Here’s a surprisingly common scenario: You’re upset with certain people or events in your life, and you’re not coping as well as you’d like. So you seek counseling and, for weeks or months, tell your therapist about these experiences. Then one day, you’re shocked to find that the frustration you’re trying to get rid of is now directed toward the very person you hired to help you. Suddenly you’re mad that your therapist isn’t listening attentively (She sure looks distracted!)…isn’t giving you any answers (Can he do nothing but ask questions?)…or is leaving for a long vacation (Really? At a time like this?).
Such feelings can be unnerving—and may push you into abandoning therapy that could be very helpful if you would stick it out.
Don’t be too quick to quit! Though there are circumstances in which anger toward a therapist is fully justifiable, read on before you give in to the urge to stop therapy—especially if you’re so steamed that you feel like suing. Reason: It’s likely that your anger toward your therapist signals a potential breakthrough point in your own growth provided that you see it through, says clinical psychologist and Daily Health News columnist Judy Kuriansky, PhD, who has spent decades treating patients. Here’s what Dr. Kuriansky wants you to understand about being mad at your therapist…
Anger can be a good sign—it means that you feel safe. We all get angry at times, but often we repress it for fear of the consequences. For instance, you may squelch the urge to complain when your grown child doesn’t call you for weeks because you’re afraid of pushing him/her even further away…you seethe in silence when a coworker steals your idea, worried that he’ll seek revenge if you speak up. But you do dare to express your anger toward your therapist because you trust, rightfully so, that he can take it, accept your feelings and not retaliate, Dr. Kuriansky said. Therapists are trained to help clients work through their anger. Feeling that trust is essential to the success of the therapeutic relationship.
Your ire sheds light on emotions that you’ve quashed. It’s a basic principle in therapy that we transfer to the therapist the feelings that we have toward important people in our lives. This is called transference. Suppose you’re incensed because your therapist spent extra time with the patient before you, calling you in late but ending your session exactly on time. Granted this is not OK on anything other than a very occasional basis—but the experience can be useful, Dr. Kuriansky said. Ask yourself, What issues does this bring up in my own life? If you’re reminded of how your spouse is so attentive to other people at parties but barely listens when you’re the one talking, it’s time to explore this feeling of being taken for granted with your therapist—and with your spouse.
You can embrace this opportunity for growth. You may feel furious if your therapist says something along the lines of, “You seem to lose your temper quickly when people don’t do what you ask,” or “Have you thought about how your words can come across as critical or negative?” or “Maybe you can’t find a committed partner because you are afraid of commitment.” But remember, it is your therapist’s job to point out behaviors that are not serving you. Yes, it is hard to hear such painful truths about yourself…but don’t let your anger at your therapist obscure the message that can help you develop into the person you want to be.
Your therapist’s reaction will depend on his professional orientation. There are a number of ways a therapist might respond to a patient’s anger. For instance, Dr. Kuriansy said, a psychoanalytically oriented therapist might redirect you to consider who in your childhood (parents, teachers, coaches) made you feel angry, ignored or abandoned. A behavioral therapist might ask, “What does your anger feel like? Where in your body is it lodged?” A cognitive therapist might say, “Tell me what thoughts come to you when you get mad.” A gestalt therapist might invite you to imagine your father is in the room and to voice your fury aloud to that imaginary figure. All of these approaches can be appropriate and helpful as the therapist guides you to work through your emotions.
What’s not appropriate or helpful, however, is a therapist who gets defensive (“I am not ignoring you”)…denies your feelings (“There’s no reason for you to be angry”)…or gets angry in return (“You’ve got nerve, considering that you’ve been late to a number of our sessions”). If you get such a reaction, consider it within the context of your overall experience with your therapist. If things generally have gone well until now, the therapist (being human) may just be having a bad day. Discuss your impressions of the therapist’s reaction. This in itself can be a healthy experience for you—say, by giving you practice in speaking up to an authority figure.
Behavior that makes you mad might be completely appropriate from a professional standpoint. Suppose you are disappointed and angry because your therapist declined your invitation to an event where you are getting an award…refused to write you a recommendation for a job you’re applying for…or doesn’t respond to your many e-mails. You need to keep in mind that your therapist is not your friend, mentor or career coach. Dr. Kuriansky said, “It’s entirely appropriate for a therapist to establish boundaries on the relationship and to set limits about how much interaction is appropriate outside the office setting. In fact, professional ethics do not allow what’s called a dual relationship, a mixing of the personal and professional. This actually works in your favor because it means that the relationship is about your needs and not the therapist’s.”
Sometimes your anger can be a warning sign of a serious problem with the therapist. Being in therapy may make you feel vulnerable, unsure and prone to dismissing your own instincts—all of which could be stepping-stones on your path to becoming healthier. But if your therapist truly is acting unprofessionally or even unethically, you want to trust the gut reaction that leaves you feeling angry and upset. Examples of completely unacceptable behavior include when a therapist reveals confidential information about you to someone else (except when there is danger to your own life or the life of another, or when you’ve given permission for information to be shared)…or when a therapist initiates or agrees to an intimate relationship with you. In such cases, Dr. Kuriansky said, you should terminate the therapy and report the behavior to the state board that the therapist is licensed by and/or to the professional association that the therapist belongs to, such as the American Counseling Association, American Psychological Association or National Association of Social Workers. Fortunately, though, such transgressions are very rare.