• Linda Buchanan, Ph.D.

From One Therapist to Another: When Client's Don't Want to Be There


During Lauren's first couple of sessions, she repeatedly said that she did't want to be in therapy. I would gently remind her that she didn't have to be since she was an adult, to which she would respond that she knew that was true, she just kept hoping something would change. As I tried to help her see that she could change, she seemed more resistant. Like in the cartoon, she seemed to feel like I was trying to take something from her against her will. I realized that we were stuck in a power struggle.


So I said what I wish I had said in the first session; "you seem to be torn, like one part of you doesn't want to be here and another part of you brings you here." She agreed and I asked her “Would you be willing to try an experiment with me? It’s a little odd but it can be very revealing.” I introduced a particular form of empty chair technique which I often use to help people understand their own ambivalence (and get me out of the middle of it.) where they have one part of themselves talk to the other part.



During this exercise, Lauren recognized that she really did want to change but she had a voice in her mind telling her that she shouldn't have hope and that she wasn't good enough. Then she realized that she was actually ambivalent about staying with her boyfriend and that she hadn't wanted to come to therapy because she was afraid that I was going to tell her to break up with him. Her boyfriend had been straight for a year and she had just learned that he had a slip without telling her about it. I reassured her that my job was to help her access her own wisdom, not tell her what to do. We continued the exercise as follows:


Lauren: I don’t want to break up with him because he’s all I have. It’s not that big a deal that he had a slip, it happens to everyone. If you (speaking to the other part of her in the empty chair) break up with him, you will be alone and even more depressed. You should take into account his feelings and not be so selfish.

Therapist: When you tell me that I should break up with him, I feel…

Lauren: When you tell me that I should break up with him, I feel mad because you are naive and you always want things your way and you act like the world should be a perfect place. You dwell on the negative. You aren’t even thinking about all the things he does for you. You can’t make it in the world by yourself.

Therapist: When you act that way, it reminds me of…

Lauren: When you act that way, it reminds me of when I was little and wishing that dad would spend time with me. He didn’t care about you when he was having affairs. You can’t always have everything you want. You need to appreciate what you have rather than focus on your unhappiness. You won’t find anyone better than him and you’ll be alone.

Therapist: If I listen to you, I’m afraid that…

Lauren: If I listen to you and do break up with him, I’m afraid that I will become even more depressed and suicidal.

Therapist: What I wish you’d do differently is…

Lauren: What I wish you’d do differently is accept that life is hard and stop being so depressed all the time. You need to toughen up!

Therapist: What I wish you understood, that you just don’t get, is …

Lauren: What I wish you understood is that I am trying to help you.

Therapist: Is there anything else that this part of you wants to say to the part of you that wants to break up with him?

Lauren: No.

At this point, Lauren switched seats. She was instructed to get in touch with the part of her that wanted to break up with her boyfriend and to respond to what she had just heard the other part of her say.

Lauren: I need to break up with him because he was dishonest by trying to keep this a secret. He knows that I can’t tolerate secrets. If he’s keeping this a secret then I don’t have any idea what to trust. If he really loved you (speaking to the part sitting in the empty chair), he would have let you know that he was struggling. He knows that I can understand about a slip, but not about dishonesty.

Therapist: When you tell me not to break up with him…

Lauren: When you tell me not to break up with him, I feel trapped, unimportant and weak. I feel like what I want or need doesn’t matter.

Therapist: If I do what you want…

Lauren: If I do what you want, I’m afraid that I will never truly feel important. I need to know that I’m strong and don’t have to depend totally on someone else for my happiness.

Therapist: What I wish you understood is…

Lauren: What I wish you understood is that I should have a right to my own expectations and to have my needs met.

Therapist: When you don’t validate that, it reminds me of…

Lauren: When you don’t validate that, it reminds me of mom telling me to stop complaining and get over it. She was upset with dad too and would never let me talk about it. She just put up with it! (long pause)…I wonder if part of her wanted to leave him.

Therapist: What I wish you’d do differently…

Lauren: What I wish you’d do differently is pay attention to my feelings every once in a while.

Therapist: What you really don’t understand is…

Lauren: What you really don’t understand is that I have rights too and I’d rather be alone than settle for less.

Therapist: is there anything else that this part of you would like to say to the other part?

Lauren: You talk to me so mean! If you want to help, you should start by treating me nicer.


Next, Lauren was asked to imagine that their adult self or wise-self had been listening to the entire conversation. This part of her understood exactly why each part felt the way it did and knew the way out of the dilemma. Lauren was asked to imagine what this part would now say.


Lauren: I need to know that it is okay to have needs and wants, and that I am lovable. There's actually no real reason to believe that I'll be alone and the most important thing is for me to know that I'm worthy of being treated well. I will listen to and validate my feelings and not allow myself to just stay in bed.

Therapist: How does this wisdom help with you're decision regarding your boyfriend?

Lauren: I’m not sure what I’ll do yet, but if I’m feeling stronger, I will be able to talk with him about his slip without feeling unlovable and afraid of being alone. I might even be more compassionate to him whether I stay or leave. If I’m stronger, I can see that his behavior is not a reflection on me but does affect me…. And be able to make a choice based on what’s best for me now rather than the fears I developed growing up.


This wisdom was within Lauren all the time but she was stuck

trying to figure out which side of her was right.


By listening fully to both sides of her dilemma with compassion and openness, she was able to apply her inherent wisdom to her own ambivalence.


There are so many things that I love about the Empty Chair exercise, not the least of which is that it is so easy! Other than throw out a few sentence stems, the client does all the work. It is beautiful to sit back and watch the increased awareness, the “aha” moments and the wisdom just flow from the participant. Empty chair helps the client understand their own resistance as ambivalence so that you can both get out of the power struggle and to the heart of the matter.

4536 Barclay Drive

Dunwoody, GA 30338

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Walden  Behavioral Care

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© 2019 by Linda Buchanan PhD.   Website by Nancy Steffke.