Maybe she mis-remembers something you’d told her. Makes a mistake with your session time or your fee. Doesn’t understand something important you are trying to express. Goes on holiday at a time when you really need her around.
When these things happen, how do you feel? You really mind, right?
If so, stop kicking yourself for minding. I’m here to tell you that this is fine. Not just fine, in fact, but a positively important and necessary part of the healing process of psychotherapy.
I’ll try and explain.
To get the most benefit and healing from your therapy, it’s necessary to allow yourself to feel vulnerable and have feelings of all kinds when you are in the therapy room.
And when you do this, you are allowing your therapist to matter to you. You start to feel attached. Your defences are down, at least partly. This is a major part of how therapy works.
And feeling attached like this comes with a scary (or at least, it feels scary at first) side-effect: you can feel vulnerable, exposed, and easily hurt by things that in other circumstances, with other people, might seem trivial and routine.
When Your Therapist Lets You Down
I was talking with a friend recently and we were discussing some of the ‘crimes’ our therapists had committed over the years. Here’s a taste of the kinds of things that I told my friend I’d really minded about, at the time:
[Warning: if you’re not already in therapy with a therapist you care about, stop reading now, because this list is going to seem quite bizarre to you!]
- Mentioned my outfit at a time when I wanted to believe she never noticed such superficial things as clothes.
- Having told me she could reschedule my session to the time I asked for, had to contact me again and said she’d made a mistake and I couldn’t have the session after all.
- Looked at me in a way that I interpreted as judgemental and unempathic.
- Mis-remembered a dream I had told her.
- Looked scary.
- Looked caring and empathic when I wanted her to go along with my ‘it’s all fine’ defence, instead.
- Talked about things that embarrassed me and made me cringe and squirm.
- Asked me questions that felt too probing.
- Failed to ask me the probing questions that I longed for.
- Ended the session when my 50 minutes was up.
- Extended my session by a few minutes because I was in the middle of saying or feeling something important; which made me feel a curious, uncomfortable mixture of anxious, greedy, grateful, loved and overly demanding.
- Forgot details of a story I’d told her.
- Mentioned her children at a time when I longed to believe that I was the only person in her life.
- Saw other clients. Ever.
- Was human, fallible and real, instead of perfect!
Over-sensitive? Maybe. When we’re in the middle of it, therapy can bring out the most excruciating sensitivities in us. (Especially for those who are an HSP – Highly Sensitive Person. Read my HSP page if you’re wondering about whether this applies to you.)
It can bring us to our knees, wondering how we can be so ridiculous as to care about a tiny little thing.
It can make us vow: “Right, that does it, I knew this was a waste of time. I can’t believe I’m upset about that. I must be going crazy! I need to stop going to therapy”.
Because we are also feeling so hurt and/or angry. ‘How could she do that to me? How could she refer to my partner by the wrong name? She obviously hates me/ never listens to a word I say/ is a useless therapist/ wishes I would leave therapy/ is just like all the other people who’ve let me down’.
Or, even worse, we jump into shame and self-blame. ‘It’s because I’m so stupid/ forgettable/ ridiculous/ a failure/ will never get anything right’.
Spotting the Gold
And then you might spot something. In your relationship with your therapist, something is happening that is oddly similar to the problems you came into therapy hoping to solve!
There’s gold here. Stay with it.
Because talking about your problems in therapy may bring some relief, but it probably won’t change things.
Enacting something – being in it, in a felt way, such as when you’re feeling hurt or angry towards your therapist – and at the same time, with your therapist’s active participation, being able to slow down, unpick, discuss, resolve, and perhaps forgive the other person and yourself: this can be healing. Deeply, profoundly healing.
Rupture and Repair
In psychotherapy-speak, we call it ‘enactment*’ and we also talk about ‘rupture and repair’.
There’s a rupture (the therapist gets it wrong in some way, and the client feels hurt, angry, ashamed etc in response to this) and then between them, the client and therapist find a way to repair the rupture.
And strangely enough, the rupture-and-repair process is how we grow as people, and part of how we live. I’m talking about outside the therapy room, as well as inside it.
Rupture is not bad, in itself. Real life is not (cannot be) about avoiding any ruptures. I suspect that a life in which all ruptures were avoided would be dull and safe and passionless and would feel pretty pointless.
But the repair is crucially important. What can lead to great damage is the rupture-without-repair process. Rupture-without-repair can lead a person to feel shameful, hateful, confused, blaming, and with a deep sense of themselves and/or others being ‘not okay’.
And sadly, the other people in our lives (like our families and friends) may not be too good at the repair process. So what can happen is this: There’s a rupture. You (and/or they) feel anxious, or hurt, or angry in response. So then you each do that thing you always do. You slip into your go-to method of coping in a crisis.
What Do You Normally Do When There’s a Rupture?
What’s your tried-and-tested automatic procedure when there’s been a rupture between you and someone important in your life?
- Bottle it up inside?
- Explode in hot venomous rage?
- Dissolve into weeping endless salty tears that feel like they get you nowhere?
- Run away?
- Use cold barbed insults?
- Bitch, gossip or complain to others about them?
- Be passive-aggressive?
- Get a headache?
- Be controlling?
- Become depressed?
- Ridicule the other person?
- Be submissive?
- Try to make them love you?
The repair that’s so needed can’t happen. And you feel worse and worse.
But with your therapist, it can be different. She or he is trained to help you with your experiences of rupture, and to actively live through ruptures with you so that things can be done differently. The small ruptures (like when your therapist makes a mistake) are actually a great training ground!
Changing Your Brain
Here’s where you can really use your therapy to best effect. Because when you are in the middle of a feeling, the brain is in a particularly changeable state.
Which means that if you are feeling hurt or angry feelings towards your therapist, because of that thing that they’ve done wrong — this is an incredible opportunity for you to experience something new and different, and healing.
So you respond to your therapist’s error in your usual way (running away, or lashing out, or going silent, or whatever your pattern is) — but an amazing thing happens**.
Your therapist hears you.
She doesn’t shout back, or go silent on you, or run away from you in horror. Instead, she sits and stays centred (or tries to).
She may apologise, if she agrees that she got it wrong. Alternatively, she may explain why she did or said what she did. Or she may have a different reaction. But here’s the really, really important thing: She doesn’t collapse, and she doesn’t retaliate.
Your therapist stays connected to you.
This is profoundly healing. And it may need to happen time and time again, before it sinks in enough.
And gradually over time, instead of running away (or lashing out, or whatever your pattern is) you can try out and practise what happens when you do the unthinkable, the assertive, the straightforward and yet somehow agonisingly almost-impossible thing: of responding in a way that feels like a repair is happening.
So talk with your therapist when she gets something wrong.
Tell her when you feel misunderstood, hurt, angry, neglected, blaming.
Stay with it, and work it out between you. Gradually, over time, you’ll feel fuller inside, more compassionate towards yourself and others, calmer, more confident and resilient.
And then you’ll know – the therapy is probably working!
** I’m writing about most psychotherapists here, the ones who are well-trained, well-supported and who know their own process well enough so that they don’t fall into being defensive or attacking (or, if they do, they quickly pull out of it and can talk with you in a connected and empathic way about it). However, not all therapists can do this. If you have concerns about your therapist, and you have discussed these concerns with her/him and are left still feeling concerned, you may need to end therapy and/or speak to their professional regulatory body.
I’m certainly not perfect. Sometimes I make mistakes with my clients. But I always encourage my clients to talk to me about when they feel I’ve got something wrong, so that together we can work on whatever needs doing so that we can repair (and learn from) the rupture. I see clients for AEDP (Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy) and Integrative Arts Psychotherapy near Colchester, Essex, and also online therapy via Zoom (which is like Skype). If you’re interested in discussing the possibility of working with me, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I offer a free 15-minute phone consultation to prospective clients.
*For a lovely article about this same topic, visit psychotherapist Martha Crawford’s blog at http://whatashrinkthinks.com/2011/06/13/enactment/