"We desperately want to feel understood and cared for, but the people in our lives don’t always “get” what we’re trying to communicate....These “empathic failures” are actually a great opportunity to heal your childhood wounds by talking about them, rather than withdrawing." - Carol Gould
When Your Good Therapist Turns "Bad"
by Carol Gould, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
So, you’ve been in therapy for a while. Perhaps a crisis brought you in initially,
and you and your therapist spent the first weeks or months talking about the
crisis. She (or he, but I’ll use she
because I happen to be one) listened empathically and helped you work through
the complicated feelings stirred up by the crisis. Her presence was comforting as you revisited
the events that caused you pain or anger, and she made comments that made you
feel heard and understood. You gradually
felt you could trust her with your vulnerable feelings, and you’ve made a
commitment to continue in therapy and explore some of the issues that came up
as a result of the crisis. You are
beginning a journey together that may last months or even years, as you
discover patterns of thinking, behaving, and feeling that are familiar but
which are getting in the way of your desire to live a full and satisfying life.
One day you’re in session and you’re telling her about
something that happened at work that upset you.
You’re fired up as you describe how your boss reprimanded you in front
of your co-workers and you felt you just had to stand there and take it. Your therapist, who normally makes you feel
safe and want to keep talking, says something that seems, well, off.
It feels like she’s not getting why this experience was so
upsetting. It feels like an abrupt turn
of events, like suddenly your therapist is not on your side. How can she not understand how you feel? You start to feel anxious and withdraw, but
you don’t say anything. You find
yourself in familiar territory, a place you’ve been before: “No one understands me, and it’s foolish of
me to even try to get anyone to understand me.
I just end up feeling ashamed and embarrassed for having revealed
myself. It’s better to keep my feelings
to myself.” Your therapist, who until
now has seemed like the one person you can trust to understand and validate your
vulnerable feelings, has suddenly turned into someone who’s just like everyone
else: insensitive, clueless, and not interested in understanding your pain.
You spend the rest of the session trying to regain your
stability. Perhaps you stop talking
about the incident at work and move on to something that feels less charged,
and safer. Perhaps you keep talking
about the incident at work but you check out emotionally so you don’t have to
deal with what seems to be an intolerable turn of events. You trusted someone,
and she let you down. It’s hard to
remember that just minutes ago you were feeling safe and open, and the person
sitting across from you seemed warm, engaged, and attuned to your
feelings. You may not even be aware that
the shift occurred, because it’s so automatic.
Your therapist may comment on the sudden change of subject or notice you
became quiet. She may even draw a
parallel between the story you are telling about the incident at work and what
is happening between the two of you right now.
But you don’t want to risk telling her that you’re hurt or angry, and
that you don’t trust her. After all, she
let you down. Why open yourself up to
another failure of understanding by telling her your true feelings?
This kind of thing happens in therapy all the time, as it
does in “real” life. We desperately want
to feel understood and cared for, but the people in our lives don’t always
“get” what we’re trying to communicate.
For some people, this is a dominant aspect of their relational
experience. They grew up in a family
where their parents weren’t interested in their deeper emotional experience, or
couldn’t tolerate it when their kids cried or got angry or frustrated. They didn’t know how to respond when their
kids came to them with problems they were having in school or with friends. Or, perhaps there was a situation in the
family that distracted the parents from attending to their children, such as
marital problems or a chronically ill child or spouse. Sometimes divorce puts kids in a position
where they feel they have to “be good” so as not to upset their parents any
more than they already are, and they learn not to burden their parents with
their fears, hurts, or other emotional needs.
In any case, the child is left feeling that expression of needs and
personal thoughts or feelings is dangerous because they will get some kind of
adverse response. Some kids will “act
out” and exhibit aggressive behavior as an indirect way of expressing their
anger and frustration about feeling misunderstood or dismissed; others will
internalize their feelings and act as though nothing is wrong. Either way, these kids learn that the world
is unresponsive to their needs so they better find another way of dealing with
Just like people in “real life,” your therapist is
occasionally going to let you down. It
may feel like she doesn’t “get” you, or she’s late for your session, or she
wants to raise your fee even though you think she knows you are strapped for
cash. It can be something even more
subtle, like a facial expression that seems unwelcoming or judgmental, or a
tone in her voice that triggers your distrust.
It can be something that feels so wounding that you want to stop coming,
and perhaps you entertain the idea of canceling your next session because you
are so upset. If enough of these
incidents go by without some resolution, you may feel so distrustful that you
feel you need to stop therapy altogether.
These “empathic failures” are actually a great opportunity
to heal your childhood wounds by talking about them, rather than
withdrawing. Even when the breach seems
minor taken out of context (“I shouldn’t be mad at her for being late this
once, she’s usually on time. I don’t
want to make waves or hurt her feelings, even though I’m upset”), it feels like
a big deal because, sometimes without even realizing it, you expect to
be disappointed or hurt by other people, and the incident that happened in your
therapy is just another piece of evidence to support that belief. However, by talking about your feelings with
your therapist, you have the opportunity to experience a familiar situation but
with a different outcome. The need to
keep your feelings to yourself is a protective strategy to prevent further
emotional pain. There is also a dread to
repeat this behavior because although your experience tells you the outcome will
be painful, there’s a part of you that longs to express your feelings.
This is where the curative factor of the therapeutic
relationship can really be tangibly felt: you take the risk of telling your
therapist that something she said or did was hurtful to you, and she actually
makes an effort to understand you. She
encourages you to share your thoughts and feelings about the incident as much
as you can, and demonstrates that she cares that she was the cause of your
pain, even if she didn’t mean to upset you. You discover you can talk freely
about your feelings and something good happens.
Instead of feeling shamed or dismissed, you feel heard and
understood. You begin to see that there
conflict can be talked about and resolved without you collapsing or the other
person retaliating, as you have always believed would happen.
Your therapist is a real person in whom you place your
trust, or try to. She will let you down
from time to time, and hopefully not often.
Practicing dealing with breaches of trust in therapy helps you develop
the courage and skills required to deal with the breaches of trust that are
inevitable in everyday life. As you get
better at this, you can experience more intimacy with the people in your life
because you no longer have to withdraw or accommodate when a conflict arises.
Carol Gould is a master therapist who trains other therapists. She has had a private practice in Noe Valley since 1995, working with individual adults and couples. Her work is informed by Self Psychology, Relational psychoanalytic theory, Control Mastery Theory, and Intersubjectivity Theory. She has been trained in John Gottman's couples therapy model and Emotionally Focused Therapy. You can learn more about her work or schedule appointments by contacting Carol at; 415-826-5435 via her website.
Labels: Bad Object, Bad Therapist, Carol Gould, Empathic Failures, Therapist Mistakes