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From Resistance to Resilience: Counseling Difficult Clients

Fred Hanna, Ph.D., Program Director of the Ph.D. Counselor Education and Supervision program at Adler University, has been a counselor educator for more than 20 years. He is a distinguished scholar with more than 60 publications; his areas of expertise include counseling adolescents with behavioral and emotional problems, counselor pedagogy and training of counselors, multicultural counseling, Asian psychotherapy, and existential therapy.

Corey was 15 years old. His father, who devoted more of himself to his work than to his children, had left the family when Corey was 8. His mother was a registered nurse and worked long hours at the hospital to support her kids. She was worried about her Corey, reporting that he didn’t talk to her anymore and that he was “always angry.”

When we met, one of the first things I noticed about Corey was his eyes. There was a shrewd intelligence behind those eyes, the kind that concerns you when you see it in a child.

I opened the conversation: “Corey, your teachers and principal are worried about you. They tell me that you have problems with your anger. Is that true?”

He looked at me long and hard, as if he were deciding whether to cuss at me, throw something against the wall, or just dismiss me out of hand. “I am tired of people talking about my anger.” He then curled his lip into a contorted smile. “Let me tell it to you straight. I hate everybody and I hate everything. Okay?”

I watched him lean back in his chair to take in my reaction to this strangely heartfelt statement. I ignored my momentary feeling of alarm and leaned in a bit closer. “Sometimes hating is a way of trying to feel better, Corey. Is that what you are doing?”

He paused, unprepared. He had clearly not considered this. Nonetheless, I could see a window open just slightly. Without waiting more than a couple of seconds, I said, “Can I ask you a question, Corey?”

He nodded.

“Have you ever been hurt?”

“What do you mean, ‘hurt’?” he said hesitantly.

I rephrased the question, knowing full well that he knew what I meant. “I am not talking about physical hurt, Corey, and I am not asking you to tell me who hurt you. I just wonder if anyone has ever hurt you—deep in your feelings, where a knife or a bullet could never go.”

For just a moment the scowl disappeared and was replaced by a look of vulnerability and uncertainty. I knew I had begun to reach him. I watched as he decided whether or not to trust me.

After a few more seconds, he said simply, “Yeah.”

I nodded and pressed further. “Do you think about it much?”

He looked at me now in a new way. “I think about it all the time,” he said with a tone of resignation.

“Do you ever think about getting even?” I asked.

“I think about that all the time, too.” Then, his scowl returned and he then added, “And I will, too, someday. You watch.”

I replied, “Would you be willing to forgive that person and move on with your life?” I asked the question but also expected the quickly forthcoming answer.

“No way,” he said with great resolve.

You always hope for a willingness to forgive, but it seldom comes. But there is a back door approach. “I understand, Corey. Can I ask you another question?

“Yeah.”

“How much of your anger is related to that hurt inside you?”

He thought for a moment and said, simply, “Almost all of it.”

That was the answer so often given by angry teens. “Well, I wonder,” I said, “if your hurt went away, how much anger would you have?”

He carefully considered the question and, somewhat surprised, replied, “Not very much, I guess.”

So much of our anger is a simple result of having been hurt. I have found that most angry clients are proud of their anger, and would rather brag about it than reduce it or get rid of it.

I went on, “If the hurt went away, would you lose a lot of your interest in getting even with the person or people who hurt you?”

“I guess I wouldn’t care as much,” he ventured. He was now catching on to where I was going and his eyes showed a spark of interest.

“So maybe that so-called ‘anger problem’ of yours is actually just a ‘hurt problem.’ If you could get rid of 90% of that hurt inside you, would you do it?”

“You can do that?” he said somewhat incredulously. “How do you do that?”

“Did you know that counseling is a way of helping people to heal that hurt? You can feel better, Corey.”

He looked at me intensely. “Maybe, but I ain’t crazy.”

I immediately replied, “No, but you are hurting. You said it yourself. Be honest with me now. Has hating gotten rid of the hurt?”

He said, softly, “Not really.”

“Has getting high gotten rid of the hurt?”

He decided to trust me just a bit further. “It helps for a while,” he said with a sigh.

I smiled, “Did you know that counseling is a better way to heal the pain, Corey? It works a lot better than drugs, hating and blaming. And with counseling, the hurt can go away for good. It may not get rid of all the hurt, but for most people, it can get rid of most of it. Would you be willing to give it a shot?”

He looked at me with a bit of longing in his eyes. “Yeah,” he said softly, and with a hint of a smile added, “I’ll try it.”

Corey eventually told me who hurt him and the sad story of what they did, and his intentions for a violent revenge. In time, he changed, and realized that healing his hurt was more gratifying than indulging his urge for vengeance.

I was able to reach Corey before his plans for vengeance took shape. Sadly, too many kids like Corey never get a chance to heal the pain they encounter and accumulate.

We see these kids in schools and in neighborhoods. They can range from being “problem children” to gang members. But in almost every case the heart of the matter is the same. These kids are hurting from abuse, neglect, alienation, rejection, lack of acceptance, mistreatment, and all too often discrimination as well. But we have found that when the hurt goes, the anger goes with it. And we need counselors and therapists who can help clients accomplish this.

In our Ph.D. program in Counselor Education and Supervision at Adler University, we train already competent therapists to help the most difficult, defiant, resistant, adolescents and adults to achieve positive change sooner rather than later. We provide an advanced doctoral training program where master’s level counselors can learn advanced skills and advanced techniques, working at a level far beyond that of the average licensed professional.

Our students not only graduate as excellent counselors, they also become leaders, able to coach their peers and juniors, elevating the standard of practice within their entire organization.

If any of this is of interest to you, and if you would like more details, I would be happy to speak with you. Give me a call here at Adler, at 312.662.4309 or email fhanna@adler.edu.