By Tom J. Ferro, LCPC
As I read Leslie Chertok’s article on practicing loving kindness with difficult clients, I couldn’t help but think about some of those challenging and difficult clients I have experienced over the years. I realize how much of an emotional toll it takes on us as mental health counselors to deal with difficult clients in our practice.
I have run an anger-management course for the last 15 years and have had more than just a few very angry men who have come to class feeling resentful about being court-ordered to be there. However, almost all of the time, they begin to soften when they are shown compassion and nonjudgmental behavior from my co-therapist and myself. We have a theory in our anger-management work that everyone there has an important reason for the way they are and how they got to our group. After you hear their violent histories, it all starts to make sense. They often have had incredibly abusive pasts.
The other interesting fact that begins to surface in our anger-management course is that very few of the men have ever talked to anyone about their abuse—especially other men, and especially in a group! Modeling compassion and empathy is a huge part of our work as mental health counselors. We also need to practice compassion and empathy in our daily lives, which brings me to the next part of my article, being loving to ourselves, our family, and our friends.
A few weeks ago, I had the fortunate opportunity to spend a week on Orcas Island, one of the San Juan Islands off the coast of Seattle. I strongly encourage my clients to take care of themselves, and I believe that I need to practice what I preach. It has always been a big part of my life to travel and get away from my work. We rented a house on the water with some friends and made plans to kayak, cook, and relax.
One of the friends we were vacationing with is in a wheelchair and has been since an accident in high school. She is an incredible person—she has such a positive view of life and a great sense of humor. When the owner of the house found out that Jan was in a wheelchair, she decided to build a ramp from the parking lot to the deck for easier access. The owner then found out that we needed another small ramp to get from the deck into the house, and she promptly had another ramp built the next day.
What was fascinating to me is that my friend Jan did not ask for either of these accommodations. The owner was by no means required by federal regulation to build the ramps, nor did we expect the house to have ramps. When Jan called the owner to thank her for the accommodations and express her gratitude, the owner said simply, “Well, we all have to take care of each other now, don’t we!”
We were all blown away by the owner’s simple and matter-of-fact statement. It reminded me that as we work every day to take good care of our clients and help them take good care of themselves—even the difficult and challenging clients—we also get to take good care of ourselves. And sometimes we get to be taken good care of by others!
We felt so blessed to be in such a beautiful place, to have the opportunity to relax by the water, and to be taken care of so well.
So when you are in the middle of a day with a difficult client, remember to practice empathy and compassion toward your client, and toward yourself.
And sometimes—allow others to take good care of you!