The return of the “perfect” therapy client


When I was in therapy with DS (Deep Soul) three years ago, one of the insights I gained about our work together was the way in which I tried to make his life easier and pleasant. This behaviour was sometimes at the expense of my own needs, desires and self-expression. I coined this persona Therapy Barbie.

She was always perfectly groomed and pleasant. Bills were always paid on time. Above all, she was considerate and wanted him as the therapist to feel her genuine care and kindness. Any powerful action or conscious thought was placed in a queue, so it could first be scrutinised for its value, effect and repercussion.

As therapy progressed, it became safe enough for the persona to relax… a little at least.

Now that I am in therapy with HH, I am aware that I am repeating this pattern. It hit me like a lightning bolt the other day. I’ll explain more in a bit, but first…

I see now that this striving for perfection originated in childhood. Taking care of others was a really good survival strategy. I perceived myself as useful and worthy if I was “doing”. How glorious to receive your parents’ love and public affection for helping them and being respectful. They glow when other parents tell them how lucky they are to have such an obedient daughter. You feel like you almost fit in. These characteristics can be positive in the right situation. 

But really, you’re just a performing seal.

Put differently, what if being the opposite is forbidden? What if voicing your opinions and trying to have your needs fulfilled is received negatively? It can easily turn toxic. What you’re left with is a little girl who has to stifle her spirit to get some needs met.  She unconsciously becomes a people-pleaser because it creates warm feelings of acceptance and competence. Maybe, just maybe, there is the belief that people will return the same selfless love one day.

Sadly, the legacy of this pattern means that I struggle to feel worthy just “being”. That is, unless I am “being a good girl”.

HH actually used this term to describe childhood me the other day. He likened little me to a “Girl Scout collecting all her badges”. I was a bit gobsmacked at the image but immediately nodded my head at his insight (yes, I know that’s what perfect clients do but this moment legit saw me bobbing my head up and down with wide eyes).

I have just been altogether well-behaved in our therapy. And it’s doing us both a disservice. My fear of bumping into his boundaries and possibly being rejected means I end up completely inhibited. There is little space left for me to do and say whatever pops up. I hold back because I don’t want to hurt him in any way (because then he might leave. Or he might see the cruel, selfish, ugly and worthless idiot that I am afraid I might truly be should everything else be stripped away). While we do good work, this pattern stops us from connecting intimately. A wall of protection will always prevent us from moving deeper. Once he truly sees me, he will better know how to assist or be present. I am aware that him seeing all my attachment behaviours won’t  lead to gratification and an ideal relationship. This is messy territory we are talking about.

If HH is the type of man I think he may be, he won’t run away. I just hope I have the braveness to keep showing up authentically once I lower the wall. 

Playful Jay

What are some of the things I have spontaneously wanted to do in this therapy relationship, but instead killed the thought before it gets me into trouble?

– Take some toys from the containers on the other side of the room so we can play a game.

– Have him listen to the pieces of orchestral/classical music that pierce my soul because I feel like they speak my inner truth.

– Email him when I need to connect or have him hold something for me until our next session (I haven’t once sent an email because of supposed therapy rules).

– Ask him personal questions if the need arises (I am so aware of not wanting to put him in an awkward position with self-disclosure. But I really think there is more space for him to be… Besides the personality traits he reveals, the only things I know are that  he sometimes struggles to be on time, he may be a smoker because there was a lighter on his desk, and he is old school because he doesn’t have a smartphone or a website).

– Challenge him if I don’t think he is “getting” me.

– Have a staring competition and see who cracks first. And then belly laugh the whole session because you’re acting silly and who says you need to be serious all the time? 

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20 thoughts on “The return of the “perfect” therapy client

  1. defraggingme says:

    Oh, God, I got to the term ‘performing seal’, and I just about fell off my unmade bed. I wrote those exact same words in my journal about a year ago in relation to M1. I didn’t want to be a ‘performing seal’ for him. I didn’t fully understand what I meant by them til your post connected those words with some other things M2 and I have been traversing of late.
    I want to read the rest of your post, but I have to leave the house (damn, the bed is cosy!) and have a life for a bit. Will be back x

    • Jay says:

      It’s such an appropriate term, isn’t it? And also ambiguous… On the one hand, it can be seen as performing to the satisfaction of others. And like a seal in a show, you are bound to follow instructions, do the same routine to ensure people clap and ultimately, remain trapped in an enclosure. You are there to please and remain under a scrutinising eye.

      But then, I also thought of a slightly different context where someone willingly performs and plays different parts, depending on how they feel and what is thought to be needed. In a more dramatic sense, to get attention.

      I suppose both boil down to a “false self” in some way.

      • defraggingme says:

        And in another way…this is what both M1 and M2 and I are exploring, from slightly different angles, it’s also about self-protection: give them what they want, focus on their needs, so that they will get what they want/need and leave us…the real us…alone…

  2. I hope you get to put a few of those desires forward to him soon. I also relate to trying to get love by doing the right thing. I do care deeply for others pain too, so often I try to do too much to try and help them, but its not always a good thing. I really enjoyed reading this.

    • Jay says:

      Thank you for your kindness. Doing the “right thing” in the hopes that you will be loved can be so very painful. Especially, when the rules keep seeming to change and end up defeated, and without needs fulfilled. It sounds like you really try to be there for others. I think the world needs more of that. As you have pointed out, it’s not always a “good thing”… to me, I think of how we first have to help ourselves/be there for ourselves, before we can be there for others. A lifetime goal! x

      • Yes, what I am really realising and was exploring in therapy today is how much I give what I longed for but never got. It stops me feeling that pain and is a kind of denial. I cried really deeply about it today. Breaks my heart to see how I tried so hard when I needed so much I never got. Being able to feel the truth is freeing, though. xo

  3. Amanda says:

    I connect so well with what you’re saying here–striving to be well-behaved and obedient in front of parents, in therapy, and trying to meet others’ needs before at the expense of my own. I wonder if that’s also because of our sensitive/empathic nature? I hope you get to step out of your “perfect” therapy client shell and test out that playful side of yours! ❤

  4. defraggingme says:

    Therapy Barbie! I love it.

    I relate to every word you say here, and in the older post you like to. I also love how brave you are in even knowing how you would like things to be different. Let alone asking for that.

    When I wrote what I wrote last year about not wanting to be a performing seal for M1, it was a recognition that I didn’t want to be his entertainment. He seemed far too engaged in our off-therapy-grid conversations. Far too amused by the things I said. At the time, I didn’t fully understand what I even meant or why it was so important to me.

    I grew up as the ‘performing seal’, the brilliant one. The gifted one. The musically talented one. The one who lit up the room and could make anyone laugh. That was the only ‘me’ my parents recognised, and they were so invested in me being brightest, best, first etc etc that that was ALL they would recognise.

    M2 said last week, when I was mulling the M1 dilemma, my role in it and my fear (terror) of people getting over attached to me “you make them feel good about themselves. You make them laugh and feel special, and they think it’s about THEM, but really, you’re just appeasing them so they will go away and leave you alone, or not hurt you.”

    It put the whole thing into a new light.

    As for your rule-breaking, bring it on. Maybe we should choose a rule-a-week we are going to break and get accountable.

    • Jay says:

      Ahhh, yes, thank you for the context. I felt sad reading the insight about appeasing others so they will not hurt you. So much pain there.

      What rule would you like to break this week? I am in 🙂

      • defraggingme says:

        Ok. Deep breath. 2 rules (two therapists)
        1) I will see M2 in the flesh, not just on a computer screen. Rule is: stay safe with physical separation.
        2) M1…OMG. Last week, he calmly and casually mentioned that ‘sex is in the room with us’ or some such thing. And ‘that’s ok. I’m ok with it. We’re not going to act on it, but it’s here, now.’ It was in response to something I had raised. Anyway: I would like to break the rule that says it is too shameful to talk about my sexual wants, needs, and desires, and that I must run a mile from anyone who raises them (overtly or covertly) in relation to me. I want to look him straight in the eye and say: ‘let’s pick up where we left off last week, about that.’

      • Jay says:

        I am in awe of your bravery at joining me in rule-breaking 🙂 As long as we are mindful to not create another rule about having to break these rules (in other words, let’s try to be gentle with ourselves if it takes a while to get right, or doesn’t go quite as planned).

        OMG at the sex thing. The way you wrote it had me imagining the exact moment in your therapy room… Obviously I don’t have his exact tone of voice and I am left imagining him saying it very seriously. Which would have left me letting out a very nervous laugh or dying inside at not knowing how to respond. The way his words are written here, it’s like he’s announcing that there is a dangerous creature in the room but we’re just going to keep calm and not run or panic. How amazing to actually meet him at this point without a smidgeon of shame. To be like “yup. Sex is here. Now, let’s pour another cup of tea and get chatting about it”. One day :-/

      • defraggingme says:

        Yeah: it was weirdly ok. It was kind of in the style of ‘look, we’re in mother transference territory here’ or, as I have often thought but not said out loud: exT is in the room with us.

        It wouldn’t have ok been if we’d still been in the chatty, friendly (flirty?) phase. Maybe that’s part of why I’ve been pushing him so hard to just calm the f*** down and be a therapist.

        I was really surprised at how un-triggered I was: if somebody told me he was going to say those words and I would be just fine, I wouldn’t have believed them In a million years. Will update on M2 later…

      • defraggingme says:

        1) I will see M2 in the flesh, not just on a computer screen. Rule is: stay safe with physical separation

        I saw him. It was weird – we are usually virtual. But very salient. My day/week had a lot of past echos in it. M2 and I do a very somatic style of therapy, like, ‘I can see you clenching your fists’ or ‘you’re sighing a lot’. So being in the same room interestingly more intense.

        But: I trusted. And I stayed. Well, not entirely. I went all the way inside of myself, like I was an ice cave. But I came back again and reconnected. So I feel…rule definitely broken.

      • Jay says:

        Thanks for sharing. Sounds very intense.

        I would love to hear the setup and history between you and M2 so I have the full context here. I want to understand. Sadly only been following your blog for a short while.

        Obviously, when you have time and if it’s not triggering!

  5. Therapy Barbie. I think I remember her. She’s a lot like the part of me I call Ms. Perfect. I honestly think that if in childhood we had to be good, perfect and performing well, it is an easy pattern to fall into in all of our relationships. The fact that you are even beginning to talk about this with HH is very brave. Maybe one day soon, you will let the playful side of you out. 💟

  6. Omg I could have written this!! Have you read the article WBTC? Worlds best therapy client? That’s ya! X

  7. Pps, the good girl act did begin the lessen the longer and more I trusted T. She upset me so much once that I ended up having an actual argument with her where I said very teen like things like “what’s the point? You won’t listen anyway” and stared at the floor…. I was rather aggressive that session. It’s only happened once, but I did it…. oh and I’ve once emailed to tell her that I think she’s purposely holding me back to have some weird control over me (LOL! Transference)… both times she congratulated me on finding my voice! X

    • Jay says:

      Thanks for making me smile 😁 I think I have a lot of teen responses in my head which only stay inside because the fear of punishment is too visceral. But they are going to come out sooner or later! As for conspiracy theories, a part of me believed that HH called me the wrong name on purpose so I would finally show anger/have a voice. He obviously said nothing when I shared that theory with him today! X

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