The highly conforming client
These people make great clients. They make therapists feel good. The highly conforming client does and says all the right things at all the right times. When they learn how the therapy works they know all the right things to say and feel at all the right times.
Some clients stop being who they are and become something else
Therapist’s can pull out all their sophisticated techniques and the client will do them all. They do ‘good work’ as it is said. Therapist’s go home feeling chuffed at at their artistry as a therapist. The problem is, with the highly conforming client it isn’t good work at all.
Let’s look at what a new client is confronted with. Here is a person who seeks out the counsellor, they may even be referred by someone else who tells them that this person is ‘really good’ at what they do. They phone the counsellor and ask for an appointment. The counsellor tells them what hours they work and how long they will have to wait for an appointment. The client then fits in with that. Often the client has to pay quite a considerable amount of money to see the counsellor.
The client then comes to the counsellor’s office at the designated time. If the client gets the time or date wrong then the client may still have to pay. If the counsellor gets the time or date wrong then it is just a mishap and the client is rescheduled.
We all are defined by our surroundings. This is no more obvious than in the
counselling setting where people are vulnerable even before they get there.
When they enter the counselling room the counsellor has the paperwork on the walls (the degrees) to show that they are the expert. Because of this they know all about the client and the client is the ‘thing’ that is diagnosed and answers many questions about self. As you can see even if the client was not highly conforming before they got there they certainly are after going through all that.
The problem with all this is the client stops being who they are and becomes this person called the ‘client’. They take on the role of the client. As soon as that happens then the therapy looses it effectiveness. For most people this is a drawback but you can get around it at least somewhat. The problem client, much more so than the highly rebellious client, is the highly conforming client. They truly take on the role of the client and stop being who they are. Usually they don’t even know what their real self is.
But the real problem starts when the counsellor brings this to the client’s attention they agree. The agree to be disagreeable. They conform to not being a conforming because that is what good and ‘real’ clients do.
If a person takes on the role of the client then you are only ever going to deal with the surface issues. Of course you are, because that is only what the counsellor gets to see. But to make matters worse they look like they are doing really good therapy because they know what to do and say and feel at the right times. It is inevitable that the client will work this out. Most clients want to please the counsellor at some level so they work out the right things to say and do.
So the counsellor has to always be fighting against this. Clients will inevitably be drawn into the client role and the more they are the less effective the counselling will be. The more surface it will be. Sometimes I have clients, who when walking out the door at the end of a session will say, “Well that was no good as I don’t feel any better than when I walked in”. When that is said I know I have done good work in that session. They have in that instance rejected to good client role and are being real.
The highly rebellious client
So there you are, the counsellor sitting in front of a person, perhaps a teenager who is clearly in a rebellious frame of mind. How do you deal with such a person. It is unlikely they will be there voluntarily but have been sent to you by some one in some way.
So what are the options
1. You could tell them off. Give them a good talking to and tell them how they should act. This is useful in some circumstances and not others. If you do this you can get an escalation of the rebellion. If the person displays this rebellion obviously then they will do something like telling you to ‘fuck off’ and walk out of the room, never to be seen again. If they are sent by the courts for drug counselling (so its counselling or prison) then they are more likely to go silent and say very little, agree when they have to and not listen to a word you are saying.
Some may move into the conforming position when being told off. The telling off moves them from the RC to the CC. They move into an conforming position and will do what the person directing them says. For instance the counsellor may be telling them how bad it is to drink alcohol excessively and the client in essence agrees with this and resolves to stop drinking. This may work for some time. The problem is they will have a tendency to fall off the wagon because the motivation to not drink is coming from an adaptation not from a Free Child want. In most cases the success will be relatively short term because the Free Child of the client is not involved in the decision.
For those who have a long history of drug dependency then this realistically is probably the best (only) solution. The drug user finds some person or system who will regularly reinforce the Conforming Child adaptation to no alcohol and drug use. AA is an example of this approach, others can use religious organisations for the same goal. I have heard argument against this that the person is simply giving up an addiction alcohol and becoming addicted to say “Born Again christianity”. My response to that is, so what? Its much better to be addicted to religion than it is to alcohol. The difficulty is if the person begins to drift away from the organisation then the risk of relapse significantly increases. However some can use this CC response to stay alcohol free for long periods of time and thus seems a reasonable solution to me.
2. You could suck up to the rebellious client. This counsellor tries to become the client’s ‘friend’. They go to their level and may delight in their ‘crimes’ or misdeeds in order to try and get the client on side. The counsellor may adopt some of the same language and try and play with the client to win them over. To my mind this is the least successful approach and eventually the client just gets bored with it all and very little is achieved.
3. You be who you are. This is probably the hardest approach to do because it involves moving forward and engaging the client and then drawing back and disengaging from the client, many times over. When and how you do that involves much flying by the seat of your pants. You don’t try and be their friend and you don’t tell them off, you treat them with a sense of respect and demand that they do the same to you in a subtle kind of way.
Dealing with the rebellious client is like gambling for high stakes. Cut and
thrust, bluff, never really knowing what the other party is going to do next.
To this client you are the enemy even before they get into the room. They may initially attack you in some way, or they may seek to provoke a Critical Parent response form you. Each time the response is listening to what they have to say, not accepting the attack by whatever means and giving them respect. Yes you can also play with them and stroke them but this is usually after the initial cut and thrust stage has been traversed.
There must also be times when the counsellor hits out at the the rebellious client. Obviously verbally, and not in a malicious way. There needs to be a series of well timed short sharp confrontations. This needs to be such the at the client is ‘sat back in their chair’. Why? Because that is what they are doing to you, that is where their head is at, thus they understand and can relate to that sort of communication. It adds a bit of unpredictability and danger into the counselling and that is what the Rebellious Child understands and indeed thrives on.
In essence you begin to gain a bit of respect. If the Rebellious Child starts to respect the counsellor as a person, then the individual becomes more receptive to the therapeutic benefits of the counselling. The initial stage of counselling the highly rebellious client involves no obvious counselling in terms of techniques and contracts and so forth. Instead it is learning how to dance with each other, sorting out the relationship and developing a bit of respect on both sides. Sometimes that does not happen, the client leaves with little being accomplished. If the counsellor can establish a bit of respect from the rebellious client then a major step forward has been made.
Rebellion involves danger which means
sometimes you get hurt and suffer pain.
That is what makes it so exciting in the first place!.
Dealing with the difficult client – Free Child, Conforming Child & Rebellious Child
These three parts of us all have their advantages and difficulties. I have talked
about two of them above.
As I mentioned the highly rebellious client gets caught up in self defeating behaviour. These people are eternally fighting fights that they do not have to fight. Thus they waste large amounts of time and energy, that they could instead be using for them to get ahead in life.
They will do things that are to their direct disadvantage even when they know it and want the opposite. For example a client refusing to attend counselling as a means of rebelling against the therapist who is perceived as the authority figure. One situation where they have an opportunity to get out of the self defeating patterns but refuse even when at their more ‘lucid’ times they will say they see the absurdity of what they are doing.
Another example is those people who drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes from a rebellious position. “No one is going to stop me from smoking or drinking” is what they say. They will drink or smoke even when they don’t want to, and they feel hung over or their lungs feel like trash. BUT that is seen as less important to the highly rebellious person. To defy authority is the most important thing, even if it kills them. And sometimes it does.
If this person drinks from a rebellious position then she will see this as an
insignificant price to pay compared to her defiance of authority.
The highly conformist person can also be difficult to counsel. The good part about rebellion is it is active. This is where the reverse psychology can come into play. If the therapist can say to the client, “I don’t want you to give up smoking” the rebellious person may fight that and give up because if represents defiance for them.
The conforming person is in a state of inaction. They do what they are told so they are not fighting. What does the therapist do with that? The conformist client in order to get to the Free Child usually needs to go through the Rebellious Child. So the therapist says this to the client and the client then does that. But she is being rebellious because the therapist told her to which is just another form of conformity and the person is no more near the Free Child.
I would suggest that a lot of such clients slip through the cracks of counselling and are misdiagnosed by counsellors. They say and do the right things in counselling. They make the counsellor feel like they are good at their trade, because look at the changes that the client has made. When they are in reality just conforming to the therapist. Then you meet these people ten years later and they are still as lost about what they want out of life.
As mentioned before the usual way to get to Free Child is to go through a stage of rebellion first. For most people this works. However with the highly conformist client this often does not work and one has to find ways by which the conformist can access their Free Child directly. This can take some fancy foot work on behalf of the counsellor and if the therapy is being observed by others, as in demonstration group therapy, then the counsellor is often told they are doing the completely wrong thing with this client. Which can lead to very interesting group dynamics I can tell you.
Then finally we have the person who is high Free Child and low Conforming Child. Of all difficult clients this one is probably the most resistant to treatment. There is an old saying in counselling, “It is easier to treat a tight wad than a spendthrift”. Of course the spendthrift is high FC.
People who have anxiety or depression have lots of FC motivation to change because they feel bad. The FC does not want it. The person who drinks alcohol feels good. Alcohol and drugs make the person feel good, which the FC likes. It thus has little motivation to stop which is why drug counselling is notoriously difficult.
The same applies for sex offenders. If one finds exposing self or spying on naked people erotic then that is Free Child. It feels good, so the Free Child has little investment in stopping such behaviour. You can tell the person that such behaviour is wrong and they may end up in prison and so forth. The person will hear and understand it all, but it still feels good to the Free Child and thus there is always a lack of deep down basic motivation inside the person to alter such behaviours. Sex offenders, alcohol and drug users and the criminal personality are all high Free Child and thus they are notoriously difficult to counsel.
A great piece of work – thanks very much Tony. Peter
Thanks for the positive stroke Peter. Glad you liked it
Thank you for this article, I would really like to know more on solutions for counselling the high free child.
I will have a think about it Melody and see if I come up with any more ideas