This simple illustration is meant to be a visual representation of something that can be kind of hard to understand about therapy: it’s okay to not see eye to eye with your therapist.
A lot of us began therapy as clients with the expectation that the therapist will be the expert, that they’ll gently speak or help us find for ourselves some magic words that must be uttered for us to heal, and that- like most professional relationships- there won’t be intense discussions that engage conflict.
In fact, good therapy is quite the opposite. It’s okay if a significant portion of therapy is spent engaging and then repairing miscommunications, disagreements, and misunderstandings. Why? Because one way that good therapy works is through helping us understand and change problematic relational patterns. The same way we respond to being misunderstood or challenged by our therapist may be the very same dynamic that pushes people away in our personal relationships and makes it difficult to maintain fulfilling relationships with friends and partners.
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One way that therapy can help us increase our social support (which is connected to decreased mental health symptoms long-term) is through helping us experiment with new ways to be in relationship with others and to get our needs met. Unfortunately, this change doesn’t come simply through education– otherwise, we could just read books and listen to podcasts instead of going to therapy! This type of deep relational change comes through practice in therapy– practice that is often emotionally loaded and sometimes very painful. If we run away at the point that therapy is painful, often we miss the exact opportunities we need in order to develop our capacity to engage in deep, healthy, differentiated ways that build fulfilling relationships.
Allan Schore, a leading researcher at the intersection of psychology and neurobiology, says these enlivened moments repeat and reenact emotional scenarios from both a client’s and a therapist’s own lives. These moments are a chance for clients to rework an old story, an old pattern, or a default response and then to emotionally experience a new ending. According to Schore, the most important of these experiences happen at the brink of exceeding our tolerance to handle them- in other words, “it’s when therapy feels worst that it’s doing its best work” (Wylie & Turner).
Experiencing and then repairing miscommunications, disagreements, and ruptures is a key part of how good therapy works. How we respond to relational conflict is a story uniquely wired into each of our brains, and if we always do what we’ve always done, that wiring gets stronger- and if that story is making it hard for us to form supportive, satisfying relationships, strengthening it is a problem.
Good relational therapy makes room for emotionally charged conflict, and makes it safe for us to choose to stay, engage, and experiment with handling conflict differently. Doing so has a powerful ability to change our brains by giving us vividly emotional experiences that help rewrite old stories with new endings in a way that just learning about relationship skills can’t- creating a greater capacity to form and maintain fulfilling relationships beyond therapy.
Does lots of conflict with a therapist mean therapy isn’t working?
Conflict isn’t a problem in therapy, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem with how a particular therapist handles conflict and the way in which that therapist’s relational style is entering their client’s sessions. If a therapist isn’t able to engage authentically, be curious about others’ experiences, and remain willing to consider their own potential errors, it may be a red flag that the therapist is not personally a point where they can engage in interpersonal work in a therapeutic relationship. They may still have a lot to offer in other ways, but may not be able to help clients through the dynamic reshaping of their relational patterns.
How do I bring up an issue with a therapist to a therapist?
I sometimes invite my clients to talk about “what it would be like to talk about” something, before they name what that something is. Talking about talking about something is a way to experiment, test safety, and get help from someone else to “go there”, without immediately “going there.”
Some people find it helpful for drop a therapist a brief email (i.e. “In Tuesday’s session I want to talk about ____, but it will be difficult for me to bring up, can you help me get there?”) so you both enter the session with the same goal.