What Happened When My Therapist 'Fell off Her Pedestal'
Therapists have a very unusual job. We hire them because we are struggling with something and our friends and loved ones haven’t been able to help us through this struggle. So one day we walk into the office of a complete stranger who begins asking questions about the parts of our lives that aren’t working. If we are lucky, we are compatible with said therapist and we continue divulging our deepest, darkest secrets and feelings to them. Pretty soon, we realize that the one hour a week we spend with this person is one of the most anticipated hours, perhaps our one chance to be fully ourselves without judgment, safe to say whatever we’d like and there isn’t any competition with anyone else for that person’s attention.
What a remarkable feeling! If you are anything like me and struggle with insecure attachment issues, a therapist can quickly become a kind of fairy godmother. A sort of angel on earth who is part-best friend, part-parent and part-omnipotent being who knows all the things. You start to forget that this person is human and flawed. You assume they have all the answers and that they will never do you harm. You begin to put them up on a pedestal and our expectations of them become, frankly, completely unrealistic and impossible to maintain.
Inevitably, this superhero of a human will make a mistake and it will completely disrupt your entire life. You will feel betrayed, lost and angry. You will think you cannot trust them again. This injustice will convince you that you were foolish to ever get attached to this person and that your original belief that nobody is safe has been confirmed yet again. You will replay the moment in your mind over and over again, convincing yourself that this was egregious enough to stop going to therapy altogether. You’ll feel grief and you’ll feel lost, and it’s at this moment that I urge you to take a pause and take a chance at allowing yourself to go against every instinct you have to run.
It’s true, therapists are people too. No matter how hard they try to do right by all their clients, they will at some point make an error. How we as clients choose to engage with that error can be a make-or-break moment for us in therapy. Many of us are in therapy because we have been hurt by others who we cared about. Those betrayals and upsets taught us a lot of things, including that conflict is scary and to be avoided at all costs. The reality of it is that if we can learn to face interpersonal conflict in a respectful and constructive way, we can learn how to be more fully human.
My therapist, whom I have been seeing for over five years, had this guffaw about a month ago. Due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, we have been doing telehealth since March, and frankly, it isn’t the same. Like virtually everyone on the planet, we have had to adjust to a “new normal,” which has come with a whole new set of challenges.
During this particular session, she was having trouble with her in-home WiFi. We could not get it to work so we ended up doing a phone-only session. During the session, she was highly distracted and seemed frustrated with everything I said. I began to feel uncomfortable. My pattern of behavior when I sense frustration from others is to shut down and freeze. I felt myself go offline and go into autopilot people-pleasing mode, something I did all the time as a child with my mother when I sensed her becoming emotionally dysregulated.
By the end of the session, I was so regressed into my child self I couldn’t calm down. I was scared, angry, felt rejected and was completely disheartened. My “safe person” didn’t feel safe anymore and I was certain that just like my mom, she was sick of me and didn’t want to see me anymore.
To protect myself, I began preparing my reasons why I wouldn’t be continuing with therapy. I’d be doing her a favor. Obviously I was a huge pain and too much for her. I didn’t want to make her life so difficult and it would just be easier if I said goodbye. (As I write this, I recognize how incredibly childish this all sounds, but this rift hit me at my traumatized core). I impulsively sent her a text as such and she replied, “Let’s discuss this next week.”
What?! How can I possibly survive this whole week on-edge, not knowing if she’s angry with me? It felt like an eternity. I shared my grievances with a couple of close friends. One identified with my hurt, the other reminded me that my therapist has been there for me for all these years and that she cares about me and, by the way, the pandemic has affected us all.
I chose to sit with my feelings and bring it up with her. I was fearful that I’d clam up and wouldn’t be able to tell her why I was angry. So, I wrote out everything and sent it ahead of our next appointment. As fate would have it, she had to cancel our next appointment, just adding fuel to my anxiety and reinforcing my firmly held belief that I had been too much for her and she didn’t want to see me again.
When I finally saw her two weeks later, I was a basket of nerves. I almost didn’t want to answer her FaceTime call, but I mustered the courage to do so and I’m so glad I did. When I finally did discuss my feelings with her she not only validated them but apologized. She said she was so frustrated with her internet not working session after session that she just couldn’t contain that frustration, and that this was wrong of her because I’m not a mind reader and I couldn’t have known that her irritation wasn’t directed at me, and she should have done a better job compartmentalizing her feelings. She reminded me that this has been a very challenging time to do therapy and that her feelings were not directed at me. She also reminded me that even if she was frustrated with me, it wasn’t because she didn’t care about me, but that she wanted better for me. By the end of the conversation, not only was I no longer angry, but I also felt an immense sense of connection to her as a human being.
Since that event, I have been far more mindful of the fact that my therapist is not only human, but that she has a life outside of her sessions with clients that can and will influence her. She is a highly ethical, caring professional with boundaries, who strives to do what’s best for me at all times, but just like she keeps telling me: there’s no such thing as perfect. We all make mistakes. The ability to repair relationships in spite of mistakes is what strengthens them and makes them more meaningful in the long run. If you’ve experienced this with your therapist, don’t run away from it. As hard as it feels, I encourage you to face it with courage. Your worst fears of abandonment won’t come true with a good therapist; you’ll learn something about healthy communication of feelings and you will realize that you are stronger than you ever thought you could be.
Getty Images photo via nensuria