Most people are familiar with the basics of therapy: you sit (or lie) down and talk about problematic thoughts and feelings. But what if those thoughts and feelings have to do with your therapist? What do you do if you are feeling angry, suspicious, or disappointed with your therapist? What do you do if you are having romantic feelings?
Believe it or not, people have these sorts of feelings about their therapists all the time. Perhaps even more surprisingly, they can be vital to the therapy process.
Here’s a quick rundown of feelings that often come up during the course of therapy:
This one comes up a lot. Your therapist says something that felt insensitive, looks pained or impatient, or forgets that you had a session scheduled. Suddenly, you are filled with conflicting feelings. You generally like your therapist and usually feel safe in his or her office, but now you’re not so sure. Maybe you start to wonder if you should even bother going back.
Feeling angry at your therapist can seem like a problem because many of us are raised to think that anger is bad (for more on this, see here). But anger is actually a valuable emotion (especially in the context of therapy) because it tells us that something important is happening. We feel angry because something is at stake. When it comes to therapy, this is a good thing because we want there to be something at stake. We want therapy to be important. If it wasn’t, then it is very unlikely that any meaningful growth or change would occur.
When angry feelings show up in your therapy, it is a chance to engage directly with old narratives and unhelpful relationship patterns.
Try this: Tell your therapist that you are angry. It might be scary, but any therapist worth his or her salt will be able to remain calm and inquisitive. A good therapist will see this as a chance to deepen the therapy.
I’ve lumped these two together because they are feelings that people tend to keep secret. But just like anger, talking to your therapist about suspicious or disappointed feelings can be a way of deepening the therapy.
Perhaps you are suspicious that your therapist is more interested in money than helping, or maybe you wonder if your therapist really cares. Suspicious feelings like these have a tendency to undermine the work of therapy and erode trust if they are kept secret. If you don’t share them with your therapist, then he or she has no way to disconfirm them. Perhaps more importantly, when you keep feelings secret you are effectively disabling your therapist. He or she is not able to help you make sense of your emotions or connect them to relational patterns of which you may not yet be aware. Instead of opening doors, secret feelings become a wedge between you and your therapist.
The same applies to feelings of disappointment. In my own psychotherapy, an important turning point was reached when I realized that I could openly discuss my feelings of disappointment about my therapist. It opened up an entirely new dimension in the treatment and made it possible to explore deeply held feelings (about myself and others) that had previously felt off limits.
Guilt happens when we feel we have done something wrong. Although useful in some situations, guilt can be problematic when it prevents us from making healthy choices and getting our needs met in relationships. This includes the relationship between you and your therapist.
Patients often feel guilty when they fear that they have hurt their therapist’s feelings or harmed the therapy relationship. Sometimes, such fears actually reflect unhealthy relationship dynamics in the patient’s past, where guilt was used by family members as a way to discourage open communication. Just as it is important to share angry or disappointed feelings with your therapist, it is equally important to share guilty feelings. By doing so, you can make your feelings of guilt something that can be understood and worked through in the context of your therapy relationship.
Feeling romantically attracted to your therapist can be a terrifying experience. Rest assured that such feelings are quite common and typically do not represent a threat to the therapy relationship or your relationship with a spouse or partner.
Love is complicated. It’s a single word that we use to describe a vast array of complex emotional experiences that often include gratitude, lust, idealization, and friendship. Without getting too technical, there are many reasons that these sorts of feelings might emerge in the course of treatment, and almost all of them are totally benign. Suffice it to say that sometimes we need to attach to someone very strongly in order to feel safe enough to do the emotional work that needs to be done.
First, it is important to remember that your licensed therapist has had years of training and supervision designed to help him or her work safely and ethically. It is both illegal and unethical for therapists to have sexual relationships with patients. However, discussing a patient’s feelings of love or attraction candidly can be a very important aspect of therapy. Depending on the type of therapy, this can include exploring a patient’s feelings about the therapist in detail. This is not done to gratify the therapist. Rather, it is done to help decipher the meaning behind the patient’s feelings so that they can be used in the service of the therapy. In fact, when working with these sorts of issues, it is common for therapists to seek out professional consultation or supervision in order to make sure that they are upholding the highest ethical standards.
The Bottom Line
Our emotions are complex. Most people seek therapy for help dealing with problematic thoughts and feelings, but paradoxically feel like they can’t openly discuss the ones that involve the therapist directly. Just the opposite is true. In many forms of talk therapy exploring such feelings is a vital aspect of the treatment.
In most cases, your therapist will have been trained to help you safely and productively navigate feelings of anger, suspicion, disappointment, guilt, love, or any other feeling that comes up in the course of treatment. Rest assured that for most people such feelings are transient and connected to the work being done in therapy via a phenomenon called transference. Of course, if you begin to feel unsafe discussing such feelings with your therapist (or if your therapist behaves in a manner that you think might be unethical), it may be time to find someone with whom you feel more comfortable.
And so, it is not astonishing that, though the patient enters therapy insisting that he wants to change, more often than not, what he really wants is to remain the same and to get the therapist to make him feel better.”
– Sheldon B. Kopp