Do therapists love their clients?
If you’re in therapy, you may have wondered how your therapist feels about you. Do therapists love their clients?
A few months into the therapy process, I started to wonder about love. Specifically, Do therapists love their clients? I remember asking my therapist directly, “How do you feel about me?” and getting the straightforward yet frustrating answer “I have lots of feelings about you; and when I think it might be helpful to tell you about them, I do”. Hmm. Really, what I wanted to know was “Do you love me?”
Do therapists love their clients? I wondered. And, more to the point: Do you love me? I didn’t dare ask outright. I thought the answer would either be No, or Yes. And to be honest, the thought of getting either of those answers was pretty scary. I certainly didn’t want to hear a No. And yet, if I heard Yes, where would that leave me? Would my therapist somehow try and seduce me? Would I now have to live up to something or risk losing the love? Would I have some strange burden to bear?
So I never asked. But for a long time I wondered: Do therapists love their clients?
And over time, I came to realise that there is never a simple yes/no dichotomy when it comes to love. And that applies whether we’re talking about therapists and clients, romantic partners, best friends, and even parents and children (if you’ve ever been up all night with a screaming baby, or dealt with a toddler tantrum in a public place, you probably know that love is not the only feeling you have for them!).
But still… Do therapists love their clients?
I’m now a therapist. And as such, I can get the inside scoop about such questions. In two ways. One: I have access to my own feelings towards my clients. Two: I sometimes get to hear other therapists talking about their work. Not about their clients, exactly (confidentiality is taken very seriously); but about their own feelings and experiences. Like last week.
Therapists talking together
Recently I was privileged to attend a one-day masterclass/ seminar led by Susie Orbach, one of the best-known contemporary psychotherapists in the UK. The title was ‘Resolving Clinical Dilemmas in Therapy’. We listened to excerpts from recordings from the radio series ‘In Therapy’. In this series, Susie Orbach was the therapist, with actors playing people coming for therapy. Orbach invited us to discuss clinical dilemmas raised. From many angles, we looked at choice-points, questions and conundrums. Orbach gave frank, warm and layered insights and perspectives, sparked by the incredible (and impressively realistic) ‘sessions’ we heard.
And yes, we talked about Love. Therapists’ love for their clients, and clients’ love for their therapists.
Love is a word that can incorporate so many layers, vagaries, and characteristics. Love can be longing. Love can be yearning. Love can be a spark glimpsed, a spark of wanting to live again. Love can be hope. Love can be excitement, a spring in the step. Love can be a fountain of creativity. Love can be deep, warm comfort. Love can be compassionate loving-kindness. Love can be in shared smiles and laughs; even in ‘gallows humour’. Love can be about feeling met: truly seen and heard. Love can be holding someone in mind; thinking deeply about them. Love can be terribly, painfully sad (think of grief and loss). Love can be a tender, vulnerable sweetness. And yes, sometimes love can be erotic, passionate desire.
So… do they? Do therapists love their clients?
Yes. Not always. Not only. Not just. But love is very often there, playing out in its different ways.
“Love, in all its forms, ineffable and undefinable, is the oil that suspends the wheels and surrounds the entire mechanism so that therapeutic work can take place at all.” – Martha Crawford
COAL: Some Building Blocks of Love
In his book ‘The Mindful Therapist’ neurobiologist and psychiatrist Dr Daniel Siegel uses the acronym COAL. It stands for this: Curiosity, plus Openness, plus Acceptance – leads to Love.
Curiosity: Good therapists have a stance of being curious: being really, genuinely interested in and trying to deeply understand their client.
Openness: Therapists aren’t usually that open with clients about their own private lives (with good reason). But therapists aim to keep themselves open to flexible ways of thinking about the client and his/her difficulties. Therapists also endeavour to have an openness to their own intuitions and feelings about their client. They hold these in their mind alongside their thoughts about psychological theories and techniques.
Acceptance: Therapists know that if the client does not feel accepted, he or she will not make progress in therapy. Therapists suspend judgements and pre-set ideas about their clients. Therapists aim to help and support the client to know, accept and understand all of him/herself. Once we feel more acceptable, we can make better and wiser choices in our life. (And we are in a much stronger position to truly accept others, too, and relate better to them).
And, um… **cough** Do therapists hate their clients?Do therapists hate their clients sometimes? Click To Tweet
Absolutely they can. Again, not always. Not only. Not just. Renowned psychotherapist Dr D.W. Winnicott once wrote a famous (and much-admired) paper which included a long list of reasons for a mother to hate her baby. He was also talking about reasons therapists will, in some moments, have complex feelings about their clients, and these feelings may include hate. He was also saying, Look, these relationships are intense, they are emotionally meaningful, and they help people to deeply change and grow: of course there will be hate, AND love, both. (And many other feelings besides).
I have always wondered why therapists do not talk more about the healing power of love as a necessary ingredient of therapy. – Susan Pease Banitt, LCSW
“But I’ve heard that love in therapy is just about transference and countertransference.”
Well, yes and no. Transference is about how we transfer feelings that we have had towards influential people in our past**, on to people we meet day-to-day. Transference happens all the time in various ways, and it’s usually evident in the therapy relationship. (Countertransference is just the word that gets used when we talk about the therapist’s feelings towards the client.)Is love in therapy just about the transference? Click To Tweet
If you feel loved by your therapist, this might be telling us something about your transference onto him/ her. And it might also be because your therapist genuinely feels loving towards you.
(Transference feelings, by the way, are really useful in therapy, so please don’t try and hide them out of awkwardness, shame, or anxiety. Speak about them with your therapist, so that this can helpfully contribute to the work you are doing together).
Transference isn’t fake. When we feel a transference feeling towards someone, it’s a real feeling in us (which may – or may not – give accurate information about the other person’s feelings towards us). When a therapist feels loving (or anything else) in her countertransference towards a client, it’s a real feeling she is having. The therapist uses her own feelings partly as useful information to help guide the work, and partly as fuel and tools to help power the therapeutic work.
What we are doing here, really, all boils down to love” – Dr Michael Nakkula
Do you ever sense your therapist beholding you – attending to you with an open-hearted curiosity, openness, and acceptance? One word for that ‘beholding’ is love. It doesn’t mean your therapist desires you like a lover, or loves you like their child, or wants you as their best friend. This kind of love is not possessive, nor is it acted out sexually. But this kind of love – some call it ‘agape’ from the Ancient Greek word for the kind of love that a wise, caring grandparent might have for their grandchild – still counts as love.
Do therapists love their clients? Yes.
New York AEDP psychotherapist SueAnne Piliero, Ph.D. puts it this way: ‘Fierce love is deeply attuning and focusing on your patients in a way that lets them know that you really see them, you really feel them, and you really feel for them even if they can’t see or feel for themselves. As Winnicott said, “When you are felt you exist.” ‘ – (Personal communication, 2019)
Now. Here’s what therapists’ love should not be:
- Sexual behaviour
I came across this term in Jon Frederickson’s book ‘The Lies We Tell Ourselves’. Psychosyrupy is a kind of gooey, lovey-dovey kind of pseudotherapeutic relationship which is characterised by lack of challenge, clarity and boundaries, and which might seem loving but doesn’t actually help clients individuate and grow. ‘Tea-and-sympathy’ might be comforting when you are sitting with a friend or neighbour, and it certainly has its value (and yes, it can include love, sometimes) but it is very different from what effective therapists offer.
Therapists’ love is not the tea-and-sympathy, psychosyrupy kind of love. But just because your therapist is boundaried and professional, and getting paid for their expertise and time, doesn’t mean love isn’t part of the picture.Love in psychotherapy: is it psychosyrupy? Click To Tweet
Therapists’ love is not the acted-out-sexually kind of love.
Therapists have bodies, and feelings. It is not unknown for a therapist to have a client for whom they experience erotic feelings. Responsible therapists process these feelings in professional supervision or their own therapy. (They don’t discuss their desire with their clients, because this would not be helpful for the client’s therapeutic work). It’s important to remember that there is a big difference between feeling something, versus acting on the feeling. If your therapist (god forbid) tries to act out their erotic desire with you, this is not a helpful or therapeutic kind of love. This is abuse of power, and it is never okay (and should be reported to their professional organisation).
Therapists’ love can be genuine, heartfelt, nuanced and layered. And real.
Most therapists won’t tell their clients directly that they love them. There are many reasons why they don’t, some rooted in therapeutic effectiveness, and some because of concerns that it could be interpreted as manipulative or misread as an invitation. It’s not always helpful, and depending on the situation, it could even be quite the opposite.
But even if they don’t say so directly: Therapists love their clients.
Therapists don’t always love their clients. Therapists don’t feel only love for their clients. Therapists love their clients in various ways, at various times. And yes, I’m sure there are some therapists out there who never love their clients. But, a lot more than we might think or recognise, love is around in the therapy relationship. Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, even described therapy as a ‘cure by love’.
“I’m thankful that I’ve never met a patient that I couldn’t love or couldn’t learn to love.” – Jason Mihalko
And here’s the thing:
The challenge for clients is to discover ways to take in the love. To really feel loved inside. To find ways to feel filled up by the love of others (including the therapist) and to discover the healing power of self-compassion. Not easy, for many of us. But possible, over time and with repeated instances and real, felt experiences.
The issue, you see, isn’t so much about whether your therapist loves you. It’s more about whether you can make use of that love, take it in and allow it to help transform – and when therapy comes to an end, carry it in your heart as a precious and reliable inner resource. It’s also about learning to connect inside of yourself with your love for your own “difficult” parts (including the hurt child inside of you that feels anger and shame and sadness etc).
Because when you really feel love inside of you, and can also take in the love that others give, then you don’t have to hunt for it in unhealthy ways. And you’ll have more love to give out to others, to help make our world a more loving, fair and supportive place.
AEDP (‘Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy’) is a therapy modality that specifically works with how to help clients process their feelings and become more able to take in good things (including love and care). AEDP is becoming more widely known and practised in the UK and around the world, although it is more established in the USA where Dr Diana Fosha developed the model. I offer AEDP therapy, as well as integrative arts psychotherapy, online.
Have you felt loved by your therapist? Was it hard to recognise or to take in? And were you able to use it to help you to accept and have compassion and love for yourself? And if you’re a therapist yourself, what are your thoughts on love in therapy: do therapists love their clients?
I’d love to read your comments below.
*You may still be able to hear BBC Radio 4’s ‘In Therapy’ via BBC iPlayer Radio.
NYU Course on Love (love in therapy is briefly mentioned)
Stephanie Law Can Therapists Love Their Clients?
Christine Hutchison Falling in Love in Therapy
Richard LaBrie, Psy.D Love for two clients and for his own therapist
Reading For Therapists:
** This brain structuring and shaping happens most dramatically in our early months and years, by a combination of factors including (most powerfully) our relationships.
Psychotherapy is, in essence, a cure through love.Dr Sigmund Freud, in a letter to Dr C. G. Jung