Bad Therapy: When Firing Your Therapist Is Therapeutic

Bad Therapy: When Firing Your Therapist Is Therapeutic

by Charlotte Fox Weber
Therapist Charlotte Fox Weber describes an agonizing 5-year therapy as the client of a cold and withholding therapist, and the lessons she learned about what NOT to do with her own clients.

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The Nail Biting Maternal Yes Woman

Throughout my training as a psychotherapist, I heard tales of blatantly bad therapy: therapists and clients trespassing boundaries wildly and dangerously, sleeping together, or behaving in ways that were clearly destructive.

I was never taught how to recognize and deal with therapy that was more subtly bad.

I have been in psychotherapy at various times throughout my life, and I must acknowledge that I have always felt like a difficult client. I am a passionate and devoted psychotherapist, but I have been a reluctant, suspicious client. I know this is a deficit.
I was never taught how to recognize and deal with therapy that was more subtly bad.
I recognize how crucial it is for me as a therapist to see my own blind spots. Throughout the years of working with different therapists, I’ve never really loved being in therapy. But oh, I would love to meet the right therapist for me, if there is one out there, and experience meaningful, utterly significant therapy. At times, I feel bad that I am offering a process in which I haven’t wholeheartedly engaged from the other side.

Part of what has made me feel difficult as a client has been my intense aversion to being told what to do—I don’t like feeling forced into anything I haven’t chosen freely. I felt trapped and pressured when I was six years old and taken to see a therapist because I had anxiety about having a small heart operation. Therapy felt like a punishment; I missed birthday parties and play dates and instead spent hours feeling judged by a very earnest and unrelatable man for having “worries,” as he put it. My “worries” had gotten me in trouble!

The more I complained about therapy, the more my parents insisted I continue with him. I remember clearly when I figured out that if I pretended not to be worried about things, not to show my emotions too strongly, and not to show that I cared one way or another about going to therapy, I would be better off. Sure enough, my show of insouciance succeeded. Pretending to be indifferent released me. When my parents and the therapist told me I could now stop treatment, I didn’t dare show my sense of joy or liberation.

I always questioned the quality of therapists I saw briefly at various times in my teenage years and early twenties. When I moved from New York to London, I was happy to leave a therapist who emailed me after her hysterectomy to request that I purchase and send her a specific type of fudge that could only be found in Covent Garden. The first therapist I saw in London increased her fees significantly without telling me. I only discovered the price hike in the invoice she sent me after two months of weekly sessions.

For the first two years of my clinical training, I had an unbelievably gentle, humanistic therapist. She was sweet and supportive and I cried and offered up morsels of vulnerability and she praised me relentlessly. It was all unconditional positive regard. She was the boring, uncritical motherly type in contrast to my own, and her niceness felt soothing until her flattery struck me as hollow. I showed up for a session on a rainy morning and she applauded me for making it to the session, given the pouring rain.
She said yes to everything I said, praising me for simply existing, bit her nails compulsively, and never challenged me.
She said yes to everything I said, praising me for simply existing, bit her nails compulsively, and never challenged me. I disqualified her harshly for these things. It felt like skiing the bunny hill. I wanted to develop, to grow, to be stretched!

When I finally expressed my discontent with our work together, and said I wanted to be challenged more, she suggested that I consider the challenge of not being challenged. I was outraged by her inadequate response to my attack, and I left abruptly and felt guilty afterwards. I was in my mid-twenties and I was flighty, cocky and insecure. I sometimes recognize versions of this sort of behavior in my practice—the angsty twenty-somethings who start off treatment showing receptivity and curiosity about themselves; they think they’re psychologically-minded and ready and willing to do the work. They want to please, and they agree to a weekly time, to the financial and emotional commitment, to the whole thing, and then they reveal their ambivalence, missing scheduled appointments, claiming not to have realized that the following session was arranged for the agreed time.

I understand this combination of inconsiderateness and desperation to please. So in this sense, my experience of being a bad client has expanded my repertoire of understanding as a therapist. I recently emailed this therapist to acknowledge and apologize for my abrupt departure all those years ago. She wrote back a warm and friendly email.

The Bad Referral

After leaving the Nail Biting Maternal Yes Woman, I had to find a new therapist. While I understand the rationale requiring weekly psychotherapy as part of training (and I agree with it—of course we need to experience therapy to become therapists!) I resented feeling forced to find a new therapist quickly. After meeting with a couple of different therapists, I decided to work with E. She had been highly recommended by a beloved lecturer of mine. It’s important to remember that wonderful mentors can recommend therapists who aren’t wonderful at all. It happens, and it may have contributed to my reluctance to acknowledge the flaws in the therapy.

E. seemed smart, rigorous, and her approach was intellectually appealing to me—relational, attachment-based therapy with a psychodynamic conceptualization of development mixed with gestalt elements.
It’s important to remember that wonderful mentors can recommend therapists who aren’t wonderful at all.
I found her manner a little austere, but I assumed I was projecting and I thought her briskness might mean she’d challenge me and not just agree with everything I said. I also assumed that there were certain cultural factors at play—she was British and I was American (though I’d spent the last decade living in the UK). It was typical for an emotionally-forthcoming American to feel that English people could seem remote. I told myself I had to respect her minimal way of showing feelings.

As months and then years passed, E. continued to seem chilly, but my strong sense of being a difficult client left me not trusting my judgment of our therapy for a long time. I assumed I was impossible to please, so the fact that E. and I didn’t form a rapport didn’t set off alarm bells. I didn’t think I could do better, and I thought the problem was with me, not her. I think I displayed a fearful avoidant attachment style in my therapy with E. I wanted very much to connect and express my needs, but I didn’t think my needs could be met, so I tried to stay away from too much exposure or vulnerability.

I told myself I had to respect her minimal way of showing feelings.
As time went on, I struggled to trust E., both in concrete ways and in a larger sense. I felt paranoid that E. would gossip about me with my supervisors and lecturers, whom she knew from her teaching days. She felt like an authority figure who could get me in trouble. I didn’t want her to see the parts of myself I disliked.

"Reassurance is Never Reassuring"

These anxieties were all pretty routine for a trainee psychotherapist in psychotherapy. What wasn’t as standard was my mistrust of her because of my overriding sense of her aversion to me. I felt as if what she refused to say in words, she acted out in other ways, such as what she displayed in her facial expressions—she’d wince when I told stories about myself, and she’d frown, and she’d look at me as though disgusted. Was I absolutely nuts to think I detected these feelings?

I voiced my fears to her and she neither confirmed nor contradicted them. I think I wanted her to reassure me. I asked for this once. “Reassurance is never reassuring,” she quipped. Oh, but sometimes it simply is. Especially when it comes to something as vital to the work as the therapeutic relationship. At least probe my anxious concerns, be curious about me and ask me to go deeper, explore further. She wouldn’t speak about these things.
The more she withheld, the more emotionally hungry I became.
The more she withheld, the more emotionally hungry I became.

The mutual mistrust played out around money. Her invoices frequently billed me for extra sessions we had never scheduled. The first time she overcharged me, I was embarrassed. I pointed out the overcharge with a degree of shame, and only after I’d meticulously confirmed in my head beforehand that the mistake was hers. She argued and insisted the bill was correct until finally she saw that she’d charged me for two extra sessions on days when she’d been away. Most of her invoices contained extra charges. Could I just pay each week, I asked. Or pay the set amount, knowing what I owed? No, this was me trying to break the frame, wanting special treatment, not knowing how to play by the rules.

When I pointed out the routine overcharges, she said I must always check her calculations and insisted it meant nothing. But her mathematical mistakes only ever overcharged me—the inaccuracies never went the other way. At the end of every month, I would open her invoice knowing I had to scan and detect the overcharge and go back to her and point out a mistake. Did a part of me delight in finding fault with her, knowing she was in the wrong? Sure. Especially given her absolute insistence on analytic neutrality when it suited her, her financial distortions seemed like frame deviations on her part. But any delight I felt in catching her errors was overshadowed by the feeling of chaos and unease these mistakes brought up for me. She was supposed to be the adult in the situation, yet it was up to me to fix the mistakes, and she didn’t acknowledge the burden.

Money in our work felt personal (it often is, of course). I paid her in cash; she counted every bill in front of me, licking the tips of her fingers to shuffle through each note. Her overcharging and her counting each note (I always paid the correct amount—not once, in all the years of working together, did she discover I had stiffed her, but the suspicion never lifted) wasn’t open for exploration, even though I felt convinced that the repeated overcharging revealed her wish to get more money for having to deal with me.

In my practice, I have made occasional mistakes with invoices, once under-charging (I’d forgotten about an extra session and the client graciously pointed this out) and recently, charging for a cancelled session that I had agreed I wouldn’t charge for. In both cases, I acknowledged my mistakes and gave the clients room to air their grievances or feelings of any sort. I praised them for pointing out my errors, and invited them to express whatever my mistakes might have evoked. Perhaps I overcorrect, but in these small ways, I attempt to repair some of my personal therapy wounds by trying to do better with my own clients. I try to handle my mess-ups honestly and thoughtfully. I know how much a therapist’s righteousness can hurt.

In the beginning phase of therapy with E., I found myself chatting about issues that were somewhat relevant to my life without being really pithy and significant. This was my classic resistant manner of seeming open and self-revealing but in a safe enough, limited way. Except that my carefully constructed issues were actually significant for me, and I longed for E. to understand me and help me understand myself.

Heaps of Rubbish

When moving into a flat with my future husband, I described the difficult process of having to get rid of clutter and only keep the clothes and things I really wanted. E, who ordinarily said very little, expressed concern that I not let my partner throw out anything I might want to hold onto.

Piles and heaps of rubbish lined the hallway. I could see stacks and stacks of boxes of newspapers in the window of the living room as well as the room above the consulting room.
“What if one day you realize you wish you still had the old chair you got rid of?” she asked. But the chair was broken and wobbled and I didn’t like it much anyway. I was okay with not keeping the chair. Why wasn’t she? I struggled with her insistence because I needed to consolidate and clear space and get rid of things I didn’t need. I felt discouraged from letting go of things, which was an issue that had troubled me and which I was trying to overcome.

Only two months into our work, E. had announced that she would be moving her practice to the other side of London. What had been a three-minute walk door to door would now be a sixty-minute commute on the underground. I agreed to make this move, but resented it. I wasn’t delighted with our work together but I felt committed and somehow obligated to make the move to the new location. She wouldn’t tell me if this new address was her home or a separate consulting space. I figured out quickly when I showed up for our first session in the new location that it was where she lived. And I discovered the moment I arrived that she was a hoarder.

Piles and heaps of rubbish lined the hallway. I could see stacks and stacks of boxes of newspapers in the window of the living room as well as the room above the consulting room. There were mountains of post that made it difficult to fully open the front door, and there were unopened letters marked URGENT underneath old mugs and broken china. There was a horrendous odor of detritus and filth and I don’t know what.

Suddenly, E.’s urging me to hold onto things made sense. I didn’t acknowledge the piles of stuff that invaded the therapeutic space because it simply didn’t feel right. I didn’t want to embarrass her, or bother her, or seem critical, even though of course I felt all sorts of things I wish I had been able to express. So we pretended the stuff wasn’t there.

When I asked if I could charge my phone one day, E. insisted on a very lengthy interpretation of my need to get energy from her.
When I asked if I could charge my phone one day, E. insisted on a very lengthy interpretation of my need to get energy from her. It didn’t match my sense that she had very little energy to offer me, but I suppose I was often emotionally hungry and felt underfed. I think of this every time a client asks to use an outlet in my consulting room to charge his or her phone. Sure, there’s some symbolism, but in my work with E., it didn’t match my perception.

Rupture Without Repair

There was a chronic misattunement between us, and I thought it was negative transference that could somehow be useful. Rupture and repair. Except that it was a series of ruptures without repairs. There weren’t any moments of meeting, of being in tune together, of feeling a sense of relatedness and connection.

I arrived for a session on a crisp spring day wearing a grey dress I had recently purchased which made me feel cheerful and attractive. I came into the room feeling chirpy, and before I’d sat down or spoken, she looked at me quizzically. “You look like you’re dressed for a funeral,” she said. When she did break the silence, her statements were wild.

“I felt like dressing up. I’m going out for dinner after this and I wanted to look nice.”

Silence.

When I felt morose and down, I felt as estranged from her as when I was upbeat. She kept an incredible distance which I found painful and cold. My wanting closeness was not unreasonable or something to be ashamed of. I struggled incredibly to make sense of this really pretty terrible and very long therapeutic experience.

I felt the negative transference heavily for the five years that we worked together. I brought this up again and again, and E. met my statements with silence. I would ask for more feedback, and she would refuse to speak. I wondered if there were a rationale for her obstinate silence, and she wouldn’t offer me one.

It began to emerge that the therapeutic approach she aligned herself to professionally didn’t at all match my experience of her in the room. Attachment theory? Where was the attunement, the reparative emotional experience, the nurturing, and the secure base? Perhaps it wasn’t just my fantasies, paranoia, or projections. Nor was it simply the distortions of negative transference. E. really detested me. That was my overruling sense, and I said this to her tearfully in a session one day. Stony silence. I pressed her, feeling desperate and distressed by her refusal to reassure me or challenge my perception. “So am I right in thinking that you just don’t like me?” I cried.

“I never said that,” she said.

“But you’re not saying otherwise,” I said. “I feel like you just don’t get me—you don’t like me—I feel it strongly. I feel like you’re never glad to see me. I’m not sure why we’re still working together. Can you help me understand? Do you think we should still be working together?”

“You’re wanting this to be about me and this is about you,” said E. Yet she claimed she was relational.

“Please,” I begged. “I know my feelings are strong right now, but I want to understand which feelings belong to me, which belong to you, and which we’re experiencing together. I want to understand how you see me.”

“This is about you,” she repeated, and she wouldn’t elaborate.

“But how do you see me? I want to understand.”

Silence.

I’d gone from the Maternal Yes Woman to the therapist who refused to mirror me at all—who was there but not there—someone who was technically present but emotionally absent. Thinking about it now,
I wonder if she simply couldn’t bear her feelings towards me and so she partitioned them off and tried to extinguish her presence in the room altogether.
I wonder if she simply couldn’t bear her feelings towards me and so she partitioned them off and tried to extinguish her presence in the room altogether. She couldn’t engage fully because it might have exposed her unruly feelings about me so she had to withdraw and disconnect emotionally to keep the space manageable.

This is all speculation, of course. She would never help me decipher what was my stuff, what was her stuff, and what was our stuff together. It was all my stuff. Except that her stuff was everywhere. In the hallway, stacked behind her desk, heaped next to the armchair where I sat, brimming everywhere. And despite her efforts to clear out her emotional responses to me, I felt them heavily. They were everywhere, even if they couldn’t be talked about or acknowledged.

The Dirty Underwear Incident

Towards the end of our fourth year, I asked if I could use the bathroom. I went downstairs, shuffling through the piles and heaps of post and old catalogues and wire hangers. I tried to avoid using the bathroom when possible. There were often skid marks in the toilet and no toilet paper. There was a box of kitty litter in the corner and a cat sometimes popped out of the bathroom, which I liked—it was something lively and playful, even affectionate!

On this occasion, I went into the bathroom and there was a pair of underpants on the floor filled with blood. It was a startling sight and I wasn’t sure if it was blood or feces, or both. I went upstairs and told E. what I’d seen. Silence. I asked if she could please explain what I had seen. Silence. Did she think I was making it up? Could she go see what I had just seen so we could agree on this reality? Silence.

If her silence was justified by her psychoanalytic stance of abstinence, then surely allowing me to witness underpants filled with a huge amount of blood or feces was a frame transgression and not in keeping with therapeutic neutrality.
If her silence was justified by her psychoanalytic stance of abstinence, then surely allowing me to witness underpants filled with a huge amount of blood or feces was a frame transgression and not in keeping with therapeutic neutrality. Please could she confirm reality? I felt alone. Alone with my perception, alone with my feelings: isolated, unthought-of, and disliked.

I realize that my bringing up the unsightly bathroom discovery was perhaps my own aggression coming out—I felt righteous and somewhat gleeful at the same time that I was distressed to have discovered proof of the horror I felt all the time in that house. But E. would not acknowledge my attack on her. That would be admitting that I mattered enough to hurt her.

When I announced my engagement, E., who knew I’d longed for this moment deeply, didn’t show any pleasure in witnessing my joy. She often took my husband’s side when I brought quarrels to the sessions, but that felt like her way of suggesting that I should hold onto any man who loved me. When I was animated about a therapeutic idea I’d read about or something I’d experienced at one of my clinical placements, she met my enthusiasm with a look of boredom. Of course, she didn’t confirm or contradict my sense of her feelings, but her feelings were still there, coming out in myriad ways, even if she didn’t acknowledge them.

Pregnant Silences

I continued to experience E. to be emotionally withholding. When I was having difficulty getting pregnant, I arrived one day in tears and said I felt upset and sad, and could she help me explore what I was feeling? Silence. “Please,” I pleaded. “I feel sad. Hopeless. Like a failure as a woman. Frustrated. It feels unfair. Please say something.” Silence. “E? Do you care? I want you to care.”

“You’re making this about me, rather than staying with you,” she said in a clipped, measured tone.

“I want it to be about us just a little, maybe so I’ll feel less alone with my pain,” I said.

“Perhaps you find it difficult that other people don’t share this with you, that other people can get pregnant instantly and you can’t.”

I mulled this over. I felt like she was encouraging me to feel jealous… jealous of her?
“Please,” I pleaded. “I feel sad. Hopeless. Like a failure as a woman. Frustrated. It feels unfair. Please say something.” Silence. “E? Do you care? I want you to care.”
Envious that she might have had no trouble getting pregnant? I had once glimpsed her daughter. Did she want me to envy her? What was going on? But I had to limit my queries about our relationship or what was personal for her because it would be interpreted as me being intrusive, me making this work about her and not about me.

As my struggles with infertility continued, I became increasingly interested in the idea of adopting a baby. I felt excited and enlivened by this possibility, and my husband was open to this potential path as well. I brought this up in a session, excited and relieved by my own enthusiasm and renewed hope. “Adoption is second best, and you know it,” E. said. I became livid recalling this comment, and I brought it up in the following session. E. defended her statement, saying that adopted children inevitably have attachment difficulties, and it’s second best to having your own biological child. We argued and argued and couldn’t reach resolution on this issue.

Her heavy-handed insistence on burdening me with her personal views on adoption upset me intensely, and I discussed this with a couple of close friends who were also therapists. One of the friends suggested I report E. to the ethics committee. I thought about it but decided it would be like suing someone for breaking your heart—my case against E. was so emotional, so intensely personal, and it all felt nebulous and highly subjective.

The Challenge of Leaving

This is one of the core problems with measuring and reporting mediocre therapy; there are no referees in the room. In a therapeutic dyad, it’s one person’s word against another’s. Like the subtlety of date rape or emotional abuse in a relationship, the nuances and disparate perceptions of what’s gone on in private between two people make reporting incredibly challenging. The essential complaint I had against E. was that she didn’t like me and didn’t help me in our many years of working together. Is that enough for a case? It seems doubtful. So what can we do about these sorts of problematic therapeutic experiences? I wish, more than anything, that I had had the strength and confidence to leave E. sooner and that I had found a better therapist.

I wish that my extensive psychotherapy training had offered trainees more tools for recognizing and dealing with inadequate therapy.
For all of the rigor and scrutiny that goes into honing the craft of psychotherapy, we are not sufficiently educated in knowing how to evaluate our own personal experiences of therapy.
For all of the rigor and scrutiny that goes into honing the craft of psychotherapy, we are not sufficiently educated in knowing how to evaluate our own personal experiences of therapy. There is still a sense, as a trainee, that the therapist is the expert and the therapist in training is the student.

For all the discussions and studies on endings in therapy, it was only when I’d finished my training and qualified that I felt able to end my bad therapy. Perhaps it was her hoarding ways that allowed E. to hold onto me even if she didn’t consider me that valuable—she held onto ancient junk mail, after all. But she too should have let me go—if the work is life-diminishing, the therapist owes it to the client to at least acknowledge the impasse and danger of carrying on in a destructive and unhelpful way.

I finally ended my work with E. a month after I had completed my clinical training. That extra month was probably my last rebellious expression against being told what to do—now that I was no longer required to be in weekly therapy, I had to end my therapy on my own terms, and it wouldn’t have felt right for our last session to coincide precisely with the end of my training.
If the work is life-diminishing, the therapist owes it to the client to at least acknowledge the impasse and danger of carrying on in a destructive and unhelpful way.
I actually really needed therapy at this time in my life. I was still struggling with infertility and my anxiety and obsessive thinking around this issue was corroding my sense of self and affecting all areas of my life and even my work.

In anticipating our ending, E. had often suggested that we would finish at least temporarily when I had a baby. This contingency plan made me feel that pregnancy and motherhood would be the only legitimate excuses for getting out of this relationship. And the fact that I deeply longed to become a mother, and felt deprived and frustrated by my difficulties becoming pregnant, made me feel all the more trapped and stuck, in therapy and in life.

Finally, still not pregnant, still in weekly therapy with E., I arrived for a session and told E. I just didn’t think that continuing therapy was a good idea for me. “I don’t think you like me, and that feels like a big problem for me. Call it my narcissistic wound—in fact, I would love to know what you think, if you think it is my ego, or my distorted perceptions of how others experience me, or if I’m picking up on your real feelings—please do tell me if you can, but in any case, I want to stop. I don’t want to come here anymore.”

“Fine,” she said. I asked her to elaborate. She wouldn’t. I asked her—no—I begged her, to tell me what she thought about my sense of her sense of me.

“Please, could you give me some parting words, some closing interpretations I can take away with me, so I can look back at our years of work together and have some solid sense of your ideas about me?”

She responded with this: “Charlotte, you have been coming here for five years. You know my interpretations. You know my ideas about you.”

“I really don’t! I really, really don’t! I often feel as if you don’t like me. I don’t know if I should trust my sense of this or not. Please, even if you think you’ve said it all before, please say it again. Do I sound borderline, demanding this from you? Paranoid? Perhaps. But please, do it anyway! Tell me what you think of me!”

“You are like a ram with horns,” she said. “You press, and you press.” All true. Actually useful feedback, even if it seemed harsh. I appreciated her directness.

“You’re bright; you’re beautiful. You know that,” she said, looking utterly fatigued.

I felt like crying, though the tears just didn’t come.
“You’re bright. You’re beautiful. You know that,” she said, looking utterly fatigued.
Was this everything I had longed for? Did her praise mean more to me because she wasn’t emotionally generous and she’d been so withholding all this time? Was it worth it? Not really. But it helped. Though her comment about my looks seemed odd and out of character. I didn’t dare ask her to say more. That was enough.

I wanted to end the work thoughtfully, especially given how long I’d stuck it out up until this point. I had to justify the long and grueling struggle. E. disagreed with my sense that we should have a termination phase, and said that “given the givens,” we could end the following week. I found this notion cryptic, but that was nothing new. I left our final session feeling buoyed by the freedom to walk away from something that doesn’t feel healthy or good. The following weeks, I breathed more easily; I felt lighter, freer, empowered. It was that glorious feeling of finally letting go of something that’s bad for you and that you don’t actually need.

The Happy Ending

This is the part of my story that feels almost too tidy (an ironic concept, given the messiness of everything else in this therapeutic work). For all the frustration, misery, angst, resentment, sense of stuckness, and failure I felt in the therapy with E., I also had these feelings about my struggle to conceive. It was a long road to pregnancy for me, and it happened the same week I ended therapy with E. Was it the release of being freed from the therapy that helped me get pregnant? Sheer coincidence? That’s a mystery I can bear not knowing or understanding fully. The point is, it finally happened. And it happened in the same time I finally walked away from a miserable and unhelpful relationship. Growth and progress were possible!

I ran into E. at my training institution a couple of weeks later. I walked through the turnstile with my student ID which had not yet expired, and saw E. struggling to get through from the other side. I was never sure if she had poor peripheral vision or simply pretended not to see me on the few occasions I’d spotted her out in the world. Her stuckness was awkward and she snapped at the receptionist that she should not have such difficulty. I decided I had to have one final encounter, and I was desperate to tell her my news.

I was never sure if she had poor peripheral vision or simply pretended not to see me on the few occasions I’d spotted her out in the world.
“E! Hello!” I said, meeting her on the other side of the turnstile. She smiled opaquely. “I’m so excited to tell you some news,” I said, grinning unabashedly. “I’m finally pregnant. It’s early days—five weeks or so—but at least now I know I can get pregnant, whatever happens.”

“Yes, indeed,” she said, allowing a smile out. “Five weeks. Hmmm. Perhaps it was my parting gift to you.”

“Yes, I like that idea. I wanted you to know because it felt really significant that it happened the same week we ended.”

“That’s interesting,” she said. 


“I’m so happy to finally give you this news,” I said. “I’ve wanted to be able to tell you this for a really long time. So thank you.”

“You’re most welcome,” she said. And that was that.

My work as a psychotherapist has helped me see that my wants and needs as a client were legitimate. They were nothing to be ashamed of, or hide, or regret.
I had a right to want more from my therapist, and I encourage my clients to expect nurturing and care from me.
I had a right to want more from my therapist, and I encourage my clients to expect nurturing and care from me. I encourage them to want connection and attunement. I give my clients what I wish my therapist had given me, so in that sense, my work has also been therapeutic for me. And my experience of bad therapy has helped me become a better therapist because I know very well what doesn’t work and what isn’t helpful.

I also trust my clients when they talk about bad experiences in therapy. If E. did dislike me (or whatever she felt about me), I wish she had found a better way to deal with, or even use, her own countertransference. Recognizing negative feelings about a client can be helpful, and even illuminating and transformative, if a therapist deals with them properly.

Finally, in supervision recently, I brought up my unsatisfactory therapy with E. My supervisor told me that he and E. had been colleagues for many years. I’m very fond of my supervisor and we have a strong rapport. He asked if I wanted to know his opinion of E. “Yes,” I said, “desperately!” I’m not afraid to show him how I feel, and I don’t have to hold back.

“Oh dear,” he said. “I find it bewildering… You, with your warmth, your vivaciousness, your joie de vivre, were in therapy for five years with E? Dear oh dear. I understand your disappointment.”

“Tell me! Oh please, tell me,” I said.

“She’s just, well… she’s just so cold,” he said. “She’s cold, cold, cold.”

“What a relief,” I said. “So it wasn’t just me. Well, it might have been me too—she might not have liked me, but it wasn’t just me finding her cold all those years—my perceptions were reasonable after all.”

“Yes,” he said. “What a mismatch. Why did you stay with her for so long?”

“Because I kept thinking things would turn around; that I could get something out of the whole thing; that it was me, not her; that I was projecting and imagining things; that getting her to like me would be some kind of victory; that the difficulty of each session was somehow useful; that the struggle had merit; that I couldn’t be understood by anyone so I might as well stick with the familiar therapist even if she didn’t understand me or like me; that I couldn’t do better. That’s why. I’m sure it was more perverse than I realized. I thought that if I could warm her up, I could play against the house and win—I would succeed in getting her to like me and that would count for something, but it never happened, of course. Talking with you now has made me realize that, actually, she wasn’t the right therapist for me.”

I stayed with the wrong therapist for far too long. I didn’t have the confidence to trust my feelings and opinions sufficiently and end the relationship sooner. There was detritus and filth and junk right there between us and surrounding us and I felt it and sensed it and experienced it once a week for five years, even if the person sitting across from me denied the problem. Something was severely wrong in our work together. I’ll never know if she felt it too.


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CE Test
Charlotte Fox Weber Charlotte Fox Weber, UKCP Reg MBACP, is a psychotherapist based in London. She started the in-house psychotherapy service at The School of Life and works in private practice. She can be reached at: charliefoxweber@gmail.com

CE credits: 1.5

Learning Objectives:

  • Describe elements of a harmful therapy relationship.
  • Illustrate necessary elements to a good, therapeutic therapy relationship.
  • Understand how to break free from a toxic therapy relationship.