Being Excluded From Your Therapist’s Life: Reasons You Haven’t Heard Before


We’ve all had idols. Perhaps a sports hero, an older sibling, a teacher, or — God help you — your therapist. In the latter case, authorities tell you why a relationship outside the office is not permitted:

  • The shrink might exploit you.
  • Progress would be hindered if your therapist occupied the dual role of therapist and friend.
  • A healer needs downtime.
  • Personal information about the counselor complicates the transference relationship: the extent to which your issues will play out in session.
  • The therapist would be of little help if he feels too much of your pain, as he will if you become more than a patient — an important part of his life outside.
  • The ethical guidelines of the therapist’s profession prohibit intimacy.

Much of this sounds unfair and unfortunate to the patient, however true. Many believe they would benefit by having MORE of the therapist. Jealousy of those who claim more of him isn’t unusual. Additionally, the imbalance of the relationship is troubling. You pay the doctor, but hear little personal about him. The shrink takes your cash and wants to be told everything about you. I’ll try to shine a different light on this subject:

  1. Therapists are human. No one who admires, say, John Hamm or Scarlett Johansson, imagines them on the potty. At least, I hope not. Neither do those who esteem their psychoanalyst hold an image in mind of this particular pose. We stand on feet of clay and need to clip the toenails on those feet. In real life, we get bored, say the wrong thing, lose patience, etc. We are not always sensitive and sometimes we are self-serving. You understand this in the abstract, but don’t witness it. It’s not pretty.
  2. Think about the best dinner you ever had. Now consider having the same meal morning and night. Would you enjoy the food as much? Too much familiarity with anything dulls the experience. To some extent, your therapist’s time is precious because it is in short supply. You visit him once or perhaps twice a week while watching a rapidly advancing clock. Were you to win more access to him, you’d find the contact less special. Even for those psychologists who are terrific human beings, familiarity breeds routine. Should you disbelieve this, I can refer you to my wife and children. They love me like crazy, but also recognize me as the sweaty guy who doesn’t enjoy being disturbed while I’m riding my exercycle or lifting weights.
  3. Many a client needs, at least for a time, to believe we are incredibly special — gifted to heal the hopeless. The illusion of magic works for the patient and is created by the patient. He must think of the counselor as a paragon of virtue and virtuosity. The halo placed atop the psychologist’s head is an imaginative construction of the client, possible because he lacks a detailed vision of who the therapist is. Only with this undeserved enhancement of his benefactor can the man on the couch stand up to walk the tight rope therapy requires: exposing his secrets, tolerating emotional pain, and taking behavioral risks.  Should he see behind the shrink’s professional mask, he might hesitate. The worse for him.
  4. Because you have limited contact with us, we can make the time special for you. The counselor’s job is to invest every bit of his knowledge and concentration on you for the better part of an hour. He does not regularly do this at home, with his friends, on vacation or at the movies. He performs his wizardry for a small number of people. That is, an expert counselor does this for all his clients and only his clients. He tries to make you his exclusive focus every second of the 50-minute hour. Indeed, the shrink can only accomplish this because the time is short. You might think you would accept a lower-intensity version of the doctor, but I doubt it. And you shouldn’t accept such a thing if you already do. Patients receive the best of us in a very special way. Yes, we offer love and more hours of contact to those outside the office. You, however, and others who sit where you sit, get something no one else gets: the healing art.

I doubt that anything written above will dim your desire — cause you to give up what some of you want or think would please you: a chunk of the doctor’s real life. As I’ve said, in some ways it might be best that you don’t relinquish this wish. Still, occasionally a therapist, like a parent, is right when he says, “I’m doing this — keeping these limits — for your own good.” Granted, the frustration may persist. I hope, however, you recognize an element of necessity in your dilemma.

A good life requires our effort to accept those things we cannot change. However disappointing, no one gets everything he wants. The only exception is a kid in a candy store, and he leaves the sweet shop with an upset stomach.

A follow-up to this post can be found here: How would a Friendship with your Therapist Work?

I just came upon this NY Times column adding still one more perspective on therapist boundaries:

The Ethiopian Stop Sign is the work of Gigillo83 and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.