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Control Versus Containment in the Therapeutic Venue

by Caryn M. Coons, M.A., LPC, DAPA

There has been no greater influence on my practice of counseling than observing the techniques of others.  My licensure supervision included critiquing dozens of taped counseling sessions submitted by graduate students as part of their academic program.   When analyzing their own performance, students commonly noted their "lack of control of the session," or that "the client controlled the hour."  The sessions that spawned these comments were actually quite good.  The students did not appear to lack control, but they felt they did.  (Note that controlling a session is unrelated to the use of structured or directive methodologies.)

There are two predominant reasons that novice counselors feel "out of control" in their sessions.  The first is related to the development of clinical habits and intuition.  When starting out, most everything students do in session feels unnatural and uncomfortable to them.  As they continue to practice, they begin to recognize effective clinical behaviors and differentiate them from ineffective ones.  By implementing what has proven to work, beginners develop a personal clinical style.  The initial discomfort  is a necessary step in the development of  professional identity.   This underlies the necessity of practicum and internship experience for students of the helping professions.  In this case, students are mislabeling their awkwardness and  insecurity related to implementing new skills for failing to control a session.  Students who recognize and accept the uncomfortable feelings in themselves will not communicate or attribute issues of control to their clients.  The caveat, "this too shall pass" comes to mind.
Student counselors with highly intuitive personality styles also frequently report feeling out of control in session.  In reviewing the content and process of their sessions, what they seem to be experiencing rather than a lack of control, is the power of  the empathic connection they are making with their clients.  Connecting on an emotionally intuitive level with the experiential reality of their clients, these counselors mistake their induction to and understanding of the client's world for being controlled by the client.  Understandably uncomfortable at first, empathic accuracy is actually a valuable clinical tool.  If it is acknowledged and understood as such, counselors with this gift will find their work intensely rewarding and exciting.

There are counselors whose desire to control their clients and sessions is pathological.  It is driven by the power needs of the therapist and not related to the welfare of the client.  This unethical group continues to seek help for themselves through their clients.  Their presence and their work is a danger to clients and the field of counseling.  It is the responsibility of
the counselor to create the context and structure of the treatment (s)he provides.  As with raising children and fencing pets, the function of  therapeutic boundaries is to allow the client the freedom and safety to explore the world within safe, consistent and predictable limits.   The task of counselors therefore, is not to control the session, but rather to contain it.


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