Home > acceptance, ambivalance, boundaries, dependence, feelings, needs, self-worth > Why won’t my therapist just tell me how this works?!?

Why won’t my therapist just tell me how this works?!?

I don’t know about anyone else, but one of the most frustrating things about therapy for me was the fact that I was working so hard to get it “right” but the Boundary Ninja refused to cooperate. In any way. He’s a very stubborn man. Or perhaps determined might be a better word.

When I started really working with the Boundary Ninja on an individual basis, I was consumed with the worry that I was being a nightmare of a patient, way too needy and that he was just sitting across from me keenly anticipating the day that I would finally leave. I was consumed with worry about how I was doing in therapy. Was I getting it right? Was I being a good patient? Was I working hard enough? Did he actually like me or was he just tolerating me for pay? I’m sure most of you could come up with a long list of your own.

At the time, my husband and I were seeing the BN every other week for couples’ counseling and I was seeing him on the off weeks for individual counseling (I eventually started going weekly, marital appointment or not. Loved the weeks I actually got to see him twice in one week! :)) We made an appointment for a couples’ session and after we got home and I checked my calendar I realized that I already had a haircut booked that evening. The BN was pretty tough to schedule and my hairdresser isn’t nearly as tough, so I called her and switched the haircut from Wednesday night to Thursday night. I saw the BN for my appointment on Monday of that week. On Tuesday, my husband found out he was working overtime the rest of the week and couldn’t make our couples’ session but told me to feel free to go alone. I was pretty pumped that I would get individual appointments two weeks in a row (since what I really wanted at that point was to move in under his desk). But on Tuesday afternoon, I got a call from the BN.

BN NEVER initiated contact outside of our sessions EXCEPT to cancel or reschedule appointments. So when the receptionist told me he was on the phone, I was braced. When I picked up, BN told me he had a conflict and would it be possible for my husband and I to come in at the same time but on Thursday instead of Wednesday. I checked my calendar and realized that it was landing smack dab on the haircut I had already rescheduled for the counseling appointment. It seemed a bit much to move my haircut again. You have to trust me on this next part, I was very honest about how I was feeling. So I told BN that Thursday wouldn’t really work because I had another appointment BUT that was ok, because my husband couldn’t make it because of work and I would see him for my regular appointment the next Tuesday, so that was fine. And I really thought it was fine. Really, I did. No lying. BN asked again if I was ok with it, I assured him again I that I was, he thanked me and hung up.

I put the phone back on the cradle and went from smiling and calm to crumbling hysteria in 0.3 nanoseconds. Totally blindsided. This horrible wail of loss and disappointment welled up from deep inside. Then I did something that to this day shocks me. I immediately picked up the phone and dialed the BN’s answering service (I never called him directly, I called his service, then gave him the message, then he called me back). I left a message that  because of my reaction when I got off the phone, I did want to come in for the appointment. I also emailed him and told him what had happened and told him I had called. He called me back within the hour and left a voicemail on my cell phone (first ever and yes, I still have it *blush*) that he was glad I called back and that the appointment was still open. Then I called my very patient hairdresser and explained what happened (she’s also a close friend and privy to my therapy adventures) and rescheduled.

So I headed to the appointment, feeling like a COMPLETE MORON. I mean, one minute I’m on the phone saying “no problem, we can cancel” and the next minute I’m crying hysterically in my office. Why didn’t I just say I wanted the appointment on the phone with him? So I was kind of embarrassed.

One of BN’s finer qualities is that when I am feeling at my most pathetic and stupid, he always seems to think I’ve done something really impressive. 🙂 He was totally pumped that I had called back and asked for the appointment AND that I had been totally open about what happened and my emotional response when I got off the phone. Since I was thinking I had behaved like a total wingnut ditz, this reaction surprised me. 🙂 As we discussed it, I apologized and I told him that I really didn’t lie, that I wasn’t on the phone with him knowing that I was upset; that it really wasn’t until I hung up the phone that it hit me like a ton of bricks and all the upset flooded in. Then BN told me something brilliant (and very normalizing). He told me that I had to be so focused on the “other’s” needs as a child that I literally was not capable of KNOWING my own needs when I was with someone else. So when I was on the phone with him, I did what I always do, which was identified his need to cancel the appointment so I immediately and cheerfully met that need. But as soon as I hung the phone up and was alone, then my own feelings and needs could emerge. And they were considerably different. But what he was so excited about was that when I identified the need, instead of giving into shame and burying it, I reached out to him, for connection, and ASKED for what I needed. And the need was met.

This was a pretty awesome breakthrough. We had talked about my not being able to express my feelings or needs, but this was actually  experiencing myself unconsciously doing that. And what was healing about it, was behaving differently than I had as a child and having it turn out well. Not only was I NOT in trouble, but I was actually being praised for how I handled it. Pretty cool.

This started a series of sessions in which we talked about my becoming aware of and expressing my needs. The first time the BN actually asked me what I wanted, and I stopped to think about it, it was so threatening that he told me that he watched the blood drain out of my face and I started hyperventilating. Yes, just sitting in someone else’s presence and daring to think about what I wanted was so scary, I couldn’t breathe.

SIDENOTE ON BREATHING: A real signal with me that intense emotion is coming up is that I stop breathing. So there were many times where BN actually, literally, had to say to me “AG, remember to breathe.” The first time it happened, I totally lost it laughing. I mean, how stupid was I if someone had to tell me to remember to breathe. It actually became a theme throughout our work and also a kind of running joke. When I started counted cross stitching again (a future post :)) the first piece I made is simply the word “Breathe” and it hangs on my office wall as a reminder of so very much.

Going back to where I started, I often experienced a lot of anxiety about how the BN was feeling. So I would occasionally have to ask for reassurance. The next session, after I left I realized that it really felt like the BN had been totally frustrated with me. Then I realized that I had asked him during the session if he was frustrated and he had told me no. But it was still hammering at me. So I emailed him and explained how I was feeling and told him that I needed reassurance, but it was also scary because I had already asked for reassurance that day. I got a really “nice” response.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this yet, but the BN, when asked about his feelings, could be extremely bland, for lack of a better word, in his responses. On this occasion what I got back was “I ‘m doing fine with our work together.” He also went on to tell me it was ok for me to have my feelings. Should have made me feel better right? But I have to tell you, that “fine” ate at me. I kept coming back to him saying that and realized that each time I did I became more unhappy with that as a response. I finally realized what was bugging me!! I ended up explaining it in this email I sent back to the BN:

I realized something important last night that I wanted to tell you about and didn’t want to wait until our next appt. The “fine” in your response drove me  nuts, it just seemed so tepid. In trying to think through why your feelings about me are so important to me, I realized something. I’m worrying about how you feel and want to know how you feel so I can figure out what you want me to do. If you don’t tell me what to do, then I have to figure out what I want and what to do about it in our relationship and/or my life. But as we discussed last session, I find safety in fulfilling the other persons needs. So your (supportive) refusal to give me guidance is making me live outside my comfort zone (which is also why its making me want to throw things at you). But that makes me realize that you’re trusting me to figure out what to do and what I want. It would be so much easier to just tell me what to do, or provide comfort so I feel better here and now but for my healing in long run I need to stay with that discomfort and learn to hear (and feel) what I want without it scaring me to death. Like most epiphanies, this one seems kind of d’uh when stated this way, but I could only make the connection because of seeing how scared it made me to think about what I wanted to do in our last session. 

I had finally realized that BN was holding still and NOT giving me any input because the therapy was about my needs and feelings. He was also not making me feel better in the short-term, to foster my long-term growth. He kept himself and his feelings out of the room, so that the therapeutic space was a clear one in which I could be who I was, or more accurately, where I was learning who I was. No matter how I felt, it was accepted. No matter what need I expressed, it was heard and understood (might not be fulfilled if it was impossible, but recognized as a legitimate, healthy need).

Fast forward, a couple of years to when I had done a significant amount of healing. I had an accomplishment I was really excited about and wanted to share it with BN, so I had emailed him with it. At out next session, when we were discussing it, I finally asked a very scary question I had wanted to ask him for a very long time. I asked him if he was proud of me? Then I dove behind the couch.  Ok, no, but I wanted to. 🙂 It was extremely important to me that he be proud of me, which is why it was so scary to ask, I mean, what if he said no? But BN went right past my question to what I was really asking. He told me that there are two ways we can ask that question. The first is a rhetorical way of saying “hey look what I did, isn’t it great?” but the second is a way of asking “Am I ok now?” That he thought the reason I was asking was because I was recognizing my progress and wanted to see if I was good enough now. I hate how right he can be. So he said that if he told me yes, then it would imply that there was a time when I wasn’t ok and he didn’t find me acceptable. He told me that of course he was proud of me, he always had been. That of course he was happy to hear of my accomplishment, it was life spreading life, how could he not be happy about that? But whether I came in with something wonderful to share or sat across from him sobbing with snot running down my face (which unfortunately was a precise description of something that he had seen) how he felt about me did NOT change. That he might approve or disapprove of something that I did, but his care for me would not change.

This is when it hit me that I had spent so much of our work together trying to earn something I always had. Think the Tinman or the  Cowardly Lion. I was OK the minute I walked through his door, just because I am. I was not worthwhile because the BN said so. He was recognizing a truth, not creating one.

When you put these two things together, then it becomes clear that there is no “right” way to do therapy. There is only being as honest as you can be at given point about how you are feeling and what you are thinking and what you want. That part of what is so healing is to have ALL of you be heard, understood and accepted. To learn that all of me is human, I may not like it all, but it’s a part of me and acceptable.

Near the end of our regular work together, I remember the BN and I having a really intensely attuned session during which we were looking back over our work together and I was recalling how scary it had been that he would not tell me what to do. And then I thanked him for not telling me what to do. Because if he had in any way communicated his desires or needs, I would simply have become who he wanted me to be. If he had led, I would have followed. Instead, he stood alongside me and followed wherever I led. His expertise and experience and insight into my unconscious patterns were a lantern he held up to light our way, but it was I who said, hey, that way looks good or I want to see what’s over THAT hill. And it was in this process that I was able to listen and hear who I was.

So that’s why your therapist won’t tell you what to do. Because what you do is your choice and enough people have taken that away from you. It can be scary and incredibly frustrating learning to listen to yourself, but, like many painful things in therapy, worth it in the end.

  1. hopeful
    November 16, 2011 at 11:57 am

    Hi AG,
    Read enough of this to realize I can try to move my process along even with the anxiety so I just made a call with anxiety “intact” to my T with my lovely anxiety intact. You definitely help to pave the way. I only realize thru yours and others explanations that I’m not alone in my experiences. I’m so glad to have found psyche cafe and everyone.


    • November 21, 2011 at 12:35 am

      Hi Hopeful,
      I am sorry it has taken me so long to reply, it was an interesting week. 🙂 Thank you so very much for telling me that what I have written actually helped you to contact your therapist. And helps you not to feel so alone. I can’t begin to tell you how encouraging and affirming that is for me. But do remember, that paving is a good way to look at it. You were very courageous to reach out despite your anxiety and should be proud of yourself for taking that risk. Walking into your fears is how you will continue to grow.


  2. Tessa
    December 13, 2011 at 10:45 am

    This is something I have been struggling with in a really BIG way! I can’t handle the fact that my therapist asks me what I want to discuss. You have just opened a whole new way of reasoning for me! Thank you


    • December 13, 2011 at 1:15 pm

      So glad it opened up possibilities for you. One of the difficult fall outs of long term trauma is how it cuts us off from being able to see other possibilities or understandings. You being able to see new options is a sign of healing. AG


  3. Starrynights
    March 22, 2012 at 11:27 am

    I just stumbled upon your blog yesterday, and I am so grateful to have been led here! This post in particular was EXACTLY what I needed to hear today. Tomorrow I see my T for my weekly appt., and I always struggle with the exact things you addressed so succinctly here. Thank you so much!!


    • March 22, 2012 at 9:00 pm

      Hi Starrynights,
      Welcome to my blog, I’m glad you found it. I’m also very happy to hear that you’re finding what I write helpful. Although I do not usually hear the word “succinct” applied to my writing. 🙂 I hope the appointment tomorrow goes well.



      • Starrynights
        March 24, 2012 at 8:06 pm

        It didn’t go so well, I left depressed and deflated. I think he told me a lot of “truth” that I just didn’t want to hear. It’s so hard, and even harder to have to go home and act fine and composed instead of like I’m falling apart inside. I actually parked somewhere and just processed everything for about two hours, then finally went home to be a wife and mother again. My heart was elsewhere, to say the least.



        • April 4, 2012 at 8:34 pm

          Ah Starry, that’s the downside of therapists. Yes, they’re accepting and compassionate and nurturing but they also have to be willing to tell us the truths we’d rather not hear. Just try to hang on to the fact that they aren’t telling us painful truths to hurt us, they’re telling us painful truths to help us.


  4. claire
    August 14, 2013 at 7:05 pm

    Hi there AG, I’m off for my 4th appt with the Silent one…tomorrow. She really freaks me out. I’m constantly feeling like I’m saying and doing the ‘wrong’ thing. And am desperate for her to tell me how I’m supposed to be!!! So pleased to have found your blog. Thank you for sharing such an engaging and personal experience. 🙂


    • November 18, 2014 at 4:22 pm

      I have no idea if you’re still reading, so sorry to have overlooked your comment! Not sure I could deal with silence! Eek! For all his lack of direction, BN does talk a lot. 🙂 So glad that reading here helped though, I hope you are doing well. Thanks for taking the time to say this. ~ AG


  5. November 13, 2014 at 10:48 am

    You’re in my head… between this and the “Why you’re not crazy” post… you’re so in my head, it’s scary. I literally stopped and said “Oh!” when reading your email to BN. I do the exact. same. thing. Because, for me, safety = doing what was expected/what I was told. That is how I kept safe… so if my therapist won’t tell me what is expected, what to do, what we’re doing, I completely panic and just start pontificating on what I think he’s thinking.

    I just wish understanding this on a brain level meant that it didn’t happen anymore on an emotional level. But, thank you. THANK you!


    • November 18, 2014 at 4:27 pm

      Hi Lisak87,
      Welcome to my blog and thanks for commenting! First off I want to say thank you, both for your kind words and for the links on the Pandy’s forum, you’re sending a lot of traffic my way. 🙂 (I usually follow links back and I recognized your username, don’t want to creep you out!). I am very glad you felt understood by reading and that it provided you with insight. Knowing we’re not alone in our feelings can help so much. And I totally agree with your frustration about the fact that understanding on a brain level doesn’t mean we get out of going through the emotions. I was complaining about it just my last session. 🙂 It is in feeling and expressing our feelings that the healing occurs. Please trust me, if there were ANY way around the feelings, I would have found it, I’ve spent years, if not decades, looking for that answer. I am sorry that you were made to feel that your safety depended on being what someone else wanted. It’s the opposite of what we’re supposed to have. I hope that therapy proves a safe place for you to learn who you are and what you want. ~ AG


  6. Elphaba
    August 8, 2015 at 6:28 pm

    I feel the same as Lisak87. I can’t believe how closely I relate to this and some of your other posts.
    From the bottom of my heart, thank you for sharing. My T is away for a number of weeks and this reading is helping me a lot – I’m thinking differently about how to handle our future sessions.


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