Are Clients Self-Protective Behaviors Getting in the Way?


Are Clients Self-Protective Behaviors Getting in the Way?

I often hear coaches, consultants or psychotherapists speak about clients out of frustration because they can't get their clients to change their behavior. While they try different approaches, tools and techniques, ultimately they can decide that their clients “Just aren’t ready.” “They didn’t want to change badly enough.” Or they conclude that they are “too narcissistic, too controlling or too arrogant” to change.  From our own disappointment in them or from our feelings of impotence and helplessness, we judge and blame clients for our lack of success with helping them develop or change.

While we know that there are unconscious forces operating in our clients, we can make it sound as though they are making a conscious choice to stay in the same place and not change. The reality is that many people, despite how successful they are in their work lives, are simply afraid of change because of the way it makes them feel. Their self-protective behaviors look different — stronger, objective, competent — and so we misread what is actually going on with them.

The Self-Protective Emotional Brain

We can end up blaming our clients for the behaviors that they have brought us in to help them with because we don’t see their actions and failure to engage as self-protective and emotionally driven. The emotional brain makes decisions to stay with familiar, dysfunctional patterns of behavior because it’s the job of this brain to do so. It is the role it plays in keeping us safe from psychological discord. This brain focuses on the past, bringing past emotional experiences into the present for the purpose of self-protection. When we don't realize clients are operating from the self-protective system of the brain because they are being so rational and logical, we don’t see how frightened or vulnerable they are when we ask them to do something different. Giving them more information or telling them what they need to do differently doesn’t address the underlying emotion that has them unable to move. Fear disconnects us from our rational brain, getting in the way of doing anything other than what we know is safe. 

Helping clients become aware of their fear and how it stops the brain from participating in its own development is an important part of any change process. Without discussing fear, vulnerability, anxiety or other emotions that trigger self-protective behaviors, we run the risk of not meeting our clients’ needs despite how comprehensive our approach is.     

Anne Dranitsaris, Ph.D.



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