"Yo, call me back ASAP!,” read the text message from Carl, a 20-year-old man who has self-identified as a gang member for the past seven years and who has struggled with anxiety and depressive symptoms, alongside antisocial personality traits.

I had an impulse to explain boundaries to Carl but decided against it. I knew that a dispassionate instructional ACA-type lecture would be distancing—especially via text.

Carl has been in counseling with me for three years as a requirement of his probation. He is a member of a local gang who has mentioned how his affiliation got him into trouble while growing up. He also shared his initial fear of telling me he was in a gang because of how I might “react” to him. I maintained a neutral position.

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Gangs were part of the social fabric of Carl’s youth—I, too, was gang affiliated. Thus, I was personally familiar with that life, but I believe that it was because I have historically been the only Black male therapist in most of the psychiatric settings in which I worked that I was often given complex and challenging cases. This often meant working with male gang members and other males who had been charged with sex offenses (perhaps a story for another time).

I returned Carl's call because I was concerned that he had done something inappropriate with which I could help him. I was also mindful of my own insecurity. I felt as though little progress had been made in our work. Carl was also inconsistent with taking medication prescribed by his psychiatrist and in attending sessions with me. Yet he constantly told me how much he “appreciated” working with me. I viewed his text as a plea that might allow me to do something meaningful with him. I hadn’t gotten his message quite yet.

Carl answered the phone on the first ring. “I am sorry about the capital letters in my text, I don't want you to worry about me. Do you have time to talk?”

He went on to say, “I need some therapy right now.” Carl mentioned that after a domestic dispute with his girlfriend, she had been considering leaving him. “I don't know why I'm so angry” and “I wish I could get over this anger,” Carl cried.

This was refreshing and far different from Carl's usual sessions, which he tended to begin with a detached, “I'm doing good. I am safe and in good health.” Eventually, I came to realize that after being in both penal and psychiatric institutions, he was used to giving knee-jerk responses to risk assessment questionnaires. After his pleasantries, there was always a laborious discussion of his video game adventures. Today was different, although I did not understand how at that exact point.

Instead, I felt anxious in that moment. This may have been my own internal reaction to Carl's sense of anxiety. However, I also felt a strong inclination to capitalize on Carl's plea for help and felt as if I needed to come up with a clever “intervention.” I had to strike while the iron was hot. Should I use CBT? I could re-emphasize the cognitive model to Carl and how his distorted thinking contributed to his ongoing patterns of anger. No. Carl had already admonished me in the past for using “big words,” referring to clinical jargon.

Maybe, EMDR?! Could some eye movements mollify his intensity? While I am trained in both interventions—and believe they have some merit—I thought it might be better to just shut up and let Carl talk.

After a while of silent sobbing, Carl exclaimed, “I think I know what this is.” He paused.

“I used to be soft” in grade school, he went on, and after years of bullying he stood up for himself. “That's when I learned that I could fight,” said Carl, his voice cracking as he held back more tears. Carl mentioned that after a while, he learned to become the aggressor as a preemptive way of sending a message that he was a formidable opponent.

I felt stuck. Was now the time for an intervention? I fought against the impulse. Instead, I simply asked, “How do you feel now?” Carl shared that he had felt a little better and that he was glad that he could “get this off my chest.” Ironically enough, almost immediately after this revelation, the call dropped. The call dropping likely saved me from myself. I had an urge to say, “I just want you to know that you're not that little boy anymore.” I probably heard this line somewhere from a supervisor in the past. I do not actually believe it. Carl knows full well that he is not the little child who was bullied, although he might still feel like it.

I wish I could say that Carl no longer expresses anger in an unhealthy manner. I believe that it will take more than one 45-minute session for that. However, I do trust that the session was meaningful to him (and in retrospect, to me as well). He appreciated that I listened to him. I appreciated that the session felt like real therapy. It involved all of the ingredients that make therapy special: attunement, minimal encouragers, brief re-statements, warmth, empathy, compassion, the list goes on.

While still a relatively new clinician, I find myself frustrated and impatient with the mental health industry. In my brief time practicing, I have noticed that I am encouraged to quickly create and implement rigid and concrete treatment plans with goals and objectives that might say things like “decrease frequency of anger by 30% by such and such date.” I am not saying we should abandon these measures. They have a place. However, it creates a false sense of urgency to “do” something in sessions in lieu of “being” myself.

I have been in my own therapy for a few years. A secret that I have not shared is that I would cringe if my own therapist held rigidly to one treatment modality. I appreciate that she is flexible and willing to meet me where I am. However, the issues I often bring to counseling pertain to deeper questions I have about the contradictory elements of life. I do not know if the cognitive model can get me through that.

It is seductive and somewhat satisfying to have a ready list of tools and interventions that I can provide to clients. It makes me feel smart and prepared. It is not as sexy to promote the tried-and-true skills that have been empirically validated. As a disclaimer, I am not saying I reject these treatment modalities. If that were the case, I would not have spent 80+ hours learning them after graduate school—I think. I am simply saying that I should not disregard the elements of psychotherapy that have, time after time, proven themselves effective in my work with clients.

I founded a clinical think tank centered on helping gang-affiliated adolescents. It began in New York and expanded to Denver. Over the four-year course of mobilizing clinicians to research evidence-based interventions to help this population (there are none), what keeps coming up are the same principles that work with Carl.

I am reminded of how fascinating it is when I ask clients what they find helpful about working with me. I almost never hear anything about a specific intervention. What I do hear is that I am “kind,” I am “engaging,” I “relate well” with them, I am there for them during difficult times, I am “real,” and other similar sentiments.

As I look back at my three years with Carl, I can see that I have been unfairly critical of myself. I had viewed our relationship as ineffectual up to that moment I discussed at the outset of this essay. I focused on select symptoms (i.e., anger) and his inconsistency in coming to sessions (I told myself that if I were a better therapist, he would not miss sessions and he would be less angry). However, I mistakenly dismissed the fact that he often expressed his appreciation for me and had adamantly refused to work with anyone else in the past. I also ignored the fact that someone who defines themselves as “solid as concrete” is capable of being vulnerable with me.

Carl appreciates me because I strive to connect with him. For the past three years, he has known he has at least one person who doesn't view him as just a gang member or someone who is antisocial. He can look forward to my showing a genuine interest in him as a person as opposed to probing for tendencies that may deviate from the norms of society.
It is my hope that fellow therapists seek to be human with their clients prior to employing so-called standardized interventions in a reactive, knee-jerk fashion. Perhaps more of a focus on therapy and less on treatment protocols will allow for the true healing power that comes with the relationship, which I thoroughly believe is the element that heals.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Child & Adolescent Therapy