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.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.