Would You Want Your Therapist to be Honest?

Chaya Grossberg
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Do you want your therapist to be honest with you about their triggers or not? (I recognize that many readers have had negative experiences in therapy or fundamentally don’t believe in it, yet the question can be for any sort of mentor, practitioner, healer, teacher or even doctor.)

When juxtaposed with psychiatry and its capacity to damage our bodies and even kill us, therapy can seem like a gentler beast, even an opportunity for healing, self-understanding and growth. Yet, similar to psychiatry, therapy started as a way to medicalize human suffering that was clearly based on social, political and economic injustice at large.

The original therapy setting: a male “doctor” who analyzed “hysterical” women who couldn’t quietly tolerate their marriages or their place in society. Instead of giving women opportunities to have more meaningful, free and powerful roles in society, we gave dissatisfied women the opportunity to “talk about it” behind closed doors, safe from causing a fuss in their families.

This talking about it may have had a sophisticated quality, and may have helped some women express their feelings.

But the premise itself, that the woman was mentally sick, hysterical or otherwise, was a lie. The benefits the therapist earned from that relationship and the role as doctor “outside” of the social system the woman was contexted in, were largely accepted and ignored.

Therapy may have been helpful in some way because it gave women (and now anyone), the opportunity to talk about their feelings (this in itself was hugely revolutionary not too long ago!) without having to take into account the other person’s feelings.

People know the difference between being listened to because someone genuinely wants to and cares, versus there being an ulterior motive or financial incentive. These two can overlap, but a therapy client — and even a therapist if they are honest with themselves — is likely to feel some conflict and burden around this at some point.

Based on my own experiences, I’m pretty sure that therapy isn’t a long-term path for me, but I have experienced it being useful and even lifesaving at times. Perhaps I feel it’s on a spectrum with psychiatric drugs? Only for emergencies (but lesser ones) and if sustainable organic support is truly unavailable? Unlike drugs, it has resulted in healing and self understanding for me at times, just not as a long term “solution.”

Whether or not therapy is something I can benefit from or whether it’s “for me” has been a question I’ve grappled with for a long time (as well as spending plenty of time not considering it an option at all). Most of my experiences in therapy were as a child and very young adult, and I’ve only had one experience of therapy recently (in the last 10 years or so). As a younger person, I was too new and naïve to therapy and how the mental health system operates — let alone how it originated — to know any better, so I got the “ignorance is bliss” type of therapy, which did land me on Prozac as a teenager but otherwise had some therapeutic effect. Without having to think about or concern myself with my therapist’s feelings, I could focus on my own.

This can be incredibly healing for some of us because it is something hard for us to do naturally without judging ourselves as entitled or bratty. Does this go all the way back to the woman’s role as emotional caretaker? (For men who feel this way, does it go back to their role as warrior, worker, soldier, provider?)

My make-up and family conditioning correlated with me becoming an empath early on, too aware of others’ feelings and triggers for my own good.

In my dream a few weeks ago, which prompted this blog, I have a male therapist, only a couple of years older than me. He refers to me “acting entitled” in a situation between the two of us.

The issue is a familiar trauma trigger for me and we talk about it over and over, looping back around the same storyline for clarity, in a way that feels fruitful regardless of whether a conclusion is reached.

Then I ask him what it is about HIM that calls me entitled in that situation. He looks uncomfortable, then admits he does have personal triggers around the topic. He seems emotional, vulnerable, and childlike for a moment.

I tell him I’d rather he open up about it than simply act stoic and accuse me of being entitled. We keep discussing it. He tells me about his lifestyle. At the end of our session, I have a full bar of dark chocolate, and one square of coffee-colored chocolate in my hair. He takes the full bar as if to say I’m a spoiled brat “entitled child,” and walks out without any niceties or even a goodbye. I pull the coffee-colored square out of my hair, which is in knots.

By not revealing his vulnerability, he leaves whole and with a larger treat. I’m left with knotted hair and only a small treat. What a metaphor for how therapy can be sometimes.

Being able to be heard by a professional when we talk about our feelings certainly is a small treat, but having a socially valued role and the power that comes with that is perhaps a larger one.

Coming back to my original question: Do you want your therapist to be honest with you about their triggers or not? If a therapist is honest about their triggers, they risk equalizing the power imbalance. They risk being on the same plane as their client. They risk losing their precious socially valued role as a needed professional. If the therapist has triggers too, they may end up being as “bad” as the client’s, and then what? Then who is the healer?

If they try to hide and cover up their triggers to remain professional, a sensitive client will pick up on it somehow.

One reason I developed empathic skills as a child was that I could sense the truth if someone was lying to me or trying to cover up their feelings, and I only felt safe knowing the full truth. I saw how hiding feelings resulted in others being manipulative to try to cover up their dishonesty. And then there would be some kind of blowup or retaliation, a backlash that I would feel responsible for.

My parents were a therapist and a doctor respectively, so they may have had some training in this type of role playing, which made me into a natural skeptic of those power imbalances.

Dishonesty and covering up triggers can bring seductive social rewards.

Any stuffing of feelings or dishonesty has always made me palpably uneasy, like I can’t stay in my own skin. In close bonds, when someone is deceptive or withholds information relevant to me, I’ve become violently ill on many occasions. Sometimes it has taken years for me to figure out that I’d been lied to and that correlated with that three-week worst cough of my life.

This is why I grapple with therapy, because I can bliss out for a while, “looking the other way” and letting the sessions be “all about me,” and that is healing and helpful to me, to a point.

But what about when something comes up that triggers the therapist? And they maintain professional boundaries?

Here’s what happened with the therapist I finally found last year, who I loved. She was the therapist of my dreams: smart, socially aware, completely disbelieving of the medical model. She was a therapy professor herself and taught Bob Whittaker’s books in her classes. After opening up to her weekly for about 6 months, I went in one day with a lot on my heart that I wanted to outpour… but she had something to tell me.

The clinic she worked at would no longer be taking my insurance.

This is an instance where the bliss bubble and illusion I was in suddenly popped. Even though I knew in my mind what I was doing, that I was talking to someone who was being paid by my medical insurance to listen to me, I convinced myself that our relationship had some reality to it. I convinced myself, without realizing it, that she cared about me and that we had a real connection, that we were almost like friends.

I got a lot of small treats out of letting myself go along with this dynamic. I got to talk about all kinds of problems each week and basically control the conversation to my liking, switch the topic whenever I wanted to, express my vulnerability and be in all other ways the “client,” a role I had resisted for many years, skeptical and ambivalent.

When she gave me this news I felt like I was being dumped or personally rejected. She had a stone cold look on her face and didn’t show any emotion for most of the hour while I cried hard. As I emoted, she seemed to solidify in self protection, perhaps because I expressed that I felt embarrassed that I had fallen for the therapy trap — that I had trusted her, and a situation that I should have known better than to trust.

That may have been why she looked so unfeeling, or maybe she actually was detached (and there’s the view that a professional should be).

It did feel quite like heartbreak to me — like the feeling of disillusionment I’ve had after a relationship ending, even if I knew very well from the beginning that it was destined to “fail.” Similarly, therapy is a relationship that must be opened to fairly fully in order to “work,” and yet is fundamentally limited to a professional setting and many laws that can be devastating (or even dangerous, such as forced incarceration/drugging) when real triggers come up.

I told her I felt like she didn’t care about me. She replied, “I care about all of my clients,” but still with no feeling. I judged myself more and more as a desperate, pathetic fool for even being there, like I had been duped all this time into thinking she cared about me.

I did ask her if this was bringing things up for her, if she was triggered, and she admitted she was upset that the clinic told her of their insurance policy changes without warning and she had no say. She admitted she wanted to go into private practice so she could see people on a sliding scale.

I sensed, though, that there was more to her trigger that she wasn’t telling me. She had never looked stone cold like that before.

This became, as it was and is always destined to be, about the systems we were in rather than about two people.

Her honesty brought only a small amount of relief and I cried and cried, and did get sick that week. My intuition told me I needed to cancel my remaining appointments with her (I had a month before the insurance cutoff) and once I did I felt better.

Once again it felt like accepting the end of a romantic relationship and the relief and liberation that follows the sadness, when you accept that you can’t talk to or see this person for awhile. (Similarly, some of the heartbreak we experience in romance is sociopolitical rather than entirely personal in nature.)

Do other people have an easier time with therapy? Can they compartmentalize better than I can?

Do psychiatric drugs make it easier to continue the therapy system, making people a little (or a lot) more complacent and less questioning? Anything that strips us of our health and power makes us more vulnerable to getting trapped in unequal and unrealistic relationships that we come to feel dependent on. One dependency (psych drugs) can increase another (needing a therapist to talk to) by taking a bit of our agency and self awareness away.

What led me to therapy last year was having been stripped of a lot of other things in my life that had, up until then, provided natural social support. Without that support, a therapist tasted like the meal I was starving for, and the sudden loss of that “food” felt like I was being robbed and might starve again emotionally.

A friend was in a similar situation where she lost the insurance her therapist accepted, and she became obsessed with her ex-therapist. She went as far as finding her home address, going to her home, meeting her daughter, learning as much as possible about her personal life and practically stalking her.

Many people get attached to that one person who listens to them go on and on because it’s their professional role. Perhaps I’ve had the sense that therapy may not be for me because I do get so attached. Not knowing what triggers are going on for the therapist makes it easier to idealize them, which plays into the attachment. Yet, if they did share their triggers all the time, therapy might not be as therapeutic, and might be more like a conversation between two people on equal ground.

It’s been over four months since I saw that therapist and I haven’t been thinking about trying therapy again anytime soon.

My ex-therapist said something else that fateful session. She said that this is her calling, her gift, that she’s not in it for the money, and I believed her 100%. She does have a gift and uses it in the system, which I suppose could be said of all of us, even those who work independently but within the money system somehow.

This leads me to the belief that therapy, when it does have a place in our lives, is (like all relationships and endeavors) more of a mystery than it is a science.

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33 COMMENTS

  1. So sad to hear you’ve had such unfortunate experiences of therapy. It was especially hard to read your paragraph:

    Therapy, when it works, aims to actually heal this need for “getting so attached”. Yes, idealising the therapist is tough as it means an inevitable power imbalance develops in the relationship but, that’s really the point. The process of therapy allows that idealisation to be gradually erode as no person can maintain such an idealised status, no matter how hard they try. A good enough therapist, like a good enough parent, will do their best to acknowledge their own faults in the relationship and let you down gently, as you gradually learn to rely more on your own emotional resources and not need those of the therapist so much.

    There is in fact an awful lot of “science” of therapy out there, particularly work developing our understanding of the intersubjective relationships between people, the ways we develop emotionally as human beings, in relationship to other human beings around us, from infancy and before. The literature is vast. What there may be less of is human beings who are actually capable of being that “good enough therapist”, like the “good enough parent”, particularly in the context of all the societal and political restrictions to ongoing relationships such as your therapist experienced when her agency would no longer accept your particular insurance.

    I do hope you manage to, in time, to trust yourself enough to risk finding another therapist who will be able to stay with you, in all your idealisation of them, as well as hold you safely enough through their inevitable failings of the heights you elevate them to. Sharing this journey with someone who is capable of staying with you along the way can have the capacity to help you develop in ways that make you life fuller than it otherwise might be.

    • I am irked when therapists/therapy apologists add caveats in response to peoples criticism of therapy that they hope they can somehow find it in themselves to give therapy another go, implicitly or explicitly (like in this response) positing that their life would be better with therapy.

      I dont think you would continue to make analogous statements to people writing posts re: criticism of psychiatric drugs.

      • Sorry you were irked by my response Nathan. I’ll wear the label of “therapist apologist” though as, over many years, I’ve had very both very bad experiences of therapy and also had very good experience of it. The good changed me and my life and am sure I would not be alive today without it. My life is so much better for having stuck with therapy and so yes, I do hope others can find experiences that help them as much, no matter what those experiences end up being.

        And, I’d make analogous statements to anyone who was writing about any type of experience that has helped me, and others I know personally, as much as this has. I wouldn’t regarding anything that I’d only ever experienced as harmful.

    • Kallena….I actually hope she doesn’t risk going there again!

      After extensive therapy that has included appalling behaviour by therapists which was then somehow the fault of MY diagnosed “mental Illness” , I have decided that therapy, and the power imbalance it involves, is just far too open to abuse.

      Actually, therapy IS abuse. Its basic premise is that the therapist is ALWAYS “healthier” than the patient, and that the patient has less insight and less ability to see what’s happening than does the therapist. Hence, it is also intrinsically devaluing.

      I had a psychiatrist unilaterally, totally unexpectedly and brutally end what had seemed to be a productive three-year therapy relationship by throwing me out of his office with a string of abusive and totally inexplicable statements, and throwing back at me the most sensitive things I had told him as evidence of my deficits. He didn’t have to give any explanation of his behaviour because he was the doctor and I was the patient and there were no witnesses.

      Ten years and 14 days later, I still have nightmares and real trust issues that were not there before “therapy”. I had formed a deep and trusting attachment to him and to have it shattered like that was devastating. My next therapist suggested that perhaps the first therapist was “lovesick” and didn’t manage his emotions very well….uhmmmmm…and that was supposed to make it OK? The second therapist didn’t want to say anything though, because therapist #1 was “a more senior psychiatrist”.

      I would encourage anyone to seek genuine, equal, relationships instead. This takes time and effort, and yes, there will be setbacks, but such relationships, particularly if approached mindfully, are fundamentally healthier and less likely to lead to catastrophic injury and/or devaluation.

      CBT is freely available online, there are plenty of apps for meditation – there’s no need to put yourself through the risk of allowing an attachment to develop with a therapist/psychiatrist who is hiding their deficits behind their professional status!

  2. I personally think it’s helpful when both people can express their vulnerabilities. I don’t see therapists as omnipotent shamans who know better than me and I don’t give much stock to the titles or degrees they have, I don’t believe anyone can be an expert in human behavior.

    By the way I also have issues with attachment which is why I don’t think therapy is really for me, I think it’s alot safer to work on my issues by myself. Strict boundaries and rejection has always been a trigger for me, it sends the message you’re not worthy of love or respect.

  3. She had a stone cold look on her face and didn’t show any emotion for most of the hour while I cried hard.

    I told her I felt like she didn’t care about me. She replied, “I care about all of my clients,” but still with no feeling.

    Boundaries are one thing, but heartlessness is another. This is revolting behavior on her part. I’m sorry this happened to you.

  4. I’ve talked to a handful of therapists, and most have not helped, so I have had various theories about what they should have been doing. My latest thought is that a therapist should make expressing your feelings a positive experience, and nothing more. When they give advice, it just makes things worse. One that I spoke to listened for a short time, and then told me I should go home and take up knitting, and he even wrote it down on a piece of paper and gave it to me. I wish I was making that up.

    • I have been a therapist in the past, and without being egotistical, I have had great feedback from those I have helped. My main thrust was to a) listen very carefully to what the other person shared, trying to help them shape and frame exactly what the problem was from their perspective, b) asking questions to help get at how/why the person came to look at things from the perspective they did (for instance, a woman had never left her kids with a babysitter in 5 years; she shared that she was worried they’d be molested; not surprisingly, she had been molested by a babysitter…), and c) help them generate some other things they might try that would help them look at the problem differently. My caution was always to make sure I did nothing that was focused on making myself feel better – I had to be able to sit comfortably with their pain and NOT try to make it go away just because it was hard for me to hear – but to put all the focus on helping the other person feel safe and confident enough to gain some perspective on his/her situation, normalize and understand how/why they got there and maybe consider thinking/acting in a different way that might help them move forward. Sometimes it meant going back and hearing about some rough stuff that happened in the past, sometimes it meant working out some new things to try out in the present, sometimes it meant looking at new ways of thinking about things that have plagued the person in the past – it all depended on who the person was and what they seemed to need and how they responded to me. Everyone’s “therapy” was different and pretty much invented on the fly as I found out more about them. I never assumed I knew ANYTHING about a client that they had not told me themselves.

      As for honesty, I never hesitated to share personal things with someone coming to me for help IF I thought it would help that person find a new perspective or feel more OK about their decisions in the past. I found it important to be very real and warm and present and this idea that “boundaries” meant being somehow distant or “clinical” always seemed totally wrong to me. Boundaries, for me, meant not putting my crap on the person I was working with, and not taking on their issues as my own so I “had to solve” their dilemmas. I think the most important point was simply being willing to hear their story without making any judgments and being genuinely empathetic to their situation so I could see things from their perspective.

      Of course, I had one huge advantage in being a therapist – I had never had any training in therapy at all! I figured out how to help almost 100% from the clients themselves, who often talked about what other therapists had done that was or wasn’t helpful, and whose reactions and perspectives taught me everything I know about how to be helpful. I wonder if being “trained” would have ruined me?

      — Steve

  5. Thanks Chaya for your thoughts.
    And Steve for yours and the others.
    Therapy is a minefield. There is no good way to walk through the maze and it is a maze with yucky and good things based so much at random which makes it worse for the traumatized person because once again you have little to no agency at a time you really need it.
    I have had a spectrum my issues is that several therapists leaned on me or I was aware enough because of my gifts and training they were not able to handle my life circumstances. Another issue was the complete and utter separate role of the therapist and docs inpatient and outpatient
    It is a huge horrific desert so that the one professional who could at least advocate is also locked out by the medical system.
    Training Steve can provide extra but it in no way shape or form is any sort of guarantee.
    I would advocate for a shamanistic system which is inherently peer sensitive along with a fine tooth selection of useful and helpful wisdom writing from all areas and all times.
    And my work was always to put myself out of a job.
    That was always my shared primary goals and it was a team approach. I never thought I knew it all and was open to see my work asa journey for me as well. The system is so corrupt and rotten that these tenants are little found. The docs are lost like CEO’s.Most have lost their moral souls and compass and are deaf -blind – and dumb in the worst way possible. They do damage on a daily basis and at this point I have have found no good way to put an end to their great damaging of humans.
    This was the most horrorific part for me being in the system. They abused and tortured one of their own and didn’t even care or believe or bother to ask and actually listen to me as a human.
    It was a gift in learning the great pain of disenfranchisement. At least I can use it for good and to finally be brace enough to speak truth to power for all of those caught in horror situations.

  6. Sorry for the typos the lingering side effects of meds and overlay of dyslexia and dysgraphia
    I had made use of supports from social workers in the past but on my own way in my own choice stream and mostly behind closed doors
    Had planned for more but couldn’t squeeze it in too much hell going on
    In past had supervised some one out in the peer community I was only Worker who was willing
    Also tried to get clients off meds in 1980s but wall
    Now I know why they were clueless!
    Being in the worst scenarios has given me 360 almost vision
    Someday would love to use it for all

  7. Hi Chaya,

    my wife has been in counseling for 9 years with the same woman. She’s unlicensed and does it because she loves to help people, though over the years as she entered her ‘grandmother phase’ she slowly got out of counseling except for my wife. They both share with each other and pray for each other. My wife has d.i.d. and all the older girls consider the counselor their friend. She doesn’t accept money, and it’s very much egalitarian, especially as my wife considers me her main ‘healing’ provider and so her attachment to the counselor is appropriate and not all-consuming as I so often see other d.i.d. patients on WordPress where I blog.

    I’m sure many therapists have good intentions, but as I’ve stated on my blog there can NEVER be an appropriate attachment relationship when money is the basis for the relationship. You found that out when your therapist could no longer accept your insurance and she couldn’t even be honest enough with herself to realize that she may not be ‘in it for the money’ and yet, she has allowed herself to be a part of a system that most definitely is in it for the money.

    I wish you well.

  8. Sorry Chaya I did not address your hurt.
    I don’t think there are many fantastic thereuputic relationships. One has to have a gift and one has to be lucky to find that person.
    Kind of like marriage except you are in an truly unequal economic relationship.
    I go back and forth. I try and then stop for a variety of reasons
    We all all looking for that missing piece that would make us feel less hurt or empty fill in the blank
    Sometimes we find in a professional sometimes in a friend
    Sometimes in other acts of alternative stuff and actions
    Ultimately I think we all our hurting and some of us are not only aware but we pick up the vibes and carry them in our souls.
    Keep on walking the walk.You are not alone and I value your presence here. You ran into a bad situation where your support was wounded and did not have the tools strength or skills to deal with your nonlocus of control loss. She could have done several things
    She could have cried with you
    She could have done a ritual
    She could have modeled or talked about how to say goodbye
    She could have advocated for you and the others and told you her actions
    She could and I think had the responsibility to help you have another support
    She could have spoke the truth this really you know what
    She could have resigned
    Or she might have tried and failed and was unable to acknowledge it or talk against the system and in her on life was on the edge
    Best is to forgive piece by piece and bless her because festering feelings thoughts and memories never help us
    Easier said then done as I know all all to well
    Another day or time there could be a place for seeking another but help comes from walks and small things or just having your great writing and voice
    Keep open and keeping the idea of a dream catcher
    The webbed area keeps the bad stuff out the hole allows the good in
    I don’t do any work though I have done peer experiences workshop stuff
    Still dealing with life
    Thanks for putting a light to this

  9. Chaya, i believe we, as a society, are currently over-therapized. Therapy, that is, self-examination or self-reflection didn’t happen in an office nor with a professional person to such a widespread extent that it does now. Nor was it ever part of the “healthcare” experience. You didn’t go to a doctor (your “primary”/”internist”), then, get a referral to a person with whom you had a conversation, that is, “talking.”. This simply wasn’t done.

    Such self-indulgence did happen, however. This took place in the form of journal-writing, letter-writing, relationships such as friendships and romance (apart from sexual-only relations), meetings in coffeehouses, public gatherings, clubs, church groups and the like. Postal correspondence was quite common and letter exchange was a wonderful way to get to know another person, share ideas, and help each other for the common good. Picking up the phone and having long talks would be a great way to open doors. Late at night, many of us sat and wrote in our diaries. Many of these were stored away so no one could easily find them, or locked with a key. Or kept under a pillow.

    They say even those in prisons did such a thing. They wrote on toilet paper, any scrap they could find. The writers of the Bible wrote stories as well, and much has been passed down to us in the form of chanting and song. In fact, most has not happened in an office, nor done by paying a person.

    Anne Frank kept a journal. She did not see a therapist.

    Such was life.