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Honestly, I don't care how you feel

July 24, 2014
by Heidi Voet Smith
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I'm more interested in what my client does, than how he/she feels.

I co-facilitate an intensive three day family workshop at a long term treatment center that deals directly with chronic relapse. These clients and their families have often been to numerous other treatment center family programs and therapeutic counseling sessions. As a counselor, you may think my favorite question would be “how does that make you feel?” After all, it seems to be the textbook and iconic question that people attach to mental health professionals. But if I may be honest and blunt, I cannot remember the last time I asked that question because, quite frankly, I don’t really care all that much how a client feels.

Here is a common interchange between myself and a client.

     Me: Are you willing to talk about what happened with your family at visitation yesterday?

     Client: I don’t feel like talking about it.

     Me: I didn’t ask if you felt like talking about it. I asked if you were willing to talk about it.

I am all for getting in touch with your feelings and I am a big believer in talk therapy. I have personally had years of talk therapy and believe that the “feelings work” that I have done has had a huge impact on my relationships and my personal integration. I am a counselor, after all – how could I not love feelings? However, as a counselor who works exclusively with drug addicts and alcoholics, I have developed a much greater interest in what my client does than how they feel.

Like it or not, addicts are notorious for being dishonest, manipulative and fast talkers. As a professional working with this type of client, I am looking for a display of willingness to do something different and to follow directions. I want to know what this client wants out of life and I want to watch what he/she is willing to do to get what they say they want. Are they willing to be held accountable? Are they willing to be told the truth? Are they willing to stay in treatment? None of these questions involve feelings . . .

I hold family members of my clients to these same standards. The feelings of grief, anger, sadness and terror can be so overwhelming for the loved ones of addicted individuals. These feelings must be acknowledged, but more importantly, the family must acknowledge that they have to DO something different. We can talk about their feelings all day long, but something must change in their actions in order for them to get their own life back.

Clients and families are both equally destroyed by the disease of addiction and I believe my job as a counselor is to take a stand for them and challenge them beyond traditional talk therapy. My hope is that their pain will be a catalyst for change and that by pushing them beyond their feelings, I can also participate in their change.



Hello Counselor Voet Smith:

I found your article interesting. I have to subscribe to a number of blogs for my Ed.D program required by my school. As a prevention specialist II and chaplain I teach holistic family supportive prevention classes to clients, including those trying to recover for ATOD addictions, use, and abuse. I ask about their spiritual, emotional, and physical health and create an environment wherein they feel secure and comfortable to talk about any of these issues at any time.

I like that you focus on what they are willing to do because I do, too. When their responses aren't congruent I challenge them, also. It is such a self-motivator for that person who says they are practicing their spiritually, and attending meeting, but report they have been using. It helps to create their individual learning plan and to actually list ways they will do something differently holistically.

Thank you,

Heidi Voet Smith

Clinical Director Chapter House Counseling Center

Heidi Voet Smith



 Heidi Voet Smith, (LPC-S, MA), is the Clinical Director and Co-Founder at Chapter House Sober...

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