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How to Fix Problems with Your Therapist and Deepen Your Therapeutic Relationship

How to Fix Problems with Your Therapist and Deepen Your Therapeutic Relationship

The relationship with your therapist is one of the most important aspects of therapy and one of the most curative. It's the essential ingredient that makes everything else work. Even if you find the perfect style of therapy for your needs or come to therapy knowing all you need to know to succeed as a client, it won't matter if you don't connect to your therapist. When you trust and like your therapist, it's easier to open up to them. It makes you more motivated to do your homework. It creates the essential alchemy that allows healing and transformation to occur.

 

Don't just take it from us, though—researchers have come to the same conclusion. A 2017 study showed that the therapeutic relationship was the strongest predictor of success in therapy. This means a good relationship with your therapist contributes even more to what happens in therapy than other important factors like a therapist's level of experience or your individual strengths as a client. Even inexperienced therapists get better results when they're trained in methods that focus on strengthening the therapeutic relationship. Other researchers agree: nothing is more important in therapy than your relationship with your therapist.

 

While taking the time to research and choose the right therapist is an important part of building a strong relationship, it's not all you need to succeed. You also need to be able to repair the fractures and fix the problems that you'll encounter as you work together. Even the best therapists will make mistakes, say the wrong things, or misunderstand you sometimes.

 

These moments will inevitably crash into the sensitivities and issues you're coming to therapy to heal in the first place. If unaddressed, they can alienate you from your therapist and even make you want to quit. But they don't have to break your bond. In fact, they can help you deepen your relationship if you respond to them in the right way. Read on to learn how to do the essential repair work that will help you maintain and improve your relationship with your therapist.

 

How the Therapeutic Relationship Gets Tested


 

If you did all the research and work you needed to do to find the right therapist, you should end up with a therapist who is caring, warm, understanding, and non-judgmental. Experiencing a safe relationship with someone who has these qualities does a lot of the healing work on its own. But even with a good therapist, there will be times when your relationship doesn't work so well. 

 

Painful misunderstandings will inevitably occur, especially if you see your therapist for more than just a few sessions. Perhaps one day your therapist will seem bored or won't laugh at one of your jokes. Maybe they'll say something insensitive or joke about something that isn't funny to you. They might misinterpret something you were trying to tell them or seem disinterested in something that's important to you. Maybe they'll be silent when you want them to say something or say the wrong thing when you hoped they would let your words speak for themselves.

 

Nina Simone famously sang, "Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood." It's a plea we all feel deep in our hearts. It hurts when someone misunderstands your intentions or misinterprets your words. Being misunderstood can do a lot of damage over time. If betrayal is like a lightning strike that instantly splits a relationship, misunderstandings are like a trickle of water that slowly erodes your connection. The break that eventually occurs can be just as profound and final as if you were betrayed. This is as true in a relationship with a therapist as it is in any other relationship.

 

The worst is when your therapist seems to misunderstand or judge you in the same way that your parents or other important people in your life did. The ways we were misunderstood or rejected by parents, caregivers, close friends, or partners are at the heart of our deepest wounds. A simple misunderstanding can change the entire course of your life. One or more painful conversations with an out-of-touch parent or teacher can put you off from pursuing your dreams. Repeatedly feeling judged or rejected in the same way by intimate partners can make you feel unlovable. These wounds are often what bring us to therapy.

 

When a therapist repeats the same misunderstanding that deeply wounded you—or even just seems to repeat it—the result can be devastating. A scene that played out between you can loop through your head repeatedly, making you cringe every time you remember it. One bad moment with your therapist can reinforce your deepest fears. It can make you feel hopeless, doomed, and like there's no way to heal because even your therapist doesn't understand you.

 

This is why it's so important to not just react and walk away. One of the most powerful things the therapeutic relationship can teach you is that you can fix things that have been damaged. You can connect, can love and be loved, can be accepted for who you are at the deepest level of your being.

 

How to Repair Your Relationship with Your Therapist


Sometimes therapy can go really wrong; sometimes you simply end up with a bad therapist. When that happens, lines get crossed that should never be crossed in therapy, and all you can do to fix the damage is leave and try again with a new therapist. Most of the time, though, therapists are earnest, ethical, and at least somewhat skilled in the work they do. And one of a therapist's most important skills is talking through and fixing problems that other people in your life ignore or make worse when things get tough in your relationships with them.

 

The most important thing you can do when you feel hurt, misunderstood, or rejected in therapy is to tell your therapist. If there is a problem, no matter how big or small, talk about it. Healing relationship ruptures isn't just repair work—it's the heart of the therapeutic process. Telling your therapist about something that hurt you requires courage and vulnerability and brings a lot of deep emotions to the surface. These conversations may not be the easiest, but they can be the most powerful. Think of them as elevators that can take your therapy to the next level.


 When you talk through misunderstandings with your therapist, it gives you the opportunity to witness a broken relationship being repaired. This is something many people fail to experience in their lives. You've probably had more than one misunderstanding that was never mended. Maybe instead of recovery, your attempts to fix a fracture led to arguments or distance. Perhaps the person you tried to work though it with denied the problem or even retaliated in some way. 

 

It affects you deeply when a break in a relationship remains unresolved. It's even more painful when the experience of unsuccessfully trying to resolve the brokenness is traumatizing. These losses can lead you to the conclusion that relationship issues should not be talked about and are not repairable. When you lose faith in the ability to heal your connection with people you care about, it has a catastrophic effect on your capacity for security and intimacy. Realizing that damaged relationships can be fixed is one of the most healing gifts therapy can give you. 

 

A good therapist will surprise you with their openness to talking about repairing the relationship and will lean into the conflict with genuine care for your concerns. This feeling of surprise is an indication that you are experiencing something different and better than what happened to you in the past. This is what makes therapy therapeutic—what makes therapy therapy.

 

Learning What Makes or Breaks Relationships

 


Another reason it's important to resolve misunderstandings with your therapist is that it can show you how to save other relationships when they hit a rough patch. Therapy is a safe place where you can experiment and learn what actually works when a relationship becomes strained. When you successfully work through an issue with your therapist, you'll gain insight into how you can address similar issues with other people in your life.

 

The weight of all that goes unsaid can lead to the eventual death of a relationship. This is as true with a therapist as it is with an intimate partner. If you form a strong belief about your therapist and never bring it up, it can poison your emotional bond. The unexpressed feelings you carry will feel worse and worse until you'll just want to leave so you don't have to feel them anymore. It's just as damaging if your first attempt to fix the issue doesn't work and you just bury the feeling away again without talking about it. 

 

So tell your therapist if you tried to fix an issue but feel like your concerns weren't addressed the first time. Even the best therapists can't keep your relationship from falling apart if you're not willing to tell them when they hurt you or get it wrong. Working things out with your therapist will allow you to experience the personal growth that happens when you talk through and repair the broken places. 

 

How Relationships Connect the Past to the Present

 


Exploring the specific difficulties that you have with your therapist can give you vital clues about where others may have failed you, especially your parents, and the emotional wounds and blocks those failures created. For example, if your parents never cared for you, or you never believed that they did, you might have difficulty believing that your therapist does. If your parents or a long-term partner minimized your feelings, you might have an unusually strong reaction if you feel dismissed or invalidated by your therapist.

 

Look out for these strong reactions and talk about them. The specific nature of what affects you can be an important clue to what you need to heal. This is even more important if the same issue has come up in multiple relationships. Big emotional reactions are like breadcrumbs. If you follow the trail, it will eventually lead you to past pain, loss, or trauma that needs your attention. 

 

It's rare that a reaction you'll have to your therapist will be something you haven't experienced before with someone else. And no matter how strongly you feel about your therapist, it's not the same as what you feel in more intimate relationships with parents, partners, family, and friends. So pay attention when your reaction to your therapist seems way out of proportion to what happened in your session. It's often a sign you've opened up an old wound you never worked through with the person who actually caused it.

 

By exploring these recurring issues in therapy, which is usually a safer place to examine them than in other relationships, you can start to understand the source of these issues and how to heal them. Tracing the feelings that emerge in the therapy room to their deeper roots can help you revisit and resolve the issues that have been affecting you for years.

 

Conclusion

 


Often, the first step toward change is gaining insight into why you feel the way you do. Your habitual feelings, thoughts, and reactions may reflect distortions in how you understood the world at a certain time. Even when your reactions were reasonable in the past, they may not be reasonable in the situations that trigger them now. Holding on to them holds you back. By examining and repairing the wounds that are behind your most painful stories, you can learn how to rewrite the script for your life so that it's less painful and more empowering.

 

When you think of a therapist, hopefully you imagine the warm, safe feeling of being cared for by a generous, spirited other. Ideally, most of your relationship with your therapist will live up to what we all hope and dream therapy can be. But even when you've got a good relationship with a good therapist, things won't be good 100 percent of the time. When things go wrong in therapy, it's vital to work through them. The mutual attempt at repair is not only an essential part of therapy—it may be what you'll remember as the most significant part of your healing process.



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Stephanie Hairston, MSW
Posted on 11/30/2020 by Stephanie Hairston, MSW

Stephanie Hairston is a freelance mental health writer who spent several years in the field of adult mental health before transitioning to professional writing and editing. As a masters-level clinical social worker, she provided group and individual therapy, crisis intervention services, and psychological assessments. She has also worked as a technical writer for a medical software company and as an editor for a company that appeals denials of insurance coverage for behavioral health treatment. As a writer, she is motivated by the same desire to help others that brought her into the field of social work and believes that knowledge is one of the most essential recovery tools. She strongly believes in the mission of OpenCounseling and in making therapy accessible for everyone.