The following material is adapted from Tough Kids, Cool Counseling.
Although we generally suggest not taking your client’s degrading comments personally, in the real world, we all get our buttons pushed sometimes. A graphic example of a therapist over-reacting to provocative client behavior was captured in the feature film, Good Will Hunting (Van Sant, 1997).
You may recall the scene. The main character, Will, played by Matt Damon, is an extremely intelligent but emotionally disturbed young man with mathematical genius. His would-be mentor, in an effort to help Will fulfill his potential, sends him to several different counselors, none of whom are able to help Will. Finally, Will ends up in the office of Sean McGuire, played by Robin Williams.
During his initial session with McGuire, Will is his provocative and nasty self. He begins insulting McGuire’s deceased wife which “activates” McGuire’s emotional buttons. The result: McGuire grabs Will around the neck and slams him up against the wall. Of course, McGuire also decides to take on Will as a client and eventually (and rather magically) he successfully helps Will move forward in his life.
We’d like to emphasize two key points related to this excellent example of resistance and countertransference from Good Will Hunting. First, be aware of your emotional buttons. If you’re getting your buttons pushed, seek support and counseling for yourself. Second, no matter how provocative your young clients may act, avoid using Robin Williams’s “Choking the client” technique. It may play well in Hollywood, but physical contact with resistant, aggressive, and/or angry clients is highly ill-advised. If you think rationally about the “Will Hunting” character and the fact that he had a history of physical trauma, touching him in an aggressive way would be ESPECIALLY contraindicated.
If you’re having your emotional buttons pushed occasionally by teenage clients or students, consider yourself normal. On the other hand, if the button pushing begins to cause you to contemplate acting on destructive impulses, it’s time to get therapy for yourself, and/or support from a collegial supervision group. Many psychoanalytically-oriented writers have warned about the powerful regressive countransference impulses that young clients can ignite in their counselors (Dass-Brailsford, 2003; Horne, 2001).