5 perfectly normal feelings to have about your therapist

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Feelings in therapy - Mark Ettensohn, Psy. Sacramento Psychologist

Image credit: McMillan Digital Art via Getty Images

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:

Anger
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.

Suspicion/Disappointment
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
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.

Love
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

1 Comment

  1. Kristina
    October 12, 2016

    Thank you, Dr. Ettensohn, for this insightful article.
    I have been searching for some time for what the relationship between the therapist and the patient. The reason were my own experience in therapy that made me more sick than I was before. I actually needed help to get out of the therapy (very angry, harsh, sarcastic, even putting me down, pressing, adviced me the first sessions to better go on no contact with mother, no further diagnose before of what truly had happened in my childhood). I tried to do all what he said. It did not end up well for my body. Despite that, I made quite lots of sessions. I wanted to make it through. I ended up with PTDS.
    Before all this happened, I felt very unease in the therapy, I did not know that I can choose, I can interview the therapist, feel safe…. all what I learn now (at least in theory).
    About the feelings: I did not allow myself feelings…so it was difficult to be fine with some feelings toward the therapist. I just wanted to do my job of healing down. I thought that all therapist as all doctors are basically the same.
    But, eventually, I had lots of anxiety feeling, the most dominant feeling. Usually two weeks before the session, thus all my month was done by it.
    I might have felt some anger -but usually only when the therapist refuse to give me more sessions or said something that triggered my feeling of social justice – I had the feeling that the therapist is socially on the other spectrum and it is important to him, at least he often raised this issue. I never reacted. Also it was linked with him telling me “I was poor” (because I got sick), thus more sessions are not needed or I shall take my money and go somewhere else. It was shocking to me, but I thought that when I will make the objection that I don´t want to speak about politics or even see things differently, that he will throw me completely away and I will stay without any help (my deepest concern and experience).
    the thing is that he was the only “mental” oriented therapist in my area, that time, there was a big shortage).
    Mistrust/suspicion showed up that the therapist wants only money and as he does not see me as “eligibile” (but continues to ask at the end of the session “so, next session, I have time….”), he wants me only for the money.
    I feel guilt, but mainly fear that raising this issue will have some repercussions for me…that the therapist might “get it” when I am not happy with the therapy today…even though I am no longer seeing him. Also I have the guilt to disappoint him, not to have been helped by his therapy (the only thing that makes me think that I was not abused “on purpose”, just by unskillful person who was not interested in my story).
    The true guilt or insatisfaction is that I did not tell any of those things in the therapy. Because the harshness and ambivalence, the distance of the therapist made me so scared of showing my anger, my mistrust.
    Love- not sure, he was a guy almost in retirement (at least I think so), I had kind of admiration for his “mind”…but maybe I was mistaken. I had never had a father or a father figure, thus it would have been good to have some kind of fathering.
    It might have been a love for the father.
    Perhaps the last session, before I left, (basically, I was being thrown out, I guess: he hang down the phone with the question “So sick” ?, no asking me for another session when I was sick and called in to excuse myself),
    I told him that I don´t trust him. There was not much reaction. No verbal one.
    The therapist only moved with his body. When I finally asked what was his qualification prior being a psychologist, he said that it was gestalt therapy, but his supervisor was an analytic. I don´t understand the form of therapies, thus it did not bring me much, but not sure that the reaction of the therapist towards me was “part of the gestalt therapy”. Only today, I am thinking that my borderline family might have behaved the same way….only I received no explanation from the therapist (perhaps it was the “exposure therapy”).
    Maybe I should not spend time thinking about whether the therapist did it right, what kind of therapy it was applied to me
    or whether I am a “good, healing” patient or whether I failed. I see that I am excusing the therapist and covering up for him, as for my parents.
    Maybe speaking about my feelings to the therapist was also not so good for me.

    On the whole, I deeply regret today that I stayed there for so long. I became much more distrustful of therapies.
    I do my therapy myself since that. Not a good idea., but I am scared of experiencing again some terror in therapy.
    I had found a good coach, thanks to a friend of mine, but it is not a therapy, but I am learning the secure attachment and not being that terrified of the therapists.
    I am quite amazed when I am learning past one year almost that there can be a different way.

    I´d like to ask whether the therapist, e.g. in the psychodynamics therapies, should ask the patient how he/she feels, how it fits, whether it works ? (evaluation).
    I am thinking that this could have been the only thing that would have helped me to say to the therapist that I was so anxious in the therapy .

    Thank you.

    Reply

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