I’m a therapist, but I’ve also been in and out of therapy since I was quite little. I’ve worked with some therapists that were helpful, some that were unhelpful, and some that, looking back now, I can see did more harm than good. In my teens and early 20s, what I would often do if my therapist said something that hurt me (or they seemed distant, they gave me a technique that missed the mark) is that I would just stop going. I would cancel our future appointments and find another therapist in Los Angeles (and there were always a lot of options).
These experiences were part of the reason I decided to create a group psychotherapy practice and open Take Root Therapy. I wanted to have a team of competent, caring therapists that I could confidently refer clients to, and wanted to be able to give those clients a chance to see a different therapist if the first one they saw wasn’t the right fit.
Perhaps in an ideal world, therapists would never make mistakes. But a lifetime of therapy sessions – both as a client and as a therapist – has taught me that mistakes, or misunderstandings, are bound to happen. Sometimes they are invaluable, as we can explore interpersonal misunderstandings or hurts with a therapist that we wouldn’t be able to address as openly in our personal relationships. Each therapist has a different approach, and brings their own personality to the work with the client. Sometimes friction can strengthen the therapeutic relationship and leads to worthwhile insights.
However, in the moment, this friction probably doesn’t feel good. Whether or not it will be beneficial to the therapeutic relationship is likely how your therapist responds to your feedback. There’s also an important distinction between misunderstandings and outright violations. One sign that something is not working is if you are feeling hurt, misunderstood, angry, and/or invalidated.
How do you go about letting your therapist know that something in counseling is not working? And when I say not working, I mean something that makes you feel misunderstood, hurt, or not seen.
– Remember that your therapist’s job is to provide you with support. They want this as much as you do. It serves both of you when you advocate for yourself, and let them know how to best support you. While it may not be easy for your therapist to receive feedback, it’s part of their job, and they should make it as easy for you as possible.
– Check in with yourself and consider the scope of their mistake. If your therapist is making you uncomfortable by making sexual advances or breaching confidentiality, more drastic action, such as reporting them to their licensing board, is likely a more appropriate response than trying to address it in session. And if you didn’t have a strong relationship in the first place, or if the misstep was something that you cannot imagine you can recover from, it’s okay to honor yourself by deciding to end the therapeutic relationship.
– Practice calling them out. If you feel capable of giving them feedback in the moment, you can say things like, “Ouch, that hurt,” or “I felt really _____ when you said that.” If your therapist seems checked out, you can even challenge them more directly by saying something like, “Are you listening?” This might be the only relationship in your life that you can approach with this type of honesty, and engaging directly might make your experience in therapy more effective. Take advantage of it!
– If you are still thinking about something that hurt in your last session, give yourself time to process and reflect. Personally, when something that my own therapist has said doesn’t sit well with me, I find it helpful to take some time to cool off and think about how I feel. Then, I try to start our next session by saying something like, “This thing that happened last week was really frustrating for me.” From there, I’ll tell them what was frustrating for me about it. If we have a good relationship, I might even say something like, “Here’s what I’m making up about what you said,” or “Here’s how I’m interpreting what happened.” This gives me the ability to test my assumptions and to hear about my therapist’s intentions.
When I was younger, it was really difficult for me to give feedback to my therapists, either because it didn’t seem we had a relationship that allowed for that, the feedback didn’t always seem welcome, or I was too afraid of what would happen if I let them know how I was really feeling. While avoiding confrontation allowed me to get my needs met in a way that was most comfortable for me at the time, I have since learned that in some instances, not confronting my therapist or counselor was a missed opportunity for both of us.
Recently, I was able to utilize these tips in order to move through a confrontation with my own therapist. Through the experience, I actually started trusting her more, because I could see she was flexible, teachable, and willing to be wrong. While she didn’t suddenly “get it” or have the perfect answer, she could at least recognize that there was a rupture, and was able to see that what she had said didn’t feel good to me.
One last, often overlooked aspect of letting your therapist know when they get it wrong is if your therapist comes from a different cultural background than you. It is an unfortunate fact that most therapists are White (according to the American Psychological Association, in 2015, 86% of psychologists were White and only 4% were Black). While many therapists, including our own, have been trained in cultural humility and may even be committed to anti-racism work, sometimes they may just not get something about the BIPOC experience because they haven’t lived it themselves.
If you feel that your therapist has made an assumption about you based on your race, misinterpreted something you’ve said, or are overlooking something (or inappropriately fixating on something) in your experience, tell them. You can do this in the moment if you feel comfortable, or wait a few days and bring it up after you’ve gotten some space. Ultimately, you may decide not to work with that therapist anymore, and that’s okay. In either case, the radically honest experience of challenging your therapist and letting them know how something they said or did made you feel, especially if they are White and you are BIPOC, may end up being therapeutic.
At Take Root Therapy, if/when we make a mistake or if we miss our clients, while it’s not the client’s responsibility to educate us, we do hope to be able to find a way to work through that with them, and to support them. My hope is to always be effective, and if I’m not being effective, I want to be able to apologize, to validate the client’s experience, and to move through it with them, even if it feels clumsy.
Therapy is hard work, and the therapeutic experience is one that’s unique to you and your therapist. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to therapy (by the way, if a therapist has ever made you feel that way, you should– you guessed it– tell them!). That means that there will likely be stops and starts, or moments where you and your therapist are figuring out your relationship together. One of the best things about that is that you are an active part of the process, and you get to tell your therapist what is working and not working for you.