How to Handle Emotional Clients

I generally agree with the theories proposed in Cognitive Therapy. I believe that how we feel or our well-being is at the effect of our emotions which are in turn at the effect of our thoughts. Our thoughts only occur as a result of a stimulus but are often skipped over in people’s self-analysis as to why they are feeling sad or upset.

Meaning, someone cuts you off in traffic and you feel angry. Cognitive therapy would say that the person cutting you off did not make you angry, but rather your thoughts that cutting someone off is a rude thing to do and thus is offensive is what caused you to feel angry.

Thoughts are, in every way, the greatest sense of choice we have (indeed, maybe what we all mean by free will), but sadly most people do not see them as choices which leaves us at the effect of our automatic thought reactions to daily stimuli. Many do not see the thought that getting cut off is rude as something they chose to think, mostly because the opposite is so hard to believe: that getting cut off was polite.

But in saying all this I’m not asking that you start believing the opposite and seeing being cut off as polite because that is just as narrow as thinking it’s rude. I’m telling you that:

  • You could think, “That person must be in a rush and I hope they get where they’re going in time.”
  • You could say to yourself, “That person might not have seen me. I hope they look a bit closer next time because I would hate for him/her to have an accident.”
  • The stimulus could even trigger a positive self-analytical thought like, “I should have noticed they were driving a bit recklessly a mile ago and let them go ahead of me a pace. Next time I see a driver with similar patterns, that’s what I’ll do.”

Any one of these thoughts will generate a different emotion than anger that’s more beneficial to your well-being. All it requires is separating the stimulus from the emotion and realizing there’s a thought in the middle.

This can easily be used with any of the clients you see on a regular basis. If you can notice that your clients are having automatic emotional responses to stimuli without thinking about how their thoughts are influencing the way they feel, see if you can break it down for them and help them make a different choice.

If you are a personal trainer having an appointment with a client who signed up through your web scheduler and is frequently upset about her weight, every weigh-in may be a headache for both of you if the results aren't coming fast enough. If she steps on the scale and it’s any number of pounds over what she wanted it to be, you’ll pretty quickly see her turn sad, angry, hopeless, or be at the mercy of any number of emotions.

What’s the stimulus here? The scale and the number on it.

Now let’s say that her emotional response was hopelessness: “I’m never going to lose all this weight! I’m just going to be big-boned and plumpy forever!” Any objective consideration would be able to tell you that your weight today hardly determines what your weight will be forever, but this is a common reaction from people on a weight loss path that don’t see the results they want fast enough.

What kind of automatic thought in response to the number on the scale caused this emotion? I bet it was something like, “That number is too high compared to where I want to be. Gosh, I’m fat.”

I want to pause for just a minute because, typically, “That number is too high” is also just a response to conventions that the person stepping on the scale may not actually agree with at her core. In this instance, let’s assume that the trainer and trainee have discussed the goals and so the number being too high is (in the example) factually accurate compared to where she wants to be. Okay, un-pause.

Again, the client may not see her hopeless reaction as a choice. Also, even if she does see that her hopelessness is at the cause of the thought “That number is too high,” she is unlikely to see that thought as a choice.

What you can do is show her what other thoughts the number on the scale could stimulate and help her see the different emotions she could have at the end. Again, this is not about getting her to start thinking the opposite of the thought because in this instance the opposite isn't true and thus is hard to believe. Instead, she could think:

  • “My body is the only body I have and it is the direct result of the decisions I made. I did choose to eat out twice this week and had pasta both times. This could be the result of that and next time I’ll make the choice to eat salad at least one of the nights.”
  • “Each week is different and every person loses weight in a different way. Maybe this week I can try out a new cardio routine or look for a new way to move around more during my work week.”
  • “My hormones were fluctuating all this week. Those should be more under control this coming week and I’m sure I’ll be back on track for next weigh-in.” While this would lead to a more hopeful emotion, it may not be wholly accurate so another thought pattern might be more beneficial.

Now even after you point out these alternative thought patterns, it is still up to the client to make the choice that she wants to think this way instead of the way she’d been thinking. Not everyone really wants to be happy and fulfilled. Some people enjoy the attention that being miserable gives them.

I’m not saying that recognizing your thoughts as your choice is easy. It takes work to really understand their implications and repetition through practice in order to change them.

What I am saying is that when people finally make the switch to start seeing their thoughts as their choices:

  • They become a lot more enjoyable to be around, and
  • They start to experience a lot more control in their day to day lives.

So the next time you're with a client or student working on a project and he's not having an optimal emotional response, see if you can figure out what thoughts he's relaying to himself to give him that feeling.

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