It’s not always easy to find the therapist of your dreams. You may think you have a lead on someone amazing—maybe your friend has been working with a new practitioner, and the improvements are plain to see. She’s finally reconciled with her mother after years of bitterness, or she’s changed the ways she dresses and her hairdo and seems far more confident in social settings. You want to meet the wizard behind the curtain and get some of that personal growth for yourself. After all, if it worked for your friend, why wouldn’t it work for you? Magic is magic.
The therapist seems nice enough at the first meeting, and you’re enthusiastic about doing some serious work together.
Yet, after a few sessions pass, things aren’t clicking the way you expected. You’ve already spent hours talking but it doesn’t feel like you’re getting anywhere near the important subjects; or, you’ve shared lots of details about your life but you don’t feel that you’re being understood.
Has this—or something like it—ever happened to you?
In today’s post, I want to talk a little bit about why some therapeutic relationships don’t work out and what you can possibly do about it.
Why isn’t it working?
This first thing to remember is that not all relationships are destined for success. What may work for one person won’t work for another. This is true for more than therapists; just because your best friend is gaga over her personal trainer doesn’t mean that it would be the best thing you ever did in your life to hire her.
There are an infinite number of potential reasons why a perfectly good therapist wouldn’t be a good fit for you:
Personality: Finding a therapist who matches your personality can be tricky. It’s not always enough to think that they’re a perfectly fine person. Sometimes, you just don’t quite click with someone, even if they’re very nice. Maybe they’re the kind of jokey, cheerful type you’d appreciate as a friend, but you need a more solemn environment in which to conduct your self-work. Sometimes the problem is hard to pin down, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valid. If you want to get somewhere, you have to be comfortable with your therapist.
Style: Imagine two people searching for a therapist. One of them has always been pampered and babied and is used to getting their own way. The other has been pushed around since childhood and struggles to stand up for themselves.
Would these two individuals both benefit from the same therapy style?
The spoiled client may do best with a self-assured therapist who leads sessions with a firm hand. When a topic is challenging, the client may be tempted to quit; they’ll do better with a therapist who gives them the push they need to stick with the work.
Meanwhile, the timid client may be completely overwhelmed by a therapist with an assertive style. The tough approach may make them too anxious to focus, or they may be intimidated and fail to speak up when the therapist is off the mark. This client might benefit more from a gentle, soft-spoken therapist who lets them take the lead.
What style of therapy do you think you benefit most from?
Culture: Sometimes, a cultural divide can make it hard to communicate effectively with your therapist. If the family dynamics that you’re
used to are alien to them, they may not understand the nuances of your relationships. If their politics or world view are too different from yours, they may not fully grasp your needs and goals. If you’re a spiritual person who is enriched by meditation and contemplation of the universe, you may connect best with a therapist who speaks your language, and vice versa.
Judgment: Some therapists can apply their logic and experience in ways that don’t ring true to you. They may consistently make suggestions or interpretations that run counter to what you feel in your gut. You don’t have to second-guess yourself and assume that they’re right just because they’re the professional; if you’re being honest with yourself and genuinely disagree with their assessments, it may be that they simply don’t have the correct insights in your case, or at least that they’re not able to communicate them to you effectively.
None of these factors is necessarily a deal-breaker. There are connections that manage to transcend cultural barriers or an unusual mix of personalities. Don’t let go of a good thing just because you resonate a little with something on this list!
I’m simply saying that if you feel uncomfortable, it’s okay to ask yourself whether it’s therapy that makes you feel that way – the change and effort it involves – or whether it’s your therapist. If you’re not sure, it may help to consider whether one of the factors I listed above is getting in the way of a relaxed, trusting, flexible therapist-client relationship.
If you do run into a mess that feels way too uncomfortable, here are some tips to consider:
Don’t worry about the awkwardness
The first thing that you should know is that it’s perfectly normal and okay to bring this up with your therapist. You may blame yourself, fearing that somehow, you’re the one at fault. You may even worry about causing offense, as if you’re accusing your therapist of doing this maliciously or through negligence.
As a therapist myself, I want to assure you that of all people, your therapist will be able to understand. They will be familiar with the problem and may even be willing to start over, make some changes, and make the relationship work.
Even if they can’t, that’s okay, too. The older I get, the more time and opportunity I’m given to work with people, the more I realize that I can’t talk everybody onto the path of wellness. There was a time, I must admit, where I believed that I could if just given the chance; but today, I can tell when a relationship isn’t going to work out. I’m grateful I have a nice, handy list of wonderful therapists to send people to.
In saying all this, I’m certainly not trying to discourage you from trying to find your match. On the contrary, I hope to support the idea that there are definitely innumerable professional people who just might fit the bill—and all of them might be different from one another stylistically. It’s a matter of chemistry more than anything else.
Remember is that there are no magical formulae that can ensure perfection. In fact, there is no perfect fit between individuals. There will be good sessions; there will be uncomfortable ones. There could even be a session where you might get up, storm out, and slam the door behind you, only to come back the next week apologizing profusely.
None of this means that the therapy is kaput.
However, you’re entitled not to want everything that is suggested to you. At the end of the day, you have to feel that overall, your therapist is helping you to make progress more often than not.
As you gain a better understanding of yourself, you’ll recognize when you’re trying to weasel out of something because it’s hard versus when you’re in the wrong place. Trust yourself to know the difference.
And no matter what, go into therapy with an open mind and open heart.