Your Therapist is Not Your Best Friend

Effective therapists don’t tell you “good job” all the time. They engage and motivate you to improve. If you’ve been irritated or angry at your therapist, they might be doing their job well. Your therapist should push you. If you feel comfortable in therapy, you’re doing it wrong. Here’s why…

The art of therapy encompasses an ability to entwine rapport building with challenge. This was not easy to learn at first. I picked up tactics along the way from some of the most talented professionals in the clinical world. How I do this matters.

Think of your therapist as a supporter; that person who walks you through your struggles and gives you what you need, not what you want. Your therapist is an aid and an advocate. But, they are not your accomplice.

The reason people seek out behavioral health help is because they encounter problems in their life that they cannot solve. These problems cause tremendous distress and become disabling. They experience hopelessness, helplessness, and uncontrollable feelings, thoughts, and behaviors that drive them to negative consequences. People don’t go to a counselor because they’re having the best days of their lives. They’re usually in bad shape and desperate for relief.

To have your therapist consistently tell you”good job,” or “keep doing what you’re doing,” sets you up for failure. We may do that when you are heading in the right direction, but that’s not all.

A good therapist should challenge you. They will get to know what it feels like to be you, living your life, under your circumstances, with the thinking patterns that lead to certain behaviors. Conceptualization entails understanding this spot and building upon it with the knowledge and skills that you are missing. Counselors do this all while, normalizing your experience (because you are not the only one), and keeping you grounded appropriately.

The first thing I tell my people when they come into my office is to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

You’ll probably want to hide. The most common response I see is that people get small. They shrink mentally and physically. They feel ashamed of their problems, have impaired thinking about mental health issues, and may be embarrassed for their behaviors. Getting small looks like hiding behind walls of sorts psychologically, staying quiet, and displaying body language that hinders engagement with others. Some do this by hunching up. Others avert eye contact and position themselves away from the person talking to them. It is body language that makes it appear that you want to disengage and run away. Like a turtle that pops its head back into its shell, you simply want to disappear.

african american lady covering face with shirt collar
Photo by Angela Roma

If you are comfortable in therapy, then you are doing it wrong.

Change is naturally an uncomfortable process because we are humans and like our routines. Change that and it throws our whole week off. We are patternistic creatures which makes us wonderful, and slow at breaking or making habits.

It takes an average of 66 days for a person to make changes in your habits. Patterns that involved a lifetime of engagement will take longer to interrupt. This is what makes addiction recovery so hard to get through, for example. This is also exactly why New Year Resolutions don’t work. When a person first gets sober from any addiction, they are still hooked psychologically, even after all of the physical chemicals have left their bodies. Reality is frightening and has been the exact thing they’ve been avoiding with their addiction. It is also this psychological programming that usually causes relapse.

One of the common sayings in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is “learning how to live life on life’s terms.” While this may seem arbitrary to those of you skilled at doing this, people with an addiction have hacked their nervous system and formed maladaptive coping mechanisms to deal. While you might endure the negative feeling states at point-in-time, those who have not been taught how to do this turn to other ways to adapt. The idea is to feel your feelings and let your brain process them over time. When this does not happen, these feelings stay stored in your body and come out sideways through mental health disorders. You’ll dismiss them until enough pile up and they explode out of those compartments like a creepy Jack-in-the-box scaring the shit out of you.

Surprise, we’re still here! And all that horror from childhood? It’s there too!

So when reality hits and a person comes to realize what’s happened, they experience an overwhelming and excruciating amount of feelings that make it near impossible to face. If childhood trauma is part of the story, this becomes magnified.

The therapist typically enters the picture is usually around the time that life gets unmanageable to some degree. You will need support at this stage. Likely, your nervous system is so frazzled you could electrocute somebody with one of the frayed ends waiving around. Grounding skills are necessary to get your brain back online and able to tolerate the necessary work.

But, support is different than cosigning.

And when your therapist notices unhealthy behaviors or thought processes, they point that out. Setting and modeling good boundaries as a therapist is another form of this. Because everybody’s boundary systems are different, they sometimes clash. However, we are trained heavily on boundary systems and abide by specific codes of conduct, like the American Counseling Association Code of Ethics for this very reason.

This might cause hurt feelings, anger, or pain. You might distort the intention or meaning of an event. For example, if your therapist declines your invitation to dinner out on a Saturday night: boundaries. If your therapist declines to tell you all about her/himself: boundaries. If your therapist denies your request to befriend on Facebook: boundaries. These are all signs your therapist is actually doing a really good job.

If you have experienced bullying, neglect, or abandonment, you will be extra sensitive to rejection. You might have impaired thinking styles that assume if you are not best buds on Facebook that your therapist simply doesn’t like you. That is formed from distorted core beliefs that you are unacceptable, unloveable, or unworthy. It’s amazing how many people have these personal beliefs that drive the bus. When this occurs, that bus is typically headed over a cliff. These thinking styles cause you to react to situations differently. What might be a good thing can be perceived as a negative and offensive event.

Our wounds are revealed through such close relationships. That which you have with your therapist will expose these. And, that’s a good thing. That gives you stuff to work out. Projection is one of the most powerful tools I utilize to make headway with people. It’s not personalized from the therapist’s standpoint. We all have our own reactions based on individualized realities. Sometimes these clash.

There’s no one way to do therapy right. Your therapist doesn’t grade you. We don’t get paid to judge and discriminate. The ACA also has very specific rules about this.

Reality is reflected through their experience and own perspective. However, counselors come to the table knowing that we are different and expect this. Having a discussion about your hard feelings is exactly what we are here for.

When you aim to make your therapist happy, you are likely projecting. You might be seeking that approval through behaviors you were trained to display from the start in order to get acceptance and validation from others. When I see someone who appears to have no problems but keeps coming back to my office, we have that hard conversation. I will ask them why they are really here. There’s always something underneath that remains unspoken and unaddressed.

So before you give up, have a conversation with your counselor about what you feel. There is another version of reality behind this. Your therapist does not aim to further wound you or contribute to worsening mental health (usually- there are some shit ones out there). We have what is best for you in mind. And, if we don’t understand you or are harming more than helping, tell us. You know yourself best and can decipher when this occurs. We might not know.

I always keep that open door for feedback, as I cannot do my job well without communication. This is the first thing I tell people in the initial session.

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