By Russ Harris
Therapists can get stuck when clients repeatedly complain that another person is “the problem.” Sessions can fill up with clients venting, ruminating, or obsessing about their relationships, while therapists slip into “supportive counseling” mode: validating, normalizing, and empathizing—without empowering clients to look after themselves, and take action to improve (or end) their relationships.
The way out of this trap is to establish clear goals for therapy, and actively work on them. After plenty of compassionate validation, we can invite the client to choose one of these options to work on:
- How to take care of themselves, and effectively handle the painful thoughts and feelings that inevitably show up in difficult relationships (e.g., mindfulness, self-compassion).
- How to elicit support from others (e.g., lodging a complaint with appropriate authorities).
- How to change their own behavior in relationships with others, to get better results (i.e., do less of what’s problematic, more of what’s helpful).
- How to use relationship skills to constructively influence the other person’s behavior (e.g., assertiveness, communication, negotiation, setting boundaries, positive reinforcement of behavior you’d like to see increase).
- How to end a relationship, if that’s the best option.
If clients complain about difficulties in several relationships, we can ask them to pick just one to work on, for now. We compassionately validate their concerns as we uncover the main problems. And then we may say: “There are many problems in this relationship—no wonder you’re suffering. So, there are several options for how we tackle this.” Then we run through the options above. Many therapists initially resist this approach; they see it as too directive. But those that try it universally report that it makes their sessions far more productive.
Russ Harris is an internationally acclaimed acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) trainer; and author of the best-selling ACT-based self-help book, The Happiness Trap, which has sold more than one million copies and been published in thirty languages. He is widely renowned for his ability to teach ACT in a way that is simple, clear, and fun—yet extremely practical.