The Challenge for Therapists in Working With Violent and Abusive People

It's often really challenging for therapists to deal with aggressive and violent clients. However, as well as making life difficult for others, they're often suffering themselves.
The Challenge for Therapists in Working With Violent and Abusive People
Sergio De Dios González

Written and verified by the psychologist Sergio De Dios González.

Last update: 27 January, 2023

We’ve all met people who are rough and aggressive, and who relate to the world with their fists. They’re violent and threatening. They’re also easy to identify because it seems like they have a storm raging inside them. However, the constant clouds in their skies tend to predict violence.

These kinds of people don’t avoid conflict because they see it as an opportunity to get what they want. For example, they might want money or to feel superior to others. If it’s the latter, it’s their insecurity speaking, asking them for constant proof of their worthiness. These doubts generate anxiety in them that eats them up inside, the kind that only they know how to pacify.

Hitman Anders and the Meaning of It All

In his book, Hitman Anders and the Meaning of it All, Jonas Jonasson wrote about a rather peculiar bully. In one passage in the book, he reveals what happens ‘behind the scenes’ in people who are used to this type of behavior pattern. The clipping reads as follows:

[…] What they didn’t know was that the Hitman Anders had been experiencing a growing sense that life had no meaning. That was something new for him. He had always reasoned with others through his fists, but it was not easy talking to himself that way. That’s why he took refuge in alcohol, earlier and earlier and with greater zeal […]”

Jonasson’s writing stands out for the way he hides behind the acid humor he uses to describe the destiny of his characters, who have natural and enduring personalities. If you’re interested in learning more, give the book a try.

Anders is a man of the type we described in the introduction, rough, abusive, and violent. He’s accustomed to fighting with the world. Nevertheless, in his case, he doesn’t do it to be superior, but because it’s his profession. However, whenever he has to talk to himself, as he doesn’t know any other way, he does it in the same abusive manner. Therefore, he becomes a victim of his own inability to relate.


Incapable of love

There are people who, although they’re not hitmen, share Ander’s problem. They’re incapable of giving love to others, but they’re also incapable of giving it to themselves. That’s because they haven’t learned to live with emotions and feelings. Thus, both their own emotions and those of others are seen as a threat that they have to remove as soon as possible. They do it using the only language they know: violence and abuse.

It doesn’t have to be physical abuse, in fact, in most cases, it’s not. More frequently, it’s verbal abuse, which is present in their conversations with others as well as their internal dialogues. The most constructive help that can be given to these people is in the form of tools to help them express themselves without violence.

The challenges for therapists in working with abusive and violent people

First of all, as specialists, motivators, and reinforcers of change, therapists have to believe that change is possible. Secondly, the client has to agree that they need to change. After all, it’s impossible to change someone who doesn’t want to change. In fact, if the therapist tries to manipulate them and they realize it, the opposite effect might occur and they’ll lock themselves away to try and defend their independence.

When carrying out therapy with these kinds of clients, there’s usually an initial phase when the therapist doesn’t focus on the change itself, but on the client. In fact, it’s just as important – before any intervention – that the client accepts that they need help and that they grant the therapist the role of authority figure in managing that change.

They also have to be made aware of their tendency to automatically resort to violence and abuse. That’s because they’ve often been doing it for so long that they don’t realize it and it’s incorporated into their way of being. Furthermore, they have to accept that they’re being abusive at the time that it happens, not later, when they realize the damage they’ve done.

couple in therapy

Change and their environment

If the people in the abusive person’s environment are favorable to change, therapists will often also work with them. In fact, they can help the therapist recognize and reinforce any achievements. After all, for them to move from threats or blackmail to requests is a big step.

On the other hand, if there’s a part of their environment that’s against change and that reinforces their abusive behavior, it’s best for the client to move away from that environment. Later, when the change is established, although there’ll still be a risk of relapse, they’ll be able to recognize the distance between before and after and decide which path they want to take.

Another important point of intervention is to influence the natural consequences of behavior. Many people realize that they’ve been abusive when they see the damage reflected in the person they’ve hurt. Therefore, seeing the absence of this kind of damage and even the presence of positive emotions in their ‘victim’ can be one of the main references for them. It makes them realize the results of the positive transformation that they’re going through.

Finally, we must explain that there are abusive people who take pleasure in the way they behave as well as the suffering of others, and even their own. This article isn’t focused on them since, in these cases, the ways of working would be significantly different. In this article, we’ve talked about those people who, although they’re abusive, are also suffering internally due to their behavior and the way they relate to themselves.

Photo courtesy of Marion Peck

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.