NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Sunday, December 17, 2017

How to Talk to Your Psychotherapist When Something is Bothering You About Your Therapy

In a prior article, I discussed the importance of psychotherapists providing clients with psychoeducation during the initial stage of therapy.  

I also stressed that it's up to the psychotherapist to check in with the client periodically to find out how the therapy is going from the client's perspective.  

This helps to avoid premature endings in therapy where the client leaves therapy abruptly out of frustration (see my article: When Clients Leave Therapy Prematurely).  

I also indicated that if the therapist doesn't check in, the client can initiate a conversation with the therapist.  But all too often the client has difficulty being assertive enough to initiate this conversation.  So, in this article, I'm focusing on how to talk to your therapist when something is bothering you about the therapy.

How to Talk to Your Psychotherapist

Why Might You Be Having Problems Initiating a Conversation With Your Psychotherapist?

Being Unable to Identify Feelings and Sensations Due to Early Developmental Trauma
Many clients who have difficulty initiating a conversation with their psychotherapist about the therapy also have the same difficulties in other relationships.  This is often a presenting problem for coming to therapy.

Many clients who have problems letting others know that something is wrong never developed this skill as a child because it was discouraged at home when they were growing up.

For instance, if a client grew up in a home where his parents communicated, either explicitly or implicitly, that everything that went wrong in the household was the child's fault, not theirs, this client will probably assume that problems in the therapy are his fault because he wasn't "good enough" or lovable enough for his parents and now he's not "good enough" for his therapist (see my article: Do You Feel Unlovable?).

Many adult clients, who experienced developmental trauma, including abuse or neglect (or both), have difficulty identifying their feelings.  They might know that "something isn't right," but they don't know what it is (see my articles: Developmental Trauma: Living in the Present As If It Were the Past and When You "Just Don't Feel Right" and It's Hard to Put Your Feelings Into Words).

In most cases, these clients' primary caregiver wasn't attuned to them as babies, which is crucial for physical and emotional development as well as being able to identify feelings and sensations, and so they didn't develop these skills.

Clients, who have difficulty identifying feelings and sensations, have difficulty putting words to their experiences.  They need a psychotherapist who is highly attuned to what is going on with them in therapy and who can help them to develop the ability to identify and express feelings and sensations, including unconscious feelings (see my articles: The Therapist's Empathic Attainment and The Mind-Body Connection: The Body Offers a Window Into the Unconscious Mind).

If they don't have a highly attuned psychotherapist who can help them to become attuned to the mind-body connection, these clients often feel like they're "not doing therapy right" and this engenders guilt and shame in them.

Clients who were raised in a family where they were placed in the role of caregiving their parents will often unconsciously try to take care of their psychotherapist.  They are often hypervigilant to the  therapist's every facial expression and body language for "clues" as to what might be going on with the therapist and what they think the therapist needs from them, similar to the role they were in as a child with their parents.

Just as they did as children with their parents, these clients try to anticipate the therapist's needs and try to find ways to accommodate the therapist instead of allowing the therapist to help them.  Even though this is a role reversal for the client, the client feels comfortable with in it because it's familiar.

That being said, a skilled therapist will recognize this and address it so the client can learn to allow the therapist to take care of the client's needs.  At first, this might not be easy for the client because he never developed that trust and comfort with his parents as a child, and it's hard to trust as an adult.

Psychotherapist and Client Mismatch
Another common reason for clients not being able to address issues about therapy with their psychotherapist is that the client and therapist are a mismatch.  They're not a "good fit" for each other.

What does it mean that the client and therapist aren't a good match?  It means that, for whatever reason, the client and therapist don't "click."

As I've mentioned in prior articles, every therapist is not for every client.  Even an award-winning psychotherapist, who has published books and articles and is recognized as an expert in her field, might not be the right therapist for a particular client.  This doesn't mean that there's something wrong with the therapist or the client.  It just means they're not a good combination to work together.

This mismatch can make it difficult for the client to communicate with the therapist because they're not on the same wavelength.

If there is a mismatch between the therapist and the client and the client knows he wants to leave, it's still important for the client to address this with the therapist, if the therapist doesn't address it first, rather than aborting therapy without saying anything.

Why is it important to address a mismatch rather than aborting therapy?  Well, the therapeutic relationship, although different from most relationships, is still a relationship, and just like it's important not to suddenly walk out on other relationships, it's also important not to leave therapy without a word.

The importance of talking to the therapist has more to do with learning to speak up for yourself than it does for sparing the therapist's feelings.  Although it's important to be considerate of the therapist, it's more important to be considerate of yourself.  And when you walk out of a relationship without a word, you don't feel good about it.  So, you speak up mostly out of consideration for yourself--not for the therapist.

Boundary Violations
There are also instances where there have been boundary violations between the client and the therapist, including sexual boundary violations.  Needless to say, when this occurs, the therapy is ruined and beyond repair (see my article: Boundary Violations and Sexual Exploitation in Psychotherapy).

No matter who initiated the boundary violation, the therapist or the client, the therapist is always responsible.  It's important to leave that therapy to get help from an seasoned, ethical psychotherapist who can help you deal with the traumatic aftermath of the violation.

Transference Issues
There might also be transference issues that get in the way of the client communicating with the psychotherapist. This means that the client might be experiencing the psychotherapist as a parental figure and this hasn't been addressed in the therapy.

For instance, if the client had highly authoritative, punitive parents as a child and he unconsciously experiences the therapist as another authority figure who will fail him like his parents did, the client might have the same difficulty addressing this in therapy as he did with his parents.  This, of course, assumes that the therapist isn't behaving in an punitive, authoritative manner.  If the therapist is behaving in an punitive and authoritative manner, this isn't a good match for this client or any other client for that matter.

There are many other reasons why a client might be having problems addressing issues about the therapy with his therapist, but the ones I've cited are among the main ones.

How to Talk to Your Psychotherapist If Something is Bothering You About the Therapy

Writing It Down First
If you're having problems articulating the issues you have about the therapy to your therapist, you could benefit from writing about it before you attempt to discuss it with your therapist.  This isn't a substitute for talking to your therapist.  It's just an initial step to take to clarify your thoughts.  You still need to have the discussion with your therapist in person.

If even writing about your problems in therapy feels too daunting to you, you can try writing a story about these issues as if they were happening to someone else.  When you externalize the problem as if it's about someone else in a story, it feels a little less personal and you might find ways to think about it that you don't when you're writing about yourself.

Talking About It: It Doesn't Have to Be "Perfect"
Finding your voice might be difficult, but don't assume that you have to communicate the problem "perfectly" in order to be understood.  Just starting the dialog is often a good beginning, even if all you say is, "I think I'm having problems with the therapy."  This lets the therapist know that there's an issue and she can help you to identify and express it.

Making a Decision About the Therapy - A Consultation With Another Therapist Might Help
In many cases, once the problems are out on the table, things can be cleared up, especially if there was a misunderstanding on the therapist's part or the client's part or both.

But if the problem you're having in therapy can't be cleared up and you're not sure what to do, you can have a consultation with another therapist to try to clarify what's going on in your therapy.  The consultation can be done with or without your current therapist.

I usually recommend that clients let their therapist know if they're going for a consultation with another therapist.  But there might be reasons why you don't let your therapist know, especially if there have been serious boundary violations in your therapy.

Whether you go for a consultation with another therapist or not, at some point, you'll need to make a decision as to whether this therapy is working for you or not.

This can be a difficult decision, and there's no magic answer as what to do and when to do it.  Depending upon your particular situation, it can be complicated.

For instance, if you have a history of going from one therapist to the next in a relatively short period of time, there might be other issues going on.  You might get skittish in therapy at the point when you and the therapist are getting to core issues.  If you recognize this pattern, you would do well to think about what's really going on and if you're constantly avoiding dealing with core issues.

Another reason why it's difficult to make a decision of whether you should stay or leave a particular therapy is that, if you're new to therapy, you might not have a basis for comparison to know if the therapy isn't going well or if you had different expectations of therapy.

This gets back to what I discussed in my prior article about having psychoeducation during the early stage of therapy.  But even with psychoeducation, it can be a tough decision to make.

But once you've made the decision of whether to stick with your current therapist or see a different therapist, as I mentioned before, it's important to communicate your decision with your therapist if you've decided to end the therapy rather than just leaving without talking about it.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you've been struggling with a problem on your own and you haven't been able to resolve it, you could benefit form working with a skilled mental health professional who can help you to work through the problem (see my article:  The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

The first step is to make an appointment for a consultation with a therapist, and it's often the hardest step for most people.

At the consultation, you'll have an opportunity to talk about your presenting problem in a broad way and ask the therapist questions.

You might even ask for another consultation to have more time to find out how the therapist works and, more importantly, to get a better sense of the therapist to see if you think the two of you are a good match (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Being able to free yourself in therapy from the problematic parts of your personal history will allow you to live in a more meaningful way with a greater sense of well-being.

About Me
I am a New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article:  The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrated Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.