What if your client has the problem you have?


What happens when you’re giving therapy, and the person opposite has the exact same problem that you do?

They mention thoughts and feelings that you experience yourself. You ask yourself how you can help this person when you’ve yet to overcome this issue in your own life.

Every time you think of an idea that may help, you realise that it didn’t help you. So you hit a brick wall.

You want to make helpful suggestions but you’re going through the same struggle. Given that you’ve not beaten it yet, you draw a blank when trying to help someone with your own exact issue.

You wonder whether you’re the right therapist for them. But you have a good rapport with them, and the relationship between you is unsurprisingly strong.

In this article, I will look at three things that may help you with this dilemma.

  1. The magnet factor
  2. The problem is not the problem
  3. Lean on the client

  1. The magnet factor

As you become more experienced as a therapist, you’ll likely spot a pattern. Working with your clients seems uncannily like looking in the mirror a lot. You’ll notice that you keep coming in for therapy – well, a version of you.

Your clients will articulate your own struggles – even if you never advertise as a specialist in that area. Don’t ask me how or why, but they will find you. You’ll be like a magnet to them.

It may seem strange and unsettling right now, but clients seem to be very skilled at picking therapists who will understand them. They don’t know your history, but intuitively they pick you.

That strong rapport you have? Maybe this is a big part of the reason. How validating it is to be with someone and not feel any shame or judgement from the therapist. Do clients pick that up? You betcha!

What if your struggle makes you the perfect therapist for this version of you sat opposite you?

Early in my therapy career, a client asked me outright whether I’d been depressed in the way that she was. She didn’t want to be working with someone who hadn’t struggled too.

What if the similarities between you are a strength and not a weakness?

2. The problem is not the problem

You think that you’re not equipped to help a client who has a problem that you’ve not overcome. But what if the problem isn’t the problem at all?

What if the problem is a solution to something else? Something even more scary to them.

It’s likely that both you and the client could change right away. But there’s a good reason why you both don’t. It makes sense why you haven’t changed yet. It makes sense why they haven’t too.

The problems that clients present in therapy are typically defences. So what are they protecting against?

You may find that their underlying cause is very different to yours, even if on the surface it looks the same. Suddenly, from this perspective, the two of you are different after all.

And if you’re not, see point 1.

3. Lean on the client

It may feel difficult to give useful suggestions to a client when you’ve not yet solved the problem for yourself. But maybe you don’t need to.

The desire to help can be a strong one. Yet it can sometimes get in the way too. It can make sense to lean on the client.

After all, they will already have many resources and approaches that work for them, at least to an extent.

Think of your own problem. Is it always static? Is every day equally as good or as bad as the next? Is every moment?

No, some moments will be better than others. Dig into those better times. With good questioning, the client will already have some idea what creates those better times.

Instead of having to come up with great suggestions, it can be easier and more effective to discover together what already works for them. Some of the ideas will be so unusual and bespoke that I guarantee you’d never think of them.

Questions beat suggestions. They also empower and enlighten the client. You can help connect them to what already helps, and let them discover that they already have skills and resources.

Let’s recap

It can be discomforting at first when versions of you show up as your client. Sometimes their problem is so like yours that you can wonder whether you’re the right person to help them.

But as we saw, this is the magnet factor, and it will keep happening. Trust the client. They chose you for a reason.

It may only be the presenting problem that is the same. The underlying issue could be very different. It can be a mistake to work only with what they bring, rather than the good reason why they’ve yet to change.

Learn to lean on the client. Imagine if you had overcome this problem already. What worked for you probably wouldn’t work for them anyhow. Can you imagine the frustration when your bespoke solutions are refused by your client?

We are all different, and what works for one person won’t work for another. Let go of the understandable desire to fix, and explore together. You are the fellow traveller they need because you already see them and understand them.

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