You have been working with a client for a month when they come in furious that they have had a difficult encounter with a particular ethnicity on their way to their session with you. This encounter acts as a means of opening up material and they engage in an hour long diatribe laden with racial slurs around this particular ethnic group, including wishes of genocide. You sit there uncomfortably in the knowledge that you have been dating someone from this ethnic group for the last year. Your client obviously believes that you share their beliefs around race and makes this clear in session. How do you cope with this situation?
Just reading this fictional dilemma made me feel pretty uncomfortable, so first I’d want to take this to my supervisor. In supervision I would want to lay out what precisely is going on in the therapy and to separate what is my material, from that of my client’s so that I can maintain a person centered approach (i.e. empathy, unconditional positive regard).
When I worked as a support worker (not a counsellor), the organization had strict rules on racist attitudes from clients. We were told to call them out on their opinions and tell them that if they continued in this behavior, the session would end. But the dilemma above is a client in therapy and so I would not want to shut the client down like that but rather open this up more to really explore what is going on.
With the client, after talking things through with my supervisor, I imagine some of the following might be explored:
I may want to name my discomfort/difficultly in hearing the client’s opinions and explore what this may mean for our relationship. The client had assumed I would be on their side and so what does it mean if I have a different attitude?
Explore the qualities the client is projecting onto this particular ethnic group to see if these are qualities in the client’s own shadow which can gradually be owned back.
To challenge/reality test the attitude for example: Are all people in this ethnic group like this? What about X person? What about Y experience?
I would be wary of naming my own relationship with someone from this particular ethnic group as I would worry that the session might then become more about me and less about the client. But I think this can be explored in supervision. I may want to include as a hypothetical to the client instead, “so if I was friends/married to someone from this group what would that mean for our work together?”
As Suzie says I would definitely be taking the issue to supervision to be able to contain my own personal responses, and probably keep a check on my anger around the feelings around my partner being personally attacked, however there are some parts of this dilemma which would make me feel very curious.
Firstly I would be interested in the way in which the client assumes that I share the same view as them about a seemingly taboo topic – perhaps this might indicate that the client has experienced some sort of social or familial acceptance for these kind of views, or that they have a feeling that they are in some way mainstream.
Alternatively perhaps sharing these views, yet realising that they are taboo, shows they have identified themselves with me in some way. I would be very interested in exploring what kind of background the client comes from and what experiences in the past have shaped these attitudes, but also would be hypothesising that they may be trying to use this taboo topic to build a sense of intimacy with me, through having me collude with them.
I would be careful not to do this, but would explore why it is exactly that they are sharing this with me, rather than getting too bogged down in the moral aspect around the beliefs. Perhaps this is a risky way of trying to build intimacy and test if I am safe? I think that there is a subtle trap that is being laid in the sense that rejecting these beliefs overtly could lead into an oppositional binary which would become more about our respective moral beliefs then therapeutic work for the client. I would be careful to avoid this but may be more open with my own perspective later down the line in our relationship.