One of my biggest fears my first year being a therapist was not knowing what to say. I had this internal pressure of wanting (needing, actually) to be helpful and this perceived external pressure from my clients to have all the answers.
These pressures often led me to start rambling and feeling more anxious as I struggled to land on any sort of point. It wasn’t uncommon that I’d end a session with this sting of feeling embarrassed. I was sure my clients could see through my thinly veiled confidence.
Over time that has changed as I’ve learned more about myself and my clients. I still struggle from time to time with the pressure to say something, but the anxiousness and embarrassment is far less frequent as I’m settling into a more present and peaceful approach.
With that in mind, here are 6 ideas for you when you’re struggling to know what to say:
- Acknowledge the discomfort: It’s okay to acknowledge that you’re feeling uncomfortable or unsure about what to say. It’s better to admit when you don’t have an answer rather than stumbling through a contrived one. If you feel you don’t have enough information, you might say something like, “I’m feeling a bit stuck here, can you tell me more about what’s going on for you?” On the other side, if your client is talking for a prolonged period of time and you’re starting to feel lost, you might gently say, “I’m starting to get lost here and I want to make sure I’m understanding you, can we go back to _____.”
- Reflect your client’s feelings: Reflection is a simple and powerful interpersonal skill. This can help your client feel heard and validated, which also builds trust. You might say something like, “I see you’re feeling really frustrated right now.” And if you want to deepen the reflection, you can tie that feeling to what is important to your client, “I see you’re feeling frustrated right now because you care so much about this relationship and do not feel heard.” There’s a reason reflection is one of the first skills we teach couples who are struggling.
- Let there be silence: One of the dangers of always having an answer is that it can subtly create a dependent relationship between you and your client where your client stops thinking for themselves. Allowing room for silence gives your client the opportunity to work out their problems on their own and in a safe environment. I can’t count how many times I’ve intentionally held my tongue and been delightfully surprised by the insight and wisdom my client comes to on their own. And the best thing? These are client-owned solutions which means not only did they come up with an answer, but they also gained confidence in their ability to handle life’s challenges.
- Tend to your own feelings: Half of the journey of becoming a therapist is understanding and caring for yourself as the therapist. I noticed that my own discomfort around not having answers centered on an unhealthy expectation that I always need to be helpful. Underneath this expectation was a deep fear that if I am not helpful, then I am worthless. Rather than feed into this fear by pressuring myself to always have something to say, I’ve been trying to note this fear mid-session and privately offer myself reassurance that this is not true and compassion for the distress it has caused me over the years. The result? My fear and distress are slowly dissipating, and I have more freedom for the uncertainty and confusion that naturally comes with helping hurting people.
- Deepen their feelings: Emotions are packed with valuable information and our clients often have a surface level understanding of their own emotions. A simple way to help your clients better understand their feelings is to help them differentiate between primary and secondary emotions. Primary emotions tend to be our initial reaction to an event and often are more sensitive (i.e. fear, hurt, sadness). Secondary emotions are the reaction we have to our primary emotions and tend to be a way to numb and distract from the sensitivity of our primary emotions (i.e. anger, annoyance, shame). Helping your client understand what is under their anger or shame can help them make sense of why they are feeling the way they are and start down the path of better communicating their feelings to those they trust.
- Validate your client’s experience: Even if you don’t have all the answers, you can still validate your client’s experience. Validation might feel cliche, but I’m constantly reminded how starved my clients are for this kind of care. Many people feel alone and misunderstood in what they are experiencing. Rather than answers, they are looking for validation. You might say something like, “It sounds like this is really difficult for you, and I can understand why you feel that way.” Let your clients know you see what they are going through and that it makes sense why they feel the way they do.
Becoming a therapist is a long journey and you’ll have plenty of times where you don’t know what to say. That’s ok. Be gentle with yourself, you’re human just like you’re clients. I think you’ll find that over the years it is your presence that carries more weight than your words.
Your clients surely won’t remember everything you say, less than 1% even. But they will always remember how you made them feel: understood, respected, cared for, safe.
Aim more for that, and you’ll be on your way to being a wonderful therapist.