The “perfect” therapy client

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Sitting on the therapy couch activates intense anxiety and I always feel like I am display, on show. For a naturally guarded and private person, it makes sense that speaking about myself would seem scary and revealing. For that hour, my muscles stiffen. I am hyper-aware of how I am being perceived. Extended silences make me even more anxious. Although the silence is intended to act as a loving holding space, it feels reproachful.

I specialise in past tense, present tense and future tense…

This tension in the therapy room is something I have often explored with DS (my therapist Deep Soul). Perhaps it’s because therapy is a place where you cannot hide. You can try to pretend with words but your body language will deceive you. It’s a space where shame is under the full glare of the therapist’s gaze. It’s a place where, try as you might, your less desirable side will be exposed and scrutinised, albeit with kind intention.

These feelings have very little to do with DS and everything to do with what I am bringing to the room. In one session, we discussed how important it was for me to be the “perfect” therapy client. Maybe you’d find some of this familiar…

– You’re super accommodating when your therapist announces last-minute changes.

– You always make sure you are early or on time for appointments.

– You ensure you look and smell good, even if you’ve just come from a work day where you were stuck in a cubicle of sweating Jabba the Hutts and dealt with people who make teeth-gnashing Rottweilers look more approachable.

– You politely greet your therapist and ask how they are.

– You listen carefully to each and every insight because it’s what you “should” do, even when you really don’t feel up to it in the moment.

– You dig a hole to China trying to explore “how you are feeling” because you think an answer will satisfy them.

– You consider the burden and impact your words and actions will have on your therapist and the relationship.

– Even if your therapist is not the homework kind (like DS), you avidly Google topics discussed in the session, make mental notes and basically create your own detailed homework schedule.

– You don’t leave all your crumpled tissues on the couch. You place them in the bin before you leave.

– You make sure you pay your therapist beforehand, like clockwork and without fail.

Trying to be perfectly imperfect…

What may become clear is that not all of these behaviours are particularly helpful to the client. Theoretically, part of the therapist’s job is to give up their needs and life for you in the paid hour. I say theoretically because it’s easier said than done. The hour becomes a space in the day where you can let the mask slip. Trying to cut out these tendencies can also be potentially unhelpful. I told DS one day that I “shouldn’t” be so hard on myself and expect to be perfect at all times. Basically, I was again trying to be the perfect therapy client by trying to force myself to be fixed, simply by stipulating what I could and couldn’t do. So many rules!

It’s easy to say that self-compassion is what is needed in this somewhat confusing healing process. I personally think that’s a harder tool to grab if you struggle with low self-esteem. Someone who thinks they are a piece of crap may not feel they deserve to cut themselves a break. This is probably where your therapist’s unending empathy becomes an important catalyst for change.

Do you stock Therapy Client Barbie?

Obviously, there are very blissful times when their attunement is so intense that it uncoils the springs in our bodies and we exhale in relief. The distance between the couch and the therapist’s chair is greatly reduced when DS tunes in like a curious detective fiddling with the dial of a radio, trying to cut through the fuzziness until he’s found a crystal-clear channel. It’s like time stops. We revel in this comforting moment together and our heartstrings pluck in perfect harmony.

So, as you can see, feeling safe and trusting enough to “not be perfect” is one of my own therapy challenges. One day it will eventually be okay to not be perfect in therapy. And hopefully, that will extend to life. Until then, feel free to share “perfect client” moments so we can cut through any ย unnecessary shame.

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20 thoughts on “The “perfect” therapy client

  1. Dear Jay,
    You’ve done it again! I love the Barbie image – I got a good giggle out of it!!

    I know firsthand what you mean. I’m amazed at how I’ll save my best outfit, jewelry, and expensive shampoo for the day of my dream analysis appointment.

    I’ll tell you what though, it was such a freeing moment when I finally decided to show up barefoot. Such a symbolic shift!! I was tired of the perfect hair-do, and did my usual pre-appointment walk in the park, kicking off my shoes and letting the grass tickle my toes. At the end of the walk, I decided, you know what? I’m not putting my shoes back on!! ๐Ÿ™‚

    I walked in barefoot to my dream appointment and she definitely appeared taken aback, but quite honestly, I am just more myself barefoot.

    I haven’t worn shoes there since ๐Ÿ™‚

    Love and Hugs,
    Amanda

    • Jay says:

      Thanks for your thoughts and outpouring of enthusiasm Amanda!

      The barefoot transformation sounds powerful and very brave. Would have loved to have seen your dream analyst’s face at the sight of a very happy, chilled and somewhat dirty you ๐Ÿ™‚

      There is something quite vulnerable and humble about bare feet, isn’t there? The most well known example of this is when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. I think it has a lot to do with grounding yourself and getting in contact with the elements that we are comprised of. Feet are fascinating, to be honest. Note how I didn’t say pretty ๐Ÿ˜‰ They are a catalogue of our journeys on this planet.

      Peace and hugs A!

      • LoL Luckily I live in Hippie Asheville – home of lots of Jungians and ever more barefoot people!! โค

        Love the Jesus reference – your mind weaves connections in such beautiful ways.

  2. velvetmp says:

    Love this. And thanks for including to please ” remember your check book”
    I often want to say to my clients ” when you go to the grocery store do you say
    ” hey Im sorry forgot my checkbook” and expect to take your groceries home?
    Most all my people are pretty good about paying me at the start or end of the session. There are of course the ones that chronically ” forget”. More grist for processing. Thanks Jay ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Jay says:

      Had to laugh at your lovely comment. I think many therapists sing: “Bills, bills, bills”! As you say, definitely grist for processing. I’ve read a few articles about reasons for clients not paying and it definitely says a lot about attitudes and assumptions. What I find most interesting is when a very “good client” suddenly stops paying their bills. What has shifted in the therapy relationship or in their life (beside obvious financial difficulty) that causes this… I think therapists deserve medals!

  3. Absolutely loved this post, especially this line: “You ensure you look and smell good, even if youโ€™ve just come from a work day where you were stuck in a cubicle of sweating Jabba the Hutts and dealt with people who make teeth-gnashing Rottweilers look more approachable.” Wherever do you work?!

    I too go the extra mile to look and smell good and then wonder what my therapist thinks. Does he find me attractive? Can he smell my perfume? does it drive him a little wild? And then I worry that I’m trying too hard. It’s a tough balancing act, looking nice, but not too nice, as if he didn’t notice that when I first came in I wore wide legged trousers, a button down collared shirt and flats and then within weeks I started wearing heels, jewelry, makeup and perfume. I mean, who am I kidding?

    Lately, I lie to myself about it. I think, “I’ll wear my gym clothes and flip flops this time, so he can see that we’ve made progress.” Then I choose my best (and tightest) Lululemon workout clothes and realize I’ve still got a ways to go.

    I wish more therapists were willing to blog and reveal themselves. I would kill to know how their client’s affect them or if they just laugh at our pathetic attempts and making them feel something. On that note, if you know of any such blogs, please do share that info. Did you ever get through Yalom’s book? He is exceptionally honest. It’s what I love best about his books.

    Sending love and fortitude your way! -SFL

    • Jay says:

      Thank you for your amazing comment. So glad to know I am not the only one going through this. I almost choked with laughter when you described putting on your sexiest gym clothes. Casual, hot and glowing never looked so good!

      I also wish more therapists blogged… I am always looking to get into their heads and see what goes on there! I think it would be hilarious to find out how they are in “real” life with their lovers and family. I’m sure many of them have the same struggles we do. Relationships are not easy and being a therapist doesn’t grant you immunity ๐Ÿ™‚

      Thanks again for recommending Yalom. Hope you enjoyed Grosz as much as I think you did. It’s been hectically busy and I haven’t gone to the library yet to check if they Yalom’s books. I have only read online previews and watched a few youtube videos.

      Sending that love and fortitude right back at ya x

    • “then I choose my best (and tightest) Lululemon workout clothes” LoLoLoL
      Funniest comment I have seen in awhile!! Awesome!

    • litebeing says:

      I am new to this blog and adore the honesty. I am a therapist with a blog here at WP, but I don’t blog much about therapy. Yalom is a master, I agree with you. What I would say is I don’t care what you wear or smell unless you reek of cigarettes ๐Ÿ™‚ I do like you to be on time and to pay on time. Simple courtesy and respect. I am much more concerned with a client’s self-assessment than their efforts to please me. The simple truth is therapists are people and so much gets projected onto the helper. I also see it from both angles as I have been a client off and on throughout my life.

      peace,
      litebeing

      • Jay says:

        Lovely to hear insights from the “other side of the couch”. Any specific reason why you choose not to blog too much about therapy? I would imagine confidentiality might be one and perhaps needing a break from your work!

      • litebeing says:

        thanks! One reason is confidentiality and another is that my blog has another focus. But I do blog about mental health from time to time.

  4. ptero9 says:

    Hi Jay,

    Catching up on reading your wonderful blog. I love this post!

    I too, was the perfect client! Funny how so many of us can relate to that. I am still somewhat driven to perfection, but my sense of self has so radically changed that the burden of feeling that it’s “all me” or all mine is not there anymore.

    I can’t recall where or when the shift happened, but at some point my fear of disappointing others or losing them because I really show up has left me. Now that’s an abandonment I can live with!

    Great blog and lovely conversation!
    Debra

    • litebeing says:

      funny seeing you here. I just found Jay today after he followed me and I love his blog. Damn where are these perfect clients,lol! Maybe I will have to relocate ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Jay says:

        Now I’m having a good giggle litebeing… I’m actually female! But It’s an easy mistake to make. I understand that my blogging name “Jay” could be male or female. At least now I know I can appeal to both genders ๐Ÿ˜‰

      • litebeing says:

        Sorry about that. I guess the ballerina gravatar did not clue me in:)

  5. Jay says:

    You are really too kind Debra! I am totally in awe of that kind of positive abandonment. Long may it live! ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. litebeing says:

    I applaud your honesty Jay. How refreshing! What I glean from your post is that you possess many of the qualities that are necessary to be a competent therapist. Sensitivity and empathy are essential ingredients that cannot be taught in grad. school.

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