Six Tips to Unpack Your Client’s Ambivalence: Turn Uncertainty Into Growth

By Alexandra Hayes Robinson

It’s normal for clients to have mixed feelings about starting higher levels of care, just as it’s normal for you to feel discomfort about their uncertainty. Ambivalence toward treatment can be rooted in a variety of factors unique to each person. There are also more universal feelings, like discomfort with change or fear of the unknown, that often play a role.

For example, some clients might be scared to enter a higher level of care as it might require them to say goodbye to behaviors that they feel are keeping them safe. They could also be concerned about the logistics of how a higher level of care will fit into their life as they consider multiple factors:

  • Financial considerations
  • Time away from family or pets
  • Juggling other responsibilities, like school or work

It's also helpful to lay out all treatment options from the beginning, including virtual care which can help individuals build resilience and skills from the comfort of home. Whatever the reason for your client's ambivalence, we’re here to help them unpack it -- and we can do it together.

Check out our 7 Answers to Common Questions for answers to common questions about treatment logistics and find our guide to navigating ambivalence here.

We're here to help you demystify the treatment process and address ambivalence with your clients so they can continue on their healing journey.

Six ways to address ambivalence

Here, our very own Elizabeth Easton, PsyD, CEDS, director of psychotherapy, and Maggie Moore, MA, LMFT, national family outreach manager, share their key tips for supporting clients who are having mixed feelings about entering a higher level of care.

  1. Validate your clients’ feelings. Ask your client to explain their reasons for ambivalence, and listen with equal parts curiosity, compassion and humility. “Understand that the version of themselves that is in crisis feels incredibly vulnerable and has a lot of self-doubt and fear,” Dr. Easton says. Validating and acknowledging these feelings so that your client feels understood is the first step toward working through them.
  2. Explore their perspective. Motivational interviewing helps clients find their own motivation to make positive behavior change, helping them build confidence, take responsibility for their behavior, prepare for treatment and see that they have the power to change their lives. Start by asking what your client stands to lose by entering a higher level of care, which can range from their daily independence to missing out on special events and family vacations. Then explore what they stand to gain.
  3. Stand firm in your recommendation. Saying “this will be good for you” is not enough to convince someone who is feeling unsure about treatment. While helping them unpack their mixed feelings, identify the specific ways they will benefit from treatment. Reinforce your clinical recommendations but don’t push clients into treatment. “Walk with your client, not ahead of them,” Moore says. “Give clients the clinical perspective behind your recommendations and why you believe they can do this.” The last part is critical: Help them believe that they are capable of taking this step, even if it feels hard for them to imagine in the current moment.
  4. Meet with family and caregivers separately from clients. One size does not fit all when it comes to easing ambivalence for your clients and their families. A source of uncertainty for your client, for example, may not be the same source of uncertainty for their family or loved ones. Families and caregivers may also feel uncomfortable raising their concerns in front of loved ones out of fear of upsetting them -- and for good reason. By taking the time to meet with them separately, you create space to hear and address their unique concerns. “Ask about their fears and give them the time and space to tell their story and ask questions,” Dr. Easton says.
  5. Look for programs that integrate families and caregivers into treatment. One common reason for caregiver ambivalence is a fear that they will be shut out of their loved one’s path forward. At ERC Pathlight, caregivers and loved ones play an integral role in the treatment process. We offer family education, support groups and emotion-focused family therapy (EFFT) during treatment. Our therapists are experienced in guiding productive conversations and helping families understand the treatment process so they can learn and heal alongside their loved ones.
  6. Recommend a support group. Support groups offer a small community where individuals considering higher levels of care can share their mixed feelings with peers who have had similar experiences, building their confidence and hope for recovery. With dedicated support groups for caregivers, all parties involved can share their thoughts, hopes and fears in a safe space.

The decision to enter treatment comes with lots of question marks for. We've created valuable tools, insights, articles and videos for you and your clients as we unpack recovery together.  We're here to help you demystify the treatment process so your clients can move from ambivalence into action -- no matter how small the first steps. Explore the resources here.

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Written by

Alexandra Hayes Robinson

Alexandra Hayes Robinson is a writer and content strategist based in California. She's held senior leadership positions at Arianna Huffington's behavior change company Thrive Global and The Female…

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