capturing the beautiful calamity of healing in therapy

You Need to Like Your Therapist

A few months ago, I was talking to a professional colleague about a former client and mentioned that I really liked him/her and that I felt he/she really liked me. This wasn’t a romantic or even friendship “like”; this was simply a matter of enjoying mutual company and enjoying each other’s presence. It was a step above basic respect and several steps underneath any resemblance of love. This colleague, also a therapist, asked me why “liking” a client or having a client “like” me mattered, and it’s been on my mind since.

I’ve had to put some thought into this term “liking” and what that even means because it’s somewhat difference from the catch-all “transference” and “projection” and “therapeutic alliance” terms we therapists like to frequently toss around. I believe, on a primitive level, like refers to a sense of safety of validation. It is an evocation of positive feelings, feeling good about ourselves in the light of another. It means we care about another person and his or her well-being and we have a general attractiveness, a drawn energy, towards his or her personality at large. We feel accepted, at some level, because we know there is the potential for evolving safety and trust.

It feels good to like someone, and it feels great when they like us back. There is a reason the term “bedside manners” exists. When we are putting our most intimate stuff out on the table, when we are stripped and raw and fresh and vulnerable, we need to know that we are still okay and that we are still worthy.  I believe this is the most critical bid for attention, and it is the most important time to ever feel appreciated.

I always want to hear about my clients’ previous experiences in therapy, and I’ve heard many of them tell me that they “hate therapy” or “hate therapists.”  In my own questioning, I find that the core complaints tend to be along the lines of, “my therapist didn’t even really listen to me….he or she assumed all these things…he or she called me this or that.”

This brings me to my other point. We like people who devote energy and time to OUR stories, our lives, and our problems. It’s a very sacred exchange that validates the idea that hey, you’re important, and yes, you matter.

I do not think respect is enough. I really don’t. I think you have to like the person sitting across from you, and I think you have to, at least, partially like coming to session. I think you have to like what’s going on in your therapy.

To extrapolate upon this, I challenge: if you don’t like a person, therapist or not, what tends to happen? You place judgment; you feel judged; you may withhold information; you may coil and make assumptions for whatever reasons; you have some kind of instinct leaning towards distrust and/or shame. This may be a projection. That’s for another topic. But, to keep it simple, if you don’t like your therapist, it means something in the relationship signifies a feeling of discomfort.  While I agree it can be incredibly healing to process this within the safe bounds of therapy, I also realize that, just like any other type of relationship, we aren’t going to get along with everyone we meet.

When we like someone or something, we want to commit to it. We want more, we absorb it, we are more willing to trust and engage. When we don’t like someone or something, we make excuses; we take shortcuts; we basically hide.

When we like our therapist, we feel safe. We feel like we matter. We respect him or her, even when the work is challenging and the conversation becomes difficult, because we know there is a movement of compassion and warmth. And, on that note, we don’t give warmth enough credit, either. Warmth is one of those elementary how-to-be-a-therapist techniques we learn the first semester of graduate school, but so many therapist let it fall to the wayside in lieu of fancy interventions, treatment plans, and evidence-based care.

Warmth is critical because it is the foundation for nurture and an invitation for connection and empathy. There is a reason we gravitate towards kindness. It just feels good knowing that someone has devoted some mental energy to help you out. Most of my clients only know cold environments, and when I say cold, I refer to the layers of invalidation and harshness they have internalized, on both subtle and extreme layers. Few of them have anyone in their lives who exudes warmth, compassion, and patience, and yet, it’s something we all desperately need in order to heal anything at all.

If you don’t like your therapist, don’t ignore that feeling. Pay attention to the intuition. No matter how smart or experienced your therapist is, he or she will never know your intuition better than you do! Even if you cannot pinpoint exactly what it is, stay with the feeling. It’s like trying on a shirt that doesn’t look quite right. You may not be able to identify exactly what’s bothering you because the style, price, and color may seem right, but something is amiss. Chances are, if you buy it, you won’t want to wear it.

Don’t ignore the feeling.

If you can address it with him or her, great. If you two can work through it and process this experience in a healthy and productive fashion, amazing. If not- and because therapists are humans and we all clash with moral values and personalities- you absolutely, 100% have permission to get your needs met.

In saying this, I do not intend to minimize the presenting problems, pressing diagnoses, or any of the extraneous reasons people enter therapy in the first place. Rather, I seek to emphasize that none of those can really be worked through if the client doesn’t like me enough to reveal such vulnerabilities and fears.

Liking matters because we need to like the people who we tell our secrets to, and more than that, we need to like someone in order to trust that these secrets are safe, validated, and important.