For four years, 2007-2011, I saw a therapist mostly weekly with some periods of monthly visits when she thought I was “doing better”. Something that became very clear to me in 2011 in the months before my marriage ended and my father died (at the same time) was that this woman was a bad therapist. At least for me. Looking back now, 5 years later, I remember nothing of value from our sessions but I remember several hurtful and traumatic episodes. At the time I was struggling pretty hard and didn’t understand that what was happening was wrong. That got me thinking about how many other people might be having similarly painful, frustrating, disempowering experiences with people who are supposed to be helping them. So, today we’re looking at several of the times I should have left my terrible therapist in the hopes that you can learn from my mistakes.
I should have left my terrible therapist when she…
…. ignored everything she knew about me and continued one of the roughest patterns in my life.
After becoming intimately familiar with my life story which was full of me settling and putting other’s needs first, she condescendingly told me I needed to learn to compromise. The thing I needed to settle on? I was moving and, out of the blue, she suggested I may, for no apparent reason need to live in the far-flung suburbs rather than the city I had waited two years to move to. There was no reason this was true. She literally just continued a lifelong pattern of people telling me that the reasonable things I’m trying to achieve were unreasonable for me.
Now, your therapist may not always say stuff you like and they may deliver some tough love but if you find yourself in a situation where your therapist is forcefully expressing their opinion and it feels like they are actively rooting against you, those are big red flags. This happened in the first month or two of seeing this woman and I was in such bad shape that I didn’t see the giant flashing warning sign there.
… offered to make things easier when I was super-depressed and then guilted me for accepting the offer
During a particularly bad episode I was struggling with leaving the house, traveling over to her office, you know, the usual. My therapist mentioned we could do sessions by phone if I needed to. A day came when I just couldn’t leave the house so I called her. I was greeted with a cold, stilted voice and treated to a lecture about how this really upset her day and was problematic for her billing. Now I’m willing to say that maybe I misunderstood something about the offer and screwed up but the tactless handling of this situation always seemed kind of absurd to me.”It seems there was a misunderstanding, if you want to do your session by phone here’s how that works” would have done the job without pushing the actively depressed client further down the spiral.
I think many of us live with the fear of accepting help only to find that people get angry/resent us for doing so. I don’t expect my therapist to be a mind reader but I do expect her to be aware of things like how hard it is to ask for such an accommodation when dealing with depression and to endeavor to handle things without exacerbating that issue. This is a big enough fear out in the world, you shouldn’t encounter it in your therapist’s office.
… refused to help me with the root of my issues
The very moment I should have walked away, I felt the least equipped to do so.
I told her I wanted to work on the fact that I didn’t like myself and never had because that was adversely affecting my life. She denied there was an issue and tried to explain away the effects of my self hatred rather than working on it at all (“I’m not filling my classes because I can’t promote myself, because I hate myself” “Oh, well you know the economy is bad, that’s probably what’s happening”).
This was about a year in and after it happened I went into to work and told my boss about it. She immediately advised me to dump my therapist. I did not. Partially I think because I hated myself and partially because, depression and the way it makes everything so damn hard. It was a big deal for me to psych myself up to ask her to work with me on my self-hatred, and when she refused it was hugely disempowering. The very moment I should have walked away, I felt the least equipped to do so.
Long story short, if you go to your therapist and ask to work on an issue and they blow you off, get a new therapist.
… told me that meeting someone else’s sexual needs was my duty
Upon hearing me talk about not wanting to sleep with my husband, she delivered a speech about the importance of doing things to please our partners. This advice was repeated several times with no real attempt to look at why I didn’t want to sleep with my partner. I felt disempowered, unimportant, and like I was constantly failing. I remember thinking about The Stepford Wives a lot at the time because the whole thing made me feel like I had no control and my feelings didn’t matter. It was incredibly disturbing, frustrating, and, frankly, scary. Towards the end I started having recurring rape dreams.
A big chunk of why I advise people with depression not to heed advice to “just do it” is this experience, the thought of other folks with depression being made to feel like I felt during that time is unbearable to me. Your therapist is there to help you function as you, not to help you give other people what they want.
… dismissed my dreams AND made me feel selfish and lazy
This was the moment it should have become clear that this woman was not on my team
I confessed the thought, in the back of my head, that I’d like to stop being a personal trainer one day and maybe become a writer and her response was “You know, you can’t just live off [partner] for your whole life”. This one was bonus fun because I think I earned the majority of my household’s money that year (by a tiny margin but still, in context, it matters). This woman had a special gift for bringing my fears to life. I live in fear of being selfish and/or lazy and with one sentence she made me feel like I was both. Also, like I was totally trapped in the life I had at that moment. No future for me.
So, yeah, sometimes you’ll come out of therapy feeling awful. There are revelations and realizations and crying jags, it happens. You should NEVER come out feeling worse because of things your therapist has said that serve no purpose. Her words weren’t meant to move me forward or explore anything , hell, they weren’t even based in truth. This was the moment it should have become clear that this woman was not on my team, it wasn’t though. That came a little later.
… made it clear she was definitely not on my team
I realized the way my partner talked to me routinely made me feel awful about myself. I brought it up to my therapist and she told me I should look at what I was doing to motivate him to say those things. At this point I actually asked her if my husband was secretly slipping her cash. I was only kind of kidding when I asked that because I couldn’t find any other reason that everything I talked to her about seemed to come back to taking care of him and not me. The pattern had become pronounced enough that I felt like there had to be an explanation. It was like my therapy had become about making me a more compliant partner. My own issues were not improving.
This may sound obvious but just in case, if you feel like your therapy continually focuses on pleasing other people while you don’t progress at all. GET OUT.
… made sure I knew exactly who was to blame for my situation. Spoiler alert: It was me
I went in and told her I thought I didn’t want to be married anymore and she agreed with me that my relationship was deeply flawed “but you were just so determined to get married!” This one was especially brutal as it was a behavior I’m intimately familiar with. A key figure in my life does this out of fear of being blamed for things. The result is usually incredibly, though unintentionally, hurtful as it usually involves blame being tossed at me in a time of crisis. The worst part is there’s no need for anyone to be blamed, It’s just about needing support and in the rush to make sure everyone knows it’s not their fault people, like my shrink, end up making the whole thing worse.
Now admittedly, when I got married I was looking for something to solve a bunch of shit in my life and kind of thought that might do it. But two big things here: 1. I definitely did not need that hurled at me in the scary moments when I was realizing my marriage was probably going to end and 2. If she, as my therapist, knew that at the time maybe that would have been something to work on! I’m not assigning blame here, but I do tremendously resent the way this whole situation went down.
This was the last time I saw this therapist.
Shortly after that incident I went to a friend’s house, got very drunk, and told them what I had been thinking about my marriage and what had been going on in therapy. To this day I can still hear them say “Well, I can’t tell you what to do about your marriage but you definitely need to dump your therapist” and I did. My partner and I started marriage counseling (With a woman who had a lazy eye and would have us sit on either side of her. I could never tell which of us she was looking at unless she fully turned her head. I really need someone to put that image in a book/movie/something) and that counsellor referred me to the place that matched me with the woman who turned out to be the best therapist I’ve ever had (though my new one is shaping up to be pretty awesome). She got me through my divorce, the death of my father, the year I spent sleeping with anyone I could get my hands on, launching my site, and leaving Boston. It’s been 4 years since I moved away and I still miss her.
My old therapist called me once after I stopped going. I remember her message saying something like “the last time we met you were considering making some big changes and I was wondering if you had decided to go ahead with that” because I immediately thought “yeah, I did” and pressed “delete”.