The Pain of Counseling: When Therapy Turns South

Turning points in therapy and in life are usually seen only in retrospect.

Sometimes — many times — therapy leads to a better life. But sometimes therapy creates pain in the process of trying to do its work. The patient can experience it as a necessary part of the process; or, as one more disappointment, frustration, failure, or betrayal in a life already filled with them.

It often depends on the type of discomfort that therapy is causing.

I’d like to describe four different categories of such therapeutic problems. Three of these involve failures of the therapist. But one (Item #3) is a frequent development in therapy that has to do with the nature of treatment and how people deal with emotional pain, rather than some shortcoming of the counselor.

1. Countertransference

Therapists can get frustrated or angry with patients, attracted to them or repelled by them, bored by them or fascinated by them. Therapists are human, so they are subject to all the same relationship issues as everyone else.

Of course, we are trained to keep a therapeutic distance and to know ourselves well enough to minimize all of the above. Unfortunately, self-knowledge is always less than complete and training can be an imperfect aid when faced with challenging relationships.

The psychoanalytic concept of countertransference was an early contribution to understanding these sorts of dilemmas within the doctor and patient dyad. It refers to the therapist’s feelings toward the patient, particularly those that may be unconscious and stem from unresolved relationship issues in his own childhood.

For example, does the patient somehow remind him of a mother who was insufficiently loving or too critical? Those are the sorts of feelings that can sneak up on the counselor without him fully realizing what is happening and why.

Therapists who are not aware of the shadow of their own past can be destructive toward the very people they are supposed to help. Similarly, healers who are themselves too needy or too stressed will not be at their best when someone else requires their undivided attention. Simply put, the therapist should be safe and stable — on land if the patient is at sea, so that he will not be sucked into a whirlpool of suffering and make things worse.

In other words, the therapist must be professional. And, if he finds that he is pulling too hard or being too critical, then damage to that person is likely.

How will the counselor react if he discovers that he doesn’t enjoy the patient’s company or thinks that the patient is too demanding or too dependent — too critical or cancels appointments too often — not improving fast enough? Will the therapist lash back, feel hurt, try too hard to win the patient’s approval? Under such circumstances, the patient can be harmed, even if he provoked the relationship complication himself.

Therapists are well-advised to reflect on their own feelings, work on their own unresolved issues, obtain advice or supervision about challenging therapeutic encounters, and sometimes refer the patient elsewhere; not to mention, get their own treatment if their issues are compromising professional responsibilities.

2. Therapists Who Cross Boundaries

There are two categories here. First, those therapists who mean well, but are not aware of their personal vulnerabilities and the necessity of inviolable boundaries between themselves and those they serve. These practitioners therefore fail to set firm limits on responding to the neediness (or attractiveness) of their patients. Second, there are those self-described “healers” who are frankly corrupt.

  • Let us begin with the first of these two categories. In an effort to help, some therapists simply do too much for the patient. A few examples:
  1. Discounting (or deferring) fees to the extent of feeling resentment.
  2. Agreeing to schedule appointments so early or late (or on weekends or holidays) to the point of wanting to help the patient more than the patient wants to help himself.
  3. Seeing patients outside of therapy in some sort of quasi-friendship.
  4. Giving patients a physical contact that they crave which leads to sexual contact.

I’ve known therapists who took too many calls in the middle of the night for their own good or that of their family, counselors who brought patients who were down-on-their-luck into their own homes, and those who did not (I don’t think) intend for a comforting hug to become sexual, but who found that it did.

  • In the second category, some counselors — thankfully not a great number (although one would be too many) — take advantage of the power relationship in treatment. An attractive patient can be used for sexual purposes, or for the ego-boost that such encounters can provide, without conscience; or with some sort of rationalization that it is actually therapeutic. It isn’t, no matter how much the patient provokes it, desires it, or the counselor rationalizes it. More on the problem of “dual roles” and boundary violations can be found on a previous blog post about damaged therapists: When Helping Hurts.

3. When the Patient Has Improved Somewhat and Now Has Less Motivation to Continue the Hard Work of Treatment

Naturally, when therapy is working the person who came to treatment starts to feel better. Sometimes, in fact, he feels better even when therapy isn’t doing very much. Many if not most individuals come to therapy in a crisis. Eventually such a crisis will pass or at least begin to be more tolerable, even if the treatment isn’t the reason.

Once the patient is experiencing less pain, he now has less reason to stay in therapy. The pain is what brought him in and the desire to reduce pain was the motivation to do the hard work involved in treatment. Now that there is less motivation, there just might be less cause to suffer the unsettling thoughts and feelings that therapy stirs up, not to mention its financial cost and the amount of time that it takes.

Take a look at the graph below. The red line (AB) is the pain of “life,” the distress that the patient finds outside of the doctor’s office — the upset, unhappiness, and disappointment that brought him to consult the psychologist in the first place.

The blue line (PQ) in the graph is the pain or effort required by the therapy process itself. Therapy is hard work. It is often also intense and wrenching, since it asks people to change, stop avoiding frightening situations, and face the demons that might have been covered over until the therapist worked to address them: those incompletely healed psychic wounds that are still excruciating to touch.

intersecting lines

On the left side of the graph you will note that the red line (AB) is above the blue line (PQ). That is, when the person enters treatment, the pain of the person’s life is greater than the pain caused by therapy’s effort to make life better. But, as I indicated, at some point it is likely that the pain of life is reduced, while the discomfort (effort or difficulty) of therapy remains constant or might even increase. Why increase? Usually because the most tenacious problems are the hardest for the therapist to successfully address and might include taking the patient deeper into traumatic memories that he has tried to look past.

Once the patient has improved sufficiently (where the two lines intersect at point C), he now begins to find that staying in therapy causes more discomfort than getting out of it, as indicated on the graph by the fact that the blue line is higher than the red line (on the right side of the image). When the point of intersection of these lines is passed, the patient often wants to terminate treatment. Only those with sufficient “therapeutic integrity” or courage will stay long enough to resolve the most intractable of the issues that brought them to the doctor’s office in the first place. Or, they will wait until another life crisis brings them back to finish the job.

4. Therapists Who Haven’t Done Their Homework

It has only been in the last couple of decades that research has begun to point clearly to those treatments that are most helpful for some of the conditions therapists treat. Broadly defined, for example, Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) has been demonstrated to be the “treatment of choice” for most people who suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Despite this, many therapists who claim to treat such conditions do not avail themselves of these treatment approaches or don’t familiarize themselves with the research upon which they are based.


Some weren’t trained in how to evaluate research or in how to engage in this form of therapy. Some stopped reading about progress in working with these conditions or “don’t believe” in the conceptual grounding of CBT. Some are too busy (or think they are too busy) making a living to afford the time and effort required to be up to date. Some trust their intuition to the point of rejecting anything that doesn’t match what they have come to believe is most important about how to deliver service to the people who seek them out.

The difficulty here is that therapeutic models should not be like religious beliefs, based on faith rather than evidence.

While a failure to follow “best practices” for which there is empirical evidence is not as egregious a violation of trust as sexual contact with a patient, counselors must keep learning and growing in their field of alleged expertise, just as much as they encourage their patients to grow personally.

In summary, therapists are not unique in having the capacity to do injury, but their position of authority gives them a vantage point somewhat like that which parents have with their children, making it easier to accomplish quite inadvertently.

The remedy? Obtain recommendations about counselors from those you trust. Read up on the treatment of your condition. Collaborate in your treatment, don’t just count on the therapist to do exactly what you need at every moment. Let him know about any concerns that arise. If necessary, get a second opinion. And keep your eyes open for the things I’ve described.

Not least, have the courage to stay in therapy even when the process touches on important issues that are sensitive.

As the old saying tells us, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

And, no, I don’t mean “…going out the door.”

The above photo is called U-Turn by Zipley is sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Intersecting Lines is sourced from

2 thoughts on “The Pain of Counseling: When Therapy Turns South

  1. As I was looking for your original 2012 story on the genie and the couple, the title of this posting caught my attention. The graph in #3 made sense (and now it makes sense why I felt better in the past, left therapy, and wound back at this even worsened state today). # 3 also includes the many reasons why I decided to change my pursuits from clinical psychology to a different field that doesn’t involve clinical training or therapy: I have unresolved issues in my life, I have not so good past therapy experiences (that now need to get healed), and I feared turning into a bad therapist (apart from fearing grad school itself). I do much better at desk-like jobs – always have. But I still love to study psychology, and I still plan on finding a different career path (if my health allows) that uses those variables in some way. It took me about a year (maybe even longer – since 2016) to struggle with this decision – to abandon the idea of applying to clinical psychology programs.

    My previous mentor and I had a falling out due mostly to my oversharing of my past history, though he initially welcomed it and asked that I write him emails about my past history. I asked him if it was too much, and he initially said no. That is, until I brought up the question about whether or not any of what I shared would be challenging in clinical practice. He never answered my question, gave me fewer responsibilities in the lab and more responsibilities at home, and became elusive. I worked for about 3.5 years in his lab, but all this time he wasn’t able to answer my questions. His answers to me were nearly always therapeutic, as opposed to being professional and telling me like it is. I wanted hard truths, not candycoated “we’ll see.” I felt as though my entire evaluation as a post-bacc centered on my personal accounts of my past – moreso than on the “good work” or “excellent work” (at times) in his lab. I emphasized more and more about how despite all of my pain, I was still able to do the work. I even had the discussion about switching to a different but related field within psychology. To no avail, he didn’t offer me any information or quell my anxieties about what clinical training would be like. I was left to the internet searches on clinical training, and, by mere accident or chance, your blog. I completely forgot how I found your blog, Dr. S. It was like a godsend! I started engaging more and more, and I learned to try different therapies and therapists before I found the VA. And while I struggled with my previous mentor, I was able, for the longest time, come here – first, as Peace Penguin, then now as Multinomial (which I won’t change; I’ll keep that blog up for as long as WP allows).

    But getting back to my previous mentor… Our relationship was somewhat enmeshed. I recall him telling me how he supposed that he was trying to work out “mother issues” with me. I’d ask him about his feedback on my work, and he’d reply with comments about what personal information he initially welcomed but later didn’t welcome any longer. The more elusive he became, the more I felt I needed to explain. I couldn’t stop trying to explain. He kept me on a string as I worked hard enough to hopefully win a recommendation letter. He never told me until the very end that he’d have plenty of wonderful things to say, save the emails about my personal life, for which he’d “kill my application.” Those last words saddened me. I tried to explain to him that he could have simply answered my question about clinical training early on, instead of having me get into this near year-long routine of writing him emails about my personal life and personal struggles; I felt like, all this time, he’d have some insight about what my struggles would be in clinical training. He never answered. I was the first to say to him, a year later, that I felt my sharing of my personal life was clouding his judgment about my work or potentials, but after that, he reminded me about my own emails. I wanted to leave his lab in 2017, when I knew our working relationship became stalemate, but his reply was “If you think I’m holding you back you can leave.” I knew at that point I couldn’t leave. I worked all the way through to nearly the end of 2018 when I finally quit. I didn’t care about third authorship anymore, and I asked that my name be removed from the paper and no acknowledgements be made. I worked well with the grad student, who was first author, but when my mentor said he wasn’t going to talk to either me or the grad student, I decided that it wasn’t fair to the grad student if I had stayed and he was going to ignore her work. She’s enrolled, and I was not. I was just a “volunteer” for all intents and purposes. So, I left. The grad student thanked me for my help, and I wished her well on her future endeavors. I explained to the chair that this was mostly my fault, when I attempted to have a mediation meeting with my mentor and the chair. But I was not able to say what I wanted to say, and I didn’t want my mentor to get into any trouble, so I took the blame. The only thing good that came about that meeting was when my mentor (non-apologetically) said to me in front of the chair, “You’re right. You didn’t cause my burnout.” The purpose of the mediation was for me to say why I felt need for closure before I had left the lab, and how things could have went very differently had my mentor known he could simply reach out to the chair or maybe a colleague if he felt that my sharing of my personal email was too much or what he could do to help himself with all the various projects he was working on and he had me help him to work on. I broke down on the phone with the chair a few days later, and the chair just said for me to focus on myself and not worry about the remaining work anymore in the lab. I didn’t want the paper to be held up while I worked on myself, so I had myself removed and left. Things didn’t go well, I burned a bridge, it was mostly my fault, as I should have known better, and I got the answer I needed to know that I wasn’t right for this particular field. I would rather he have said something directly to me instead of me finding out like this – nearly 4 years later… time I could have spent getting another degree or really focusing on my therapy. I can’t blame him though. I had issues, and to even have to ask about clinical training meant that I wasn’t ready (or even that I’m not fit). I can accept that truth now. I have accepted it for at least six months now, though one of my new mentors keeps encouraging me to not give up. I seriously don’t have any interest in providing therapy. I’d be retraumatized, as I’m still shaky about being a client myself. I’d be no good to helping people that way. Researching would be easier, though that comes with its own sets of challenges.

    Anyway, when I stumbled across your blog and then now, to this 2012 post, I remember a little bit about how I first found you blog and why I needed it in my life for those years. I struggled with therapy and with my mentor, I didn’t know what clinical training entailed (still don’t), but there was something about your blog and your writings that helped me to process all this – indirectly. I’ve also learned about my own character flaws, and I probably have a long way to go before discovering more of my character flaws. I may not be fit for work or grad school right now, but I’m enjoying the journey of planning, learning a la carte, and striving to get the therapy I need – beyond the intersection and into the right side of that graph. If only I had read this particular blog back in 2015, when I first started that lab, I would not have made those mistakes.

    Although you won’t be replying to these comments on your blog as often or at all, I thought I’d share my story here, just in case you get a chance to read it in the future. I do enjoy reading your posts, even without the interaction. But I will miss the interaction. I do know, however, that I have to focus my energy in therapy and in my physical healing, as opposed to using our interactions as a testing ground for me to find the courage. I found the courage already, but it was nice finding safety again through your comments. Thank you!


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