But what is a therapist to do when a client espouses beliefs that are hateful, hurtful, or just plain uncomfortable during the session?

When Keith Myers, an LPC and ACA member in Atlanta and a past co-chair of the ACA Ethics Committee, is counseling a client with strong prejudices or biases against certain groups and is making harsh or unpleasant comments during the session, Myers tries to integrate those back into the therapeutic process.

“I normally use this time to explore these comments so that I can gain further insight into the client’s background, values, beliefs [and] family-of-origin issues,” he explains. “This is usually an opportunity to hold the tension while exploring deeper with the client.”

“And if we believe it’s important to be fully accepting and nonjudgmental with all clients, then it’s important for us to accept those who are different from us and who hold very different values and opinions, even when they are being judgmental.”

Is it Necessary to Like Your Client?

Some clients can be difficult to like, not because of their beliefs, but because their personalities are abrasive.

Christine Moll, an LPC who practices in the Buffalo, New York, area, stresses that there is no rule that therapists must like every one of their clients. Carl Rogers, one of the founders of the client-centered approach “called for empathy,” Moll explains. “Nowhere did he say like, but [rather] embracing the person with concern or care, wanting the best for that person.”

Moll, an ACA member who is also a past president of the Association for Adult Development and Aging, says she has worked with clients whom she didn’t like, but she always attempted to give perspective to her feelings. “I have worked with clients that I have found difficult, arrogant, elitist, or biased,” she says. “But I am not in their lives. I don’t need to share a fence with them.”

“I think to myself that if I have to put my reactions aside for 50 minutes, and I tell myself, ‘It’s not about you.’ I try to use what I’ve not liked about a person and figure out how to reframe it,” she notes.

For instance, sometimes clients come to a session complaining that no one likes them and they don’t know why. Moll explains, “I might point out a [client’s] passion for life that other people might see as a chip on the shoulder and say, ‘I see your energy and your passion for life, and if you feel threatened and put up against a wall, you are going to fight back. That’s great. That’s a gift. But can you see how that can lead people to see you negatively?’”

Moll also goes out of her way to find the positive in even the most unpleasant client. “I was raised with the idea that everyone’s got something [good] about them,” she says. “If I find a glimmer or find a good quality, I praise it.”

Can Your Feelings Change?

And finally, therapists must realize that what begins as a difficult connection can improve over time, points out Christopher Muran, Ph.D., chief psychologist and director of the psychotherapy research program at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, who studies difficult moments, or ruptures, between patient and therapist.

“There are certainly plenty of moments when you dislike your client or dislike the position he/she is taking,” he says. “Very frequently that is a momentary thing.”

Muran says he has had many experiences when initial dislike morphed into regard over time, and that a bumpy start doesn’t eliminate the possibility of working together.

“Early struggles could be a bad prognostication, but therapists could also turn these struggles into transformative experiences for their patients, depending on how they negotiate them,” he says.