Why You Want “More” From Your Therapist (and Why He Can’t Give It)


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You think of your therapist as a special person, at least some of you do. His kindness and attention can not only generate gratitude, but affection. You are aware of his boundaries and you can be frustrated by a professional stance limiting the kind of contact you’d like: a favored position, not someone put into a time slot with a financial transaction attached.  Perhaps, however, there is more to this than an ethical code. Why might his viewpoint as a therapist make what you want difficult to obtain? And, no, I’m not talking about sex.

Consider the role you play and the role he plays. You are likely talking about emotionally charged issues. Your feelings are front and center. His are not. Indeed, he is thinking about what you are feeling and doing.

You come to the clinician because of problems on which you are intensely focused. Thus, you are internally directed to your issues. The counselor, on the other hand, is not attending to his concerns, but to yours. He is looking outward, you are looking inward.

The counselor is not exposed. While you can find out some things about him, the treatment is not about him. You do not keep his secrets, but he wants to keep yours. You are encouraged to open yourself in order to heal. He is closed, assuming a relative position of safety and authority no matter how much he tries to be gentle and helpful.

Your session is of singular importance to you. It is one of many sessions for him, focused on you and a full complement of other patients. That makes him more important to you than you are to him. It does not mean he is indifferent to you. The doctor may well have tender feelings for you and enjoy your company, care genuinely, and approach you somewhat differently from the way he approaches others. Still, he is your only therapist, while you are not his only patient.

The counselor spends a limited time with you. He will then meet with someone else and switch his concern to the newly arrived individual. In a sense, however much he is concentrating on you while you are with him, he must develop an ability not only to be “in the moment” with you, but switch to another person after a brief interval. You do not switch. When you leave, your concern is still on yourself and the relationship with the therapist. A mental health professional is like an athlete in this way. After the game is over, he quickly puts the contest behind him so he is able to bring all his skill and attention to the next game.

To the extent that the therapist makes himself a blank slate and reveals little about his life, it is thought you will play out your emotional issues in the form of transference: experiencing him, to some degree, as similar to an important person or persons in your life, especially if your parental relationships are unresolved. Your transference toward him provides important material which he will help you work through. In doing so, you cut the trip wires of the past that continue to harm you in the present.

The counselor, of course, can also have countertransference toward you: experiencing you and reacting to you as if you are someone about whom he has unresolved feelings. However, to the extent he gets to understand the intimate details of your life, he is likely to be less prone to such emotions than you are in response to him. You are not a blank slate to the therapist. Thus, his likelihood of projecting his issues on you is at least a bit less probable.

Now let’s switch focus. Imagine what therapy would be like if these conditions were not typical of a therapeutic interaction. In which case:

  • The therapist would reveal as many of his issues as you do of yours.
  • He would be focused on himself as much as on you.
  • He would have less control over his emotions in session.
  • You might come to know disqualifying things about him.
  • The counselor might break down in session when you are overwrought or because of his own life problems outside of the office.
  • Consolation from you may well be required to stabilize him.
  • When you are in session he could be preoccupied with the last patient he saw before you.
  • Your relationship to him would approximate the kinds of contact you have with friends and co-workers.

I wrote this essay for the purpose of helping you understand a therapist’s perspective, his limitations, and his boundaries. Without those walls, little benefit comes from treatment. This is not to say your therapist doesn’t care about you. It is to say his care must remain within limits. In the absence of those limits, no matter how much you believe you’d like something more, counseling leads to something less.

Sometimes in life we do not know what is best for us. Then we are lucky — very, very lucky — that our wishes are not granted.

The photo of the 45 rpm disc was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

14 thoughts on “Why You Want “More” From Your Therapist (and Why He Can’t Give It)

  1. Ugh … yes, I still platonically love my therapist, so this reminder helpful. Although, the codependent in me thinks I wouldn’t mind if he showed emotion & worry & concern & thinks that I wouldn’t mind consoling him & being there for him. It still comes down to me wanting to be “special enough” to be invited inside his world in a personal level.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. drgeraldstein

    Thank you for commenting, Tina. One might say that half of life is trying to get what we want, and the other half is trying to come to terms with what we fail to get. That said, it can still be pretty good and we can get acknowledged, if not by everyone. Take care.

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  3. Yeh its so hard that no matter how much you understand the boundaries and limitations when a perceived ‘lack of care’ is shown by the therapist or even when you see his next patient in the waiting room, there is always feelings of hurt and jealousy lurking inside with a bit of a sting in its bite. So to see the other side and what a therapist has to achieve in his day of work its no wonder he would go home and not want to even think about his patients. Dealing with a day full of emotional intensity would drain anyone, one hour is enough for me. Another helpful but painful reminder.

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  4. I always enjoy reading your posts about the relationship between the therapist and client. Hearing your perspective from the other side is really helpful. I just wish my feelings could stay in sync with what I can logically understand.

    Liked by 1 person

    • drgeraldstein

      Like Claire, you make a good point, Brenda: the difference between understanding a thing and feeling it. I wouldn’t be surprised if you get these more in sync over time. Thanks for your comment.

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  5. Many years ago I went to a therapist who was enormously helpful. Then, years later, under entirely different circumstances I met him at a dinner party. All of the feelings of his importance to me bubbled up. Your blog describes this perfectly. Also in life we meet people who, in a moment of concern or well-timed advice, spark a change in course or a new way of being. They may not even know how much it meant, but you remember them always.

    Liked by 1 person

    • drgeraldstein

      Indeed, as you suggest, Joan, everyone probably has been touched by someone who has little or no recollection of us. And, more than likely, there are people who remember us in this way, and of whom we have minimal current awareness.

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  6. How can you differentiate between genuine feelings for the person you are working with and feelings due to transference/countertransference? “Never say never”, right? So I would guess there have to be some instances when the feelings experienced in therapy are the real thing, not the smoke and mirrors of transference/countertransference. Taking it a step further, don’t most feelings of love have some aspect of one person idealizing another, perceiving them to be somewhat better than they really are, even in non-therapy relationships? How can you definitively tell the difference between the two? I understand the concept of the “blank-slate” status of some (not all) therapists and that the client usually only sees the one side, the good side, and not the everyday version. However, if the therapist is himself and not some actor pretending to be all caring, knowing and concerned, then their true character does come through, most especially after years of sitting across from each other.

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    • drgeraldstein

      Excellent question. (Isn’t that what politicians say when they are thinking, “oh, crap”?). Short answer: to some degree you can’t tell the difference between his real character and transference — the exact point where one becomes the other. Yes, love involves idealization, but it is an idealization where (at least after a while) you are looking past or accepting the individual’s limitations, rather than in therapy, where you aren’t permitted to see all of them. That doesn’t mean a therapist can’t be a good person. Still, none of us are gods or anything close. In a sense, we are part phantoms, apparitions, objects of mistaken identity, and wish-fulfillments; and part real. Thanks, seriously, for the excellent question.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you very much for the article and all the comments above. I feel all the feelings mentioned above so realistically. It helps me to open my mind and see the other side of relation with my doctor. I have been telling myself not being a fool but i can’t stop imaging and wishing to be with him. My doctor is a good doctor and he is very professional. After reading all above, at least i can somehow redirect my obsessed thoughts and focus on my own issues. Thank you all.

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    • Much appreciated, Aimee. Your do not sound like a fool. My next post will be on a different kind of hope and preoccupation — that which can occur when your heart is broken. Stay tuned!

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