My therapy caseload consists of a lot of teens, as I work for a public school district. And with teen clients comes “I’m fine” or “I’m good” or even “It’s Gucci” (barf btw) when I ask them how they’re doing at the beginning of a session. This type of routine response doesn’t do a whole lot of good in therapy or in life in general. Even with my clients that are capable of and have practiced sharing their feelings, this is their typical default response. Even my adult clients default to this. And heck, so do I. We all do! And that’s okay.
But as therapists, we need to strive for more. Here’s what I often do when my clients give me this response. And also what I do when they are struggling to identify what they are feeling.
BTW, if you’re interested in working me as your therapist, you can find out more about how to do so on my therapy interest page.
1. Ask “What does good mean?”
Fairly obvious, I suppose. But with this response, I’m not being combative. It’s not a confrontation. It’s rolling with their energy. It’s saying, “Okay, but what does ‘good’ mean?” It’s gently asking for more details, using their momentum.
This could sound like, “Be more specific” as well. That’s ever so slightly more confrontational and directive. Not hostile. But it’s more direct with what I want out of them and what is expected in therapy. When I have a solid relationship with a client, this is not combative. It’s like, “Come on. You’ve got this. You can name the feeling.” It can have a playful tone to it. But yeah, it could also have a more directive “come on now” sort of tone to it too. As long as it’s with a client that’s into therapy, then I think this is fine. The client that can tolerate a little more push from their therapist.
2. Say, “Use feeling words.”
Sometimes I’m even more direct and say “Gimme a feeling word or two.” This could have slightly more of a directive tone to it. It could be playful as well. It’s much more explicit. I often get really explicit and throw out some feeling words, like ”anxious, angry, sad, happy, ecstatic, curious…” And from that, they can say yes or no or something else may pop into their mind. It helps them to narrow down what they do or do not feel.
Now some clients are genuinely going to struggle. This type of directive response would be after the client has been an active part of therapy and shown they can identify feelings and name them. Many of my teen clients are kinda there in therapy, but not really wanting to be there. Like when I was working in court-mandated substance use or when “counseling” is part of their expulsion contract to stay in school. They don’t care. They’re not as invested in making change in their life. So pushing them to name their feelings could have adverse effects and push them away from the process even further.
3. When they really don’t know
Usually, especially the teen clients, they express something like, “You know. I’m just… good. Things are good.” But they can’t describe it further and can’t identify what they’re feeling inside. So I playfuly push further, asking “Okay, what’s going good?” This is a step away from feelings and now focused on reality. Usually they say, “I don’t know. Everything. Things are just good. You know.”
At this point, I get the idea that “good” doesn’t actually mean “good”. It means something else. And I’ve done this often enough now to know what they’re expressing but can’t name in the moment.
They’re expressing neutrality. They’re expressing that nothing good happened, but also nothing bad happened. It’s just a blah week. They don’t feel anything particularly good. But also nothing particularly bad. They don’t have any specific identifiable feelings when we’re checking in, so they just say “good,” but they don’t mean they have a positive feeling or experience. They’re just kinda there, but without a clear positive or negative feeling experience in the moment. So when I clarify and ask if that’s what they are expressing, they affirm my suspicion.
As we go deeper into the session and discuss things more in particular, something always comes up that they do have much clearer feelings about. As I ask them in those moments what they are feeling, it’s much different. There’s a more clear experience of anxiety, relaxation, anger or something else.
If you’re a therapist, I’d love to hear what you do when a client tells you they’re doing “good”. Do you ignore it? Move on to something else? Address it directly? Ask for more information? Do you even ask “How are you” at the beginning of a session or is that too routine for you? Leave a comment below!