Mandated Therapy: Can you Turn “Have To” into “Want To”?

Most of my clients come to therapy because they want to heal, grow, and learn about themselves. They usually feel an overwhelming desire to mend their broken hearts and possibly heal their relationships with others.

But over the years, I’ve also worked very closely with mandated clients – people who had to attend therapy because some person or powerful organization told them to. If they refused therapy, they would get a more serious sentence. If I didn’t assure a social worker that someone attended their mandated therapy, CFS wouldn’t let them see their kids.

Sometimes its helped; sometimes it hasn’t. But I’m not sure that the “mandated” part is the real difference. Look around and you’ll notice that lots of people wanted to change yesterday but don’t feel like it today. After all, the treadmill is always in greater demand in February than in October. – We’ve all started off gung-ho and ended up petering out at some point in our lives.

And it works the other way, too: lots of people don’t feel like doing doodly-squat today, but will find the willpower to do something phenomenal tomorrow.

It’s true: buy-in can be created, not always, but often enough. Even tough-guys who wouldn’t know a feeling from a didgery-doo will sometimes learn how to work really hard at healing themselves and making amends if I am clear with them and don’t duck the metaphorical stuff they throw at me.

Yes, tough-guys. You probably figured out already that most mandated clients are male human beings. It’s heart breaking just how much damage men cause each other, their intimate partners, their children, and our society. It’s heart breaking to live in a world where rage is taught to young men, and it turns out, more and more to our entire society, as a way of coping with the deep, dark feelings of hurt, shame, fear and desperation.

And as a male human being myself, I’ve felt sort of sorry for these guys.

And sorry for myself because, really, what’s the point in trying to help someone who doesn’t want help?

And then I realized that I was looking at it the wrong way. I was too stuck on the “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” mentality. And, in a way, I was right! After all, Confucius never proclaimed, “A journey of ten thousand miles begins with a single step and/or being dragged, kicking and screaming, into Lindsey’s office.” No, he didn’t. Confucius expected you to want to take that first step.

It’s true: People have to want to change in order to change. You didn’t start sneezing into your elbow 4 years ago because someone made you; you did it because you saw value in not getting germs all over your hands. But, the first time you saw someone sneeze into their elbow, I bet you wondered if their shirt was covered in snot.

Some of the world’s greatest ideas look and sound like terrible ideas the first time we come across them.

Like sneezing into your elbow. – Looks gross; saves lives

Like skateboarding. – Endangers lives; is the most fun thing in the world to do.

Like opera. – I love opera but I can’t tell you why. The plots make “The Family Guy” sound like Chekov and for some reason the music goes from inaudibly quiet to ear-crushingly loud in about 0.5 seconds, which is painful and upsetting. Nevertheless, I’d say that la Boheme is right up there with the best of things ever composed, after Nirvana’s Nevermind and Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat, of course.

And therapy is one of those things that just sounds kind of stupid, especially if you’re a tough-guy. Even though I’m not a tough-guy, I’ve had the same thoughts too: “What can I possibly gain by talking about myself, my history, and my feelings for an hour?!?” – Like sneezing into your sleeve, skateboarding, and opera music: therapy just sounds dumb to a lot of people.

Add to that the fact that therapists do not look good on TV – like cops and firefighters and superheroes – and it makes sense that it would be low on a tough-guy’s to-do list.

Then again, sometimes having to do things turns out to be a good thing for us. Take physics, for example.I only took physics in high school because I had to. I was very bad at it and I found it baffling and humiliating at the same time. Luckily for me and my report card, I had Mr. Poulter who at least made me want to try. Not being miraculous enough to make me a competent physicist, he was enchanting enough to teach me to appreciate physics and to try my best.

And because he taught me to care, he was able to teach me enough physics so I could pass.

Isn’t that a better way to think about mandated therapy to think that maybe if I care and am present, my client will learn to value the work.

After all, I don’t need to magically change my clients, that’d be weird; I just need to be engaged and curious; kind and knowlegable like Mr. Poulter.

I just need to love what I do and the people I spend my days with, like Mr. Poulter. I don’t need to turn a lion into a kitten (or a Lindsey into an Einstein). But, if I can help a lion understand his lion-self a little better and if together we can help him do passably well at understanding himself and staying out of trouble, well maybe that’s good enough.

The perspective of the mandated client sometimes changes from, “World, you can’t make me grow” to “World, you can’t stop me from growing”. And this perspective changes because, sometimes for the first time in a long time, someone is looking at them with soft eyes rather than hard eyes. Someone, me, actually want’s to stay with you in your pain and rage and shame, and is determined to do so unflinchingly, without judgement, and with compassion.

It’s a beautiful thing.

It’s a beautiful thing to learn that You are not actually scum. You aren’t actually built to go around hurting people and being selfish. Most of the time, You are just someone who did some really bad things and now you get the chance to heal, to ask for forgiveness, and to make amends.

Most of the time. Not all the time, but often enough to be worth my care and concerted involvement.

What I’m saying is that if you come to me, even if you really think that therapy is b.s., that’s ok. I am not mandated to be your therapist. If I sense that you will get value from our time together, I will freely choose to be your therapist. I will choose to put you first, even when you don’t believe in yourself or see your potential for growth, healing and repair.

I will choose to not flinch when you share your wounds and the wounds you have caused others.

And chances are, that’s exactly what tough-guys -like the rest of us – have needed for a long time.

Lindsey Jay Walsh, MMFT

Photo: Smart on Unsplash


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