No one warns you that you may become extremely attached to your therapist; that the relationship becomes central in your life and that they have the ability to evoke a maelstrom of powerful feelings within you, whether it be love, hate, anger, longing, envy or mistrust.
I never expected that I would see mine as anything more than a professional service provider. And yet, when you consider that a therapist provides unconditional positive regard, acceptance, empathy and a bottomless well of listening, it seems inevitable that this person holds the promise of a parental (or other) relationship you never had and so desperately wanted.
In the beginning, I was extremely focused on unloading my immediate predicament and unbearable emotions onto him. This bespectacled, tame soul was nothing more than a container for my secrets and feelings. A few sessions passed and he was still listening without judgment. The therapy relationship deepened and although I had some serious attachment issues playing out, I felt we could relate and that he wouldn’t intentionally hurt me. Most psychodynamic therapists feel the therapeutic relationship is key to healing and use the dynamics that play out as clues to what you might need. It was the small things that mattered to me. When he greeted, he kept the door open for me and offered me a glass of water or coffee. One evening (we have our sessions at 6.20pm because I have a hectic job), he came out to the waiting room and put the light on for me so I wouldn’t wait in darkness. He was always very in tune with whether the room was too hot or cold and offered to switch the air-con off or hand over a blanket. The best for me was the short chats we sometimes had at the end of the session in which he would recommend cool psychology or neuroscience articles, books or TED talks. We both had a keen interest in this type of stuff and I felt important when he thought I’d like something.
I came up with the idea to create a cartoon strip on the process of therapy (similar to Therapy Tales) and made him the central character. I spent hours perfecting the drawings, colour and message and handed it over to him during a session. He seemed surprised but chuckled and put it down on the table next to him. Another time, I overcame my fears and pored my soul into a non-fiction creative piece for my Masters degree. I printed it out and handed it to him, both wanting and not wanting to hear his opinion. It became vital that I obtain his approval and find ways to please him and impress him. At this stage, it should be obvious that I was treating him like the loving, affectionate father I had always wanted. It wasn’t really about him but about the relationship framework I was carrying over from childhood.
Many hours were spent thinking about what he was like outside the therapy room, what his wishes and fears were, what he did to de-stress, whether he had people who cared about him and other personal aspects I had absolutely no idea about. It was infuriating because he revealed very little about himself and always steered the conversation back to me, which was the whole point of therapy I suppose. I experienced a feeling very similar to the pure love one has for a teacher or adoring uncle. I felt ashamed that I was thinking about him so much and that I had fantasies of bumping into him at the shops or speaking about him over coffee.
It was at this point that I did some reading to see whether this was a common occurence. I found that many people had been through the same experience as me and immediately felt a bit better. Professionals and clients alike recommended speaking to your therapist about these powerful feelings as a vehicle to understanding yourself better.
It took a lot of courage and vulnerability but I opened up to him. After listening carefully for most of the hour, he normalized the situation while gently reminding me that boundaries remained in place and that we could never be friends. I felt both relieved that he hadn’t outright rejected me but also devastated that this relationship would always be one-sided. A few months later, I was still working through some severe disappointment and had a reality check which I shared in a session.
“You are this kind to everyone,” I said softly while averting my eyes. “I thought I was special and that you had seen something in me. That you thought about me as much as I did you. I wanted to be special but this is your job. You deal in empathy and your job is to care. It’s the job, not me.”
He didn’t confirm or deny. Instead, he just waited for me to continue and asked questions to clarify certain feelings. While I knew he could feel my disappointment, there were no satisfying conclusions. It became a little easier to speak to him after that because I felt like I was seeing him at least a bit clearer. The goal of being the perfect therapy client and caring how I came across didn’t matter as much anymore.
I still care about him deeply and regard him in the same way I would a father or the older brother I always wanted but never had.
All I hope for is that he really does care about me as a person. That he won’t forget about me when our professional relationship comes to an end one day. And, maybe, that he took something valuable away too.