Connecting with the Shut-down Client

Connecting with the Shut-down Client

Helping A Combat Vet Face His Vulnerability

By Kathryn Rheem

May/June 2012

Probably no aspect of couples work is more critical, or more difficult, for therapists than engaging a distant, emotionally shutdown partner. It’s far harder to connect with an emotionally closed-off person than with a more expressive client—even one who’s angry, loud, and actively fighting therapy every step of the way. At least the latter gives us some emotional Velcro to which we can attach, rather than the slippery-smooth surface of impassive, impenetrable stoicism. Attunement requires us to experience in ourselves and reflect back our clients’ feelings, but if we can’t pick up any feelings except an obvious desire not to have or express feelings, we’re left high and dry.

Since it’s so hard to stay with shut-down clients, many clinicians will give up and try going around their feelings—or avoidance of feelings—focusing instead on cognitions and behaviors. This not only prevents us from really taking such clients in emotionally, but reinforces their original problem—their tendency to avoid feelings and remain shuttered inside their own heads. Since the feelings being avoided are often regarded as terrifying, humiliating, and deeply threatening, doing this work is a delicate therapeutic balancing act. It requires moving forward with both gentleness and persistence, without being deflected by clients’ profound unwillingness to become engaged.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014 9:24:12 PM | posted by
Great post. I am experiencing some of these issues as well..

Wednesday, November 28, 2012 6:23:37 PM | posted by Kathryn Rheem
Thanks, Jennifer, for your message about the common challenge of working with all different types of people/clients who cope by shutting down on their emotions. Your point is very salient.

Many thanks for reading the article and best wishes,
Kathryn Rheem

Monday, July 2, 2012 1:22:37 AM | posted by Jennifer Gracie
While shutting down is a coping style which combat veterans may be particularly susceptable to, it is not limited to combat veterans and I found this an encouraging article as to ways of working with a shutdown client. Thank you for keeping this real and showing how challenging this can be for the therapist and all concerned.