Dependency vs. Intimacy: Counselor Client Relationship issues in Counseling

Many of my clients come to me because they are frustrated in their relationships. They are often injured, angry, sad, and confused. “Why does this keep happening to me?” they ask. Why am I treated this way? They quickly and easily shift from tears of hurt and frustration to angry outbursts, sometimes at me saying, “You are not helping me at all! Why am I paying you for this? You are just a ‘paid’ friend.”  I have to remind them that ours is a professional relationship, not a friendship. They are paying me for my experience, training and my objectivity. I care about them, support them and listen to them, but we don’t socialize and we are not friends.

Saying this to my clients is like throwing cold water on them. It shocks them because I am not playing the “nice” social game. I do not follow the conventions of social intercourse by denying  reality, instead I insist that they also face the reality of our relationship. I can care about them, can be attracted to them and wish that we could be friends. I can fantasize that when our professional relationship is over, we could be social friends. But I must remember that this type of fantasy is dishonest and unprofessional.

I find that many of my clients are attractive and energizing people to whom I am drawn by my own desire to like and be liked. I have to remember my training and my mantra: They are not here to be your friend. They are here because they are in pain and you are a professional who helps them heal from the pain.  My clients and I have much in common. Everyone has issues, including me. Often, because of where I live and my education and socioeconomic level, my clients and I are very similar. It is this similarity that can create an attraction. It leads to assumptions of sameness that can lead me astray because I may stop objectively attending and listening, and start to assume based on my own biases and limitations. I must guard against that. If I do not, then I am not being professional or helpful. If this happens and I lose my focus and my ability to attend, I begin to use the client to meet my own needs.

I have needs to feel helpful, likeable, powerful and “knowing.” I am flattered by being told how smart and attractive I am, how helpful I am, how much impact I have had in their lives. These things feed my ego and make me feel good. These things are not why the client comes to me. None of them help me, or my client. At their core, I know that they are dishonest projections of myself, or my client, that allow both of us to ignore the reasons they are there.

Clients come to therapy because they are in pain, or because they were told they have to by some one with leverage over them. My job is to create a safe holding environment where they can be supported while they learn to stand in the midst of the pain and hurt and figure out the honest truth about their pain. They need to take ownership of their own power to change and decide the steps towards change they will make and recognize some of what those steps will cost in terms of effort, additional pain and anxiety. They must eventually choose to change or they will continue to repeat the dysfunctional patterns in their relationships. Without change, they will constantly cycle back around the same issues in their lives, their friendships and love relations.

I have an important role to play in this script. I can recognize and allow a certain amount of dependency early in the therapeutic process because I know that counseling relationships involve a one-directional intimacy. The intimacy of the counseling relationship cannot be there to meet my needs for friendship, love, affection or ego satisfaction. My satisfaction has to be in the professional channel of being good at what I do, able to care and support the client as they uncover, explore and discover who they are. I need to feed their grandiose narcissism in the beginning so that the unfinished work of their childhood development can happen. This is all part of the objective in establishing the therapeutic relationship and doing the dance of therapy. Once that level of safety and appreciation happens, I can begin the process of gently but directly reflecting reality to my client. I reflect what they say and how they present. I reflect the inconsistencies in their statements and beliefs. I challenge with reality testing the assumptions they make about themselves and others in their lives. I encourage them to explore options hypothetically and with imagination. We rehearse those imaginary conversations and actions in the safe holding environment before they attempt them in the real world.

I teach my clients that change comes in waves most of the time. They will go out to the periphery of their lives and attempt self assertive or new behaviors at times and in circumstances that are not so costly.  My clients will learn to assert themselves, to say things such as; “I don’t like that. It is my turn. You butted in front of me in line.” These challenges are practiced when it is least expensive and least hurtful to them. They will not go home and tell their mothers, wives or husbands immediately and directly. They are not yet ready to say to the significant people in their lives, “You smell bad. I hate it when you crunch the ice or talk with your mouth full. You never listen to me, etc….”

If they do attempt to do it at home and at the center of their universe before they learn how and why, they will repeat the process of setting themselves up for failure, victimization and repeated injury. They must learn to practice new scripts in less expensive ways and in safe environments. Gradually, they can begin to bring their new strength into their real and intimate relationships.   As this process unfolds, I begin to dampen my responses to their dependency needs. I encourage them to recognize that they do not “need” me as some kind of rabbit’s foot or magical presence that makes them safe. What they “need” is their own strength and integrity. When they learn how to listen to their sense of integrity, they are free to choose and to become response-“able” instead of responsible.

I think words matter and have tremendous impact on the way we interpret the script in our heads. I believe that people who have lived repetitive cycles of dependent relationships have internalized a script that implies guilt and responsibility for meeting the needs of others and making others happy. They learn that the only way they can be safe is in making someone else happy. They learn to do what pleases others, they never learn to ask: What do I want? What pleases me? They never imagine the power of what I call healthy selfishness. When one becomes strong enough and honest enough to be able to ask and answer that essential question, “What do I want?” then one can get rid of the victim script and the dependency -based relationships. One can recognize that intimate relationships are responsive to integrity and healthy selfishness, with a mutuality of sacrifice and accommodation. Healthy relationships involve willing choice making to please others with no resentment of the price of that choice, but with an awareness that the choice is freely made, not made as the result of some emotional blackmail or guilt trip. This helps make them stronger and more attractive to others, and it makes them able to stand with integrity in their own eyes. That makes them desirable to others as well as desirable to themselves.

It is important to recognize the value that the therapist plays in this dance of therapy. The therapist must operate with grounded honesty and a healthy perspective of who they are and what role and responsibility they perform in a therapeutic contract. I subscribe to the idea of one directional emotional intimacy with my clients. I am there to meet their needs, not to have them meet mine. It is my job to have my own healthy relationships and to have my own friends, not get my emotional needs met by the affection or ego stroking that is often available from dependent clients.  If you are going to be a professional counselor, you will also need to walk this line and to recognize the ingredients that make emotional distortions that diminish the choice making of your clients and encapsulate you into non-professional boundary violations because of your own codependent need to be loved, to be helpful and to please.

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6 Responses to Dependency vs. Intimacy: Counselor Client Relationship issues in Counseling

  1. ina says:

    Hi!!I have noticed that most of the counsellors/therapists are also victims of people with personality disorders, is that a fair assessment? I suppose that makes them more sympathetic to people undergoing the same problem, or doesn’t the problem brings up traumatic re-experience? My sons and I were in Ikea yesterday and could not help noticing couples as they pay at the check outs. A young couple with a baby are happy discussing what they were going to do with the shelf they bought. On the other counter, an older couple (retired most likely), the woman was looking in distress while carrying a big box while explaining what to do with it, the husband was
    looking irritated and annoyed, arms crossed and held close. My sons (in their early 30’s) called my attention to the difference between these two couples and said there is really something wrong with the “boomers” generation men. I can relate to the older lady and thought the husband should have been a gentleman and should have carried the load. Is that a fair assessment?

    • Brett Newcomb says:

      Most of the therapists that I have known got into the business because they had issues in their own lives and were seeking knowledge and understanding about the patterns of their lives and then hoping they could use what they learned to help others. I think it is a gross oversimplification to say they were all impacted by individuals with personality disorders. However, many of them must have been. Stereotypes become stereotypes for a reason.

      Also, in relation to the general comments about baby boomers and their relationships I think you do not have enough information about the old couple. You do not know their history or their pattern or their health issues. You may be dead on, but you are just as likely not to be. One of the things I have learned in doing therapy for 30 years is not to jump to conclusions. I teach my students that they need to learn to make rolling assumptions. They make an assumption but remain readily able to abandon it when they obtain information to the contrary, which is most often what happens. You have to learn the patterns not take the snapshots as conclusive or representative Thanks for your comment and your interest.

  2. stardust traveller says:

    I really appreciate your blog. It helps to understand myself much better. Im experiencing strong transference and just started to feel that now my therapist is gently reflecting back reality. She would not let me repeat my pattern. I am so very much aware of whats going on that its really a unique situation to be in it and to know it consciously the same time. I recognise things like she was trying to give me a transference object but she would never say like…I give you this cause of this and this and it could sooth you. Instead she would do it in a way that i think its something she gives me to read like a book or so. It is pretty interesting but I also suffer and experiance a lot of pain going through this. How could I sooth myself better? Im talking to her about it too of course. Thanks!

    • Brett Newcomb says:

      Thank you for your comment! I like the way your therapist is handling the situation. I like that you are recognizing what is going on and are able to talk with her about it. Self soothing strategies are really important and developmentally many of them are learned in early childhood. When that did not happen or did not happen well, it becomes necessary to develop them later. It does not really matter if you know what is going on with the use of the technique, they work anyway. What things make you feel more secure? Having a book that belongs to your therapist makes you feel connected to her and makes her feel real to you when you are not there? That is a good start. This stuff takes a while, it is not something that fixes itself in a few weeks. Continue to talk to her about what you are aware of and what you are feeling. Discuss with her strategies for feeling grounded and for maturing out of the dependency you have formed for her. This is all a recognized part of the strategy of therapy and it sounds as if she is competent. I would suggest that you concentrate on recognizing the anxiety or fear triggers that make you uncomfortable and visualize how to comfort yourself in the presence of those triggers. It could be anything, carrying a rabbits foot, rubbing a piece of velvet, walking on a treadmill, eating chocolate, etc. (although some of these may also have secondary costs like weight gain). I wish you luck, if you have time would you write back about your progress? Thanks, Brett

  3. Thinking Tina says:

    What is considered normal for a therapist to help with self-esteem. And when are comments & compliments just odd. The male therapist I went to sadi I looked nice, made a comment about me thinking I look pretty (his word, not mine) within an interaction I had with an acquaintance. He made another comment about my looks at another time, comparing my situation to another client, since I wasn’t overweight & she was. Is he just different or is “he off” more than a bit??

    • Brett Newcomb says:

      The question you ask is important but difficult to answer. I think the therapist should mind his mouth a little better. It is appropriate to say you look nice or are better looking than you admit to if you are expressing a lack of confidence. Generally I tend to think it is lack of experience and lack of carefulness more than “inappropriate” in a sexual sense or a flirting sense. But I am not there and the context cues are so very important. If you are strong enough, bring it up and say you are curious or even uncomfortable and ask why he is doing it? It could be a very healing conversation no matter where it takes you in terms of the relationship with the therapist. Good luck, let us know.

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