Quick Tips for Therapists

Handling Clients with Unrealistic Expectations and Demands

By Leah Aguirre, LCSW

Many first-time clients come to therapy seeking “quick fixes,” and expect the therapist to do the work and “solve” the problem. These clients will specifically ask us “what to say” or “what to do,” seeing the therapist as an all-knowing advisor, rather than a support or resource. As clinicians, we are aware that this approach to therapy isn’t appropriate or helpful because it doesn’t result in lasting changes in the client or promote true growth and healing. This approach also undermines the client’s self-determination and potential.

Here is how to address this insistent client with finesse:

  • Clarify the therapist’s role: Clarify your role as the “therapist” and the type of support and feedback you are able to give to the client. You can also clarify your limitations and be clear about the things you are not able to do or feedback you are unable to give. Reiterate that your job is to empower the client to make their own choices and decisions that reflect their personal values and goals.
  • Clarify the client’s role: Clarify the client’s role as an active participant in therapy. Explain that as an active participant, they are encouraged to self-reflect and, through therapy, learn and develop new skills and approaches they can apply on their own between sessions to improve their mental health and meet their personal goals. Make it clear that the client is their own change agent and has the ability and capacity to make decisions that are best for them. Emphasize that they are the expert of their own life and internal processes.
  • Set and reinforce boundaries: After clarifying the role of both client and therapist, actively set and reinforce boundaries throughout treatment. Gently remind the client of your respective roles and responsibilities, and reiterate what type of support you can and cannot offer.

Leah Aguirre, LCSW, is a licensed clinical social worker practicing in San Diego, CA. She works primarily with teens and adults who have experienced complex trauma, including childhood abuse, domestic violence, and dating violence, and provides trauma-based treatment including eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). Aguirre writes a blog on Psychology Today, and has been featured in Bumble, GQ, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and in the Reframe and DiveThru apps.

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Quick Tips for Therapists