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How Therapy Works: Ruptures in the Therapeutic Relationship

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Sometimes as a client you will feel angry with your counsellor. This is a normal part of therapy.

Let me explain: it is your counsellor’s job to work with you to help you overcome whatever goal you agreed on together, such as working through bereavement, overcoming a trauma, or giving up an old habit. Chances are, if you have approached a counsellor it’s because you don’t have somebody already in your life who can support you through your desired goal.

Another one of a counsellor’s overall jobs is to render themselves redundant. If you have a strong enough network of supportive friends (and perhaps family, but that might be more complicated) then you probably no longer need a counsellor.

If you are angry enough with your counsellor that you want to leave the counselling relationship then it’s important to be sure that that is the best course of action. Anger can lead us to do reckless things, and you may be walking away when you need your counsellor the most.

This blog post is written to help you decide which is the best course of action: staying and talking, walking away, or filing a complaint.

First of All, Anger in Counselling is Normal

Sometimes you’ll get angry with your counsellor. For example, if you came to counselling believing that you cannot meet your goal (for example, because you cannot improve your health because gyms are too expensive, it’s dangerous to go for a run at night, and it’s unreasonable to expect anyone to give up take-aways, bread, and chocolate) then your counsellor may challenge you on these beliefs.

Feeling angry about that is natural. What you do with that anger depends on you.

Autonomy and Authority Figures

People in authority have power. And yet, they don’t always have as much power over us as we think, and we call the power you have over yourself “autonomy”. Not everyone realises the full extent of their autonomy, and that is often at the core of why they have come for counselling.

When a person believes they haven’t been treated fairly, they may go to the person in charge to make sure the situation is put right, rather than handling it themselves.

This may not help us fix the root issue. Our connections with other people depend on our interpersonal skills, and often, talking with the people we have a grievance with can be better for out personal development than going straight to the person in charge, which takes the issue out of our hands and robs us of our autonomy. Once you have gone to the person in authority to fix the problem for you, the option to talk things out amicably with the other person is often damaged, if not gone completely.

This is why I ask clients who feel angry with me to tell me about it at first. It is very unlikely I have done the thing you’re angry at me for out of spite or malice; I wouldn’t have trained as a counsellor if I wanted to act maliciously. If you come to me to talk it through, there is far more of a chance that I can put it right and we can work more effectively together in future.

On a related note, I like to read and reflect, and I am professionally bound to develop and update my professional skills, so if you tell me what you aren’t happy with then I’ll almost certainly make that a focus of my continuing professional development. Not only will you be helping yourself, you’ll also be helping me, and anybody else like you who I work with in the future!

Forgiving People for Not Being Perfect

When people get into new relationships or start new friendships, they are initially delighted. They’ve found somebody who they share chemistry with and it feels perfect. However, soon reality kicks in and we realise that this new person has a few flaws: an annoying habit perhaps, or there’s some aspect of us they don’t get, or something like that.

Not everyone forgives their new friends for not being as ideal as they originally thought they were. When a new friend or partner loses their shine, we can either walk away, or we can decide to forgive them for not being perfect, and accept them as a whole package.

This is as true for your counsellor as it is for anyone else. While counsellors aim to be understanding and helpful and are trained to be such, we do make mistakes from time to time as we are still only human. No one human can fully understand the experience of another. “Ruptures” – damage done to a relationship because it feels to one or the other person as if a promise has been broken – can result from simple human errors like this, and they are not something we can fully eliminate.

For this reason, if you get angry with your counsellor then you may need to allow for the idea that they made a genuine mistake and will be open to discussing the issue so that we know what we did wrong.

Empathy and Enabling

One common issue that can end up leaving a client feeling angry is an apparent lack of empathy in their counsellor. That may be what’s happening, or it may instead be a refusal to enable. Sometimes, that means I must say “no” or “that’s not okay”.

If you have come to me for counselling then my first belief is that you want to change something about your current situation. Sometimes, in order to get a different result than you’ve had before, you need to make a change, and it may be one you didn’t anticipate having to make. I listen carefully so I understand how you’ve supporting yourself in remaining in your current situation by doing, or not doing, certain actions, and when I believe you’re ready, I point these out.

If you feel angry at me for doing that, then you have two options:

  1. Option 1: we can work together to weather your anger and help you make the change, or
  2. Option 2: you can leave because I pointed something out and you didn’t like it.

Option 2 is easier, but doesn’t help you overcome the old behaviour that’s keeping you where you are. Staying, telling me how angry you are, but working it through with me will help you a great deal more.

The One Session Cure

Another common problem I find with clients is the expectation that I have the power to make everything better in a single session. This is often not the case for a variety of reasons, such as:

  • a therapeutic relationship takes time to build properly as you need to know what to expect from your counsellor
  • clients often bring multiple issues to therapy over time as you do more work on yourself
  • one of a counsellor’s tasks is to provide support as you start new habits and disengage from old ones
  • many clients take a while to acclimatise to being in a therapeutic relationship as it can feel strange to be in a genuinely supportive relationship
  • it can take a long time to develop trust in your counsellor; you may or may not be comfortable trusting people quickly

All of this means that one session is rarely enough to do all the work you may need to do. I’d recommend you be prepared to attend at least 12 sessions to do relatively short-term work, and potentially years for longer-term work.

When it’s a Good Idea to File a Complaint

If you’d like a helpful guide on the types of situations where making a complaint against your counsellor is appropriate, here is a brief list. There are a number of blog posts by other therapists on the same subject. Watch out for therapists who:

  • break your confidentiality
  • discourage you from conducting your own research on the state of your mental health
  • ignore your questions
  • reveal information about themselves often
  • shame or judge you

To Finish Up

Handling conflict is often difficult, but counsellors are trained to work with situations where conflict or discord are happening. Staying in such a situation doesn’t make it comfortable, but being able to weather a rupture together and talking through what happened can yield great results for you, as you and your counsellor get to develop a deeper mutual trust and to understand each other better – which can make later work much more fruitful.

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