One Among Many

Veryhopeful posted a question on the Psych Cafe forums and the more I thought about answering her, the more I realized it was an excellent topic for a post. So with her kind permission, I am repeating the question here, then attempting to answer it.

Veryhopeful said:

Does anyone find it strange that the T is so important to us but yet he has so many clients. How is it possible for them to really care or separate each persons “stuff”. I’ve asked him this because it really bothers me that I have one of “him” in my life and he has dozens of “me” in his life. We all want to feel important to them but are we really? It’s so personal for us but not for them; like they are just an illusion or some emotionless guide…But what bothers me about him is that he takes no break in between clients and I find that really odd.

I think it is important to say up front that I have also struggled with these questions and feelings – still do from time to time – so what I am saying here is born out of a long struggle to understand. And even with this knowledge, the feelings can still be very strong at times. The truth is that the boundaries in therapy add an ambiguity to the relationship that makes it easy to question the authenticity because we often do not get the kind of feedback about our therapist’s feelings that we can get from a friend or other loved one. Not sure how true this is for everyone else, but I get NOWHERE trying to discuss BN’s feelings about me, or about anything else, for that matter. 🙂

The first mistake I think we make is to see love and caring as a zero sum game. As if each person has only a limited amount of love and when the quota is filled up, they will feel nothing for anyone else. This is often based on the fact that when we were children, parental resources of time, attention, affection and compassion were in short supply. This was even more exacerbated if we needed to compete with our siblings for what little there was. I strongly suspect that I have had life long problems with my next older sister because my father stopped abusing her when he started abusing me and she was angry and jealous over the loss of his “attention.” Warped yes, but I know from my memories that any gentleness or care I received from my father was usually the prelude to abuse. So I treasured those memories and dissociated the abuse so I could hang onto the crumbs of care provided. I think my sister resented it when she saw that transferred to me. So knowing BN has other clients can sometimes lead to my feeling like I need to compete for his attention.

But the truth is that God (substitute your conception of a higher power here if it works better for you 🙂 ) is an inexhaustible supply of love and in His economy we always have enough to meet our needs. So I am never limited in the number of people I can love or care for. Nor are our therapists. Each person who walks through their door is a unique human being with their own stories and struggles and I think it really is possible to care for each of them. I volunteer on a Crisis Line and can truly say that I really do care for each person I talk to even if it’s for a short time. There are some people you experience a better chemistry with and a stronger sense of connection, but the care is the same for each person.

Now, while we are not limited in the amount of love we have to give, we are limited by our time and energy. We have only so much time and so much energy to devote to our relationships. General rule of thumb, the more important the relationship, the more time and energy we spend on it. Our spouses and children probably get more of our time and energy than our friends, and our friends more than our acquaintances. The therapeutic relationship is unique, and a bit of an odd duck, in that the therapist is lending the kind of energy, depth and focus that we reserve for our deepest relationships, but is doing so for many people. Think about the level of engagement and focus your therapist brings into your session, and his own needs being excluded. Doing that for 6-8 hours day sounds pretty exhausting doesn’t it? No one would be capable of keeping up that level of attention and focus all the time. They would need rest, and time to attend to their own needs. So part of the reason for the boundaries in therapy is to protect the therapist’s resources so that they can bring that focus and engagement to bear for the hour or two a week they do spend with you. I think a lot of our frustration with the boundaries is that we long for 24/7 access to that person we have for one hour. That person doesn’t exist. I do not mean that you are not seeing the real person; I deeply believe that therapy is most effective when both people are authentic. But no one could keep that level of focus and attention of all the time, around the clock. They would become so drained that eventually their survival instincts would kick in, at which point they become completely self-focused. This is exactly what you see happen when a therapist does not hold clear boundaries and gives more than they are really comfortable giving. Eventually they abandon their patients to save themselves. Everyone gets hurt.*

On the other hand, while our contact is limited, I think while we are with them, we get the best of them. We do not see the grumpiness, or irritation or moments of selfishness or fear or judgment, and don’t get me going about dirty socks or who has control of the TV remote. 🙂

So now we understand why a client has to be a client to protect the work, but why can’t we be “special” and as important to our therapist as they are to us? One of the truly difficult truths about therapy is that while it is a deep, genuine relationship, there is an asymmetry to it. Except for payment, it all flows in the direction of the client and is focused on their needs and feelings. Providing care and encouragement and acceptance, while important functions of a therapist, are not their only responsibilities. They are to observe us and collate data and attend to our behavior in order to reflect to us the patterns of our behaviors, and help us bring into consciousness our unconscious beliefs and behaviors. They use their insight, experience and education to make sense of our behavior and place it in the proper context. This requires a certain detachment that will allow them to see us clearly. Nothing is at stake for them in the relationship with us, so they are not risking anything to help us see the truth. They do not need us to like them (I am sure its much more pleasant when we do, it’s just that they won’t make it a goal of our therapy for us to like them) so they are willing to reflect the truth, some of which can be difficult to hear. BN has said some of the most beautiful things I have ever had said to me. He has also said some of the hardest, knowing how they would hurt me to hear, but knowing I needed to hear them. If a therapist allowed themselves to need us, if we became as important to them as they are to us, how would they manage to be objective enough to understand our behaviors? Or take the risk of telling us hard truths with so much at stake for them? Therapy also means that sometimes our therapists have to let us sit with our pain (Why your therapist seems cruel, but really isn’t); again, it is more possible to do that if you keep a certain distance.

I do not believe this distance comes naturally. I think that therapists have to work to stay in the right place in relationship to us. Too far out and the vital emotional connection cannot take place. Too close in and they lose their effectiveness. My guess is that as a therapist matures, this part of the job gets easier to maintain, more than likely because they have learned the hard way the cost to the client if it is not. But it’s also my guess that this takes a lot of effort and self-awareness in the beginning. I know on the crisis line, that people who touch me really deeply can sometimes be the hardest calls, because my reactions are more intense, I lose some of my objectivity and start making assumptions based on my own feelings instead of continuing to listen to what the person is actually saying. As lovely as it would be to just relax and be a friend, and there a number of callers I’d love to get to know better, that is not what I am there for nor is it my role in their life. My role is to provide them a safe place to talk and a clear reflection of what they are saying.

And now we come to how can they move on so quickly to the next client? If I were important to them, if the relationship was real, shouldn’t it be harder to move on to the next person? An important part of good boundaries is knowing what is your responsibility and what lies in your control and what is the other person’s. Ultimately, we are each responsible for our own needs and our healing. No one can do it for us because that is impossible. They can come alongside us and provide for our needs and aid us in our healing. We can only know ourselves in relationship and we need other people. But we can only ask for what we need from another person, not demand it. And we are the ones that use what is given. So, a good therapist, no matter how much they care about us, trusts us to take care of ourselves. So when we leave their office, they do not turn us “off.” They trust that they have given their best to us in the session, and that we will take it from there until we see them again. Part of knowing you are a separate person is to be able to understand that your feelings are separate from another person. You cannot carry another person’s feelings (you can try, its called enmeshment and please trust me, it does NOT work well). So therapist’s do not carry ours. If we are in pain or anxious or grieving, or joyous, they attend to that in session, but trust us to attend to it when we leave, seeking out help from any and all of our resources as needed. And then they turn their attention and focus to the next person. Not because they don’t care about us, but because they trust us.

I think that stance communicates something very important to us. I know I have mentioned that BN has a very generous contact policy outside of session, but he NEVER initiates contact unless he is calling about a schedule change. On the other hand, if I reach out, he is very responsive. And that tells me on a very deep level, much more effectively than words could communicate that BN knows and respects that I am a separate person with my own feelings and am capable enough to manage myself. He trusts me, which at times has meant the world, since I can struggle to trust myself.

So we bring our needs and vulnerabilities into the room and trust them both to the person across from us. For deeply wounded people, this can be the first time we have risked that. And the first time we have consistently received the loving response we have needed and longed for. This attention teaches us our worth and heals us and can fundamentally change how we see ourselves and the person we understand ourselves to be. How could they not be vitally important to us? BN is the source of my earned secure attachment, the steady base I return to in times of need. He is vitally important to me and so woven into who I am at this point that I could not extricate him if I wished to. He stands very close to the center of who I am. The same thing is not true for him. While I know that I have affected him in turn – he has told me so – I am not someone he needed, so I have not affected him as deeply and am not as important to him. But it is crucial not to confuse importance with worth. The importance of another person to us is based on our need and is in some ways about who we are, not about who they are. Worth is a quality intrinsic to a person and about them. So a therapist can see their client and know that the person is worthwhile and capable of being vitally important to another person, but cannot let themselves be that person.

Recently, BN was away on a long weekend and I wasn’t aware he was out of the office. I had sent an email and not gotten a response and ended up calling. In discussing what happened, I said that it had stirred my feelings of not mattering and being forgotten. BN said something very important to me. He told me that not being in the forefront of someone’s mind is not the same as being forgotten. It made me realize that I focus on all kinds of things in the course of a day, and thoughts of my loved ones come and go. I do not love them any less when I am not consciously thinking of them. I believe the same is true of our therapists. But I will also freely admit that it would be nice to not feel like we think about them orders of magnitude more than they think of us. But I try to remember, it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. 🙂

*Note: I want to make it clear that this is not the client’s responsibility. You are free to ask for whatever you want, it is the therapist’s responsibility to model good boundaries and set their limits in a sustainable place. When this scenario occurs, it is the therapist who is at fault. Well-intentioned, but at fault. There is good reason that boundaries are so strongly stressed.

  1. May 2, 2014 at 12:40 pm

    One of my fellow trainees often says of his therapist ‘I’m only allowed to see her, but I’m sure she’s seeing other people when I’m not about’ 🙂

    In therapy training, they teach you about boundaries yes, but also a thing called ‘bracketing’, which means that a) we do pretty much exactly as you said and b) if you are in our minds more with our next client, we are able to say ‘hello client in my mind, I will pay you/thought pattern attention soon’ and then we can be fully with our next client until we have the extra space to decompress. Bracketing is also what happens when clients say something that triggers our own stuff in us (can be something like a TV show we both saw- *my* reaction isn’t important there). We put it aside and return to it afterwards if we still need to 🙂


    • May 2, 2014 at 12:47 pm

      Hi Trainee Therapist,
      Welcome to my blog and thank you so much for commenting! A few minutes after I posted this, it kind of hit me that I was making a lot of assumptions and should have made it more clear this was my opinion. So I truly appreciate you both affirming and clarifying what I said. Bracketing is SUCH a great term. There are times when you take crisis calls that can really be triggering, but do learn to put that aside while you finish the call, then talk afterwards if you need to process it. The Crisis Line actually has a person on call so there is always someone available for the phone workers to talk to. 🙂 Now I have a term for it, thank you. ~ AG


      • May 2, 2014 at 12:49 pm

        You’re welcome! But it sounds like a very similar process, yes 🙂


  2. Ann
    May 2, 2014 at 7:01 pm

    AG, What a thoughtful and beautiful blog! So much of what you write rings very true and you express it with no shame. That is the best part. The hardest part of therapy has been to figure out what this confusing “attachment” is. By reflecting on some of your thoughts throughout the months, I have figured out that these feelings are something unique to intensive long term therapy. I have had therapy on and off since I was about 17, but it is has only been with this particular therapist at this time in my life that I have such a strong connection. I totally get the sense of having a person who can reflect back your essence. Not perfectly but in a way that allows me to discover my own value. I can’t imagine not internalizing something so nurturing! It’s not about him loving me, but helping me love myself. That is where the true gift lies for me. At times I worry that I am too boring or neurotic in session. That is where paying him helps. I figure whether or not I am boring him is irrelevant, because he is getting paid. I think this is enough motivation for him to continue to listen. Thank you for taking time to share your insight. I wish more therapy patients had access to your thoughts. It helps take some of the emotional confusion that can occur in therapy! Xoxo


    • May 4, 2014 at 10:35 am

      Thank you! I find it ironic that you see me expressing it without shame, since I feel like “I have been swimming around in a mucky pond of shame for the last six months” to quote myself from my last session. 🙂 But I think this is an area where I have really done a lot of work and processing and so achieved some clarity. And I totally agree that the “transference” is the most confusing part. I think it is within the transference and struggling to understand our feelings about the boundaries that we become conscious of our unconscious needs and relationship patterns. Tough stuff to sort through, especially when a lot of it can be traced back to early injury.

      It’s not about him loving me, but helping me love myself.

      Ann, if I had to sum up the purpose of therapy in one sentence, that would be it. Our therapist’s treat us as worthwhile (because we are) until we can recognize the truth of it, and learn to treat ourselves accordingly. We keep trying to make it about them, when really it’s about us. xx AG


  3. May 2, 2014 at 9:31 pm

    I have read much of what you have written about this topic and while I recognise the feelings and understand the process, I still struggle with the desire to pull away and be her one and only. I find it so very confusing feeling both these at the same time.


    • May 4, 2014 at 10:40 am

      I totally understand because while obviously I believe what I wrote, my longing is still to be special and to be more important. There’s nothing wrong with wanting it, it’s just trying to understand why I am not getting it in a way that doesn’t make it about me being unworthy of it. And it’s very difficult holding both at the same time, but they’re both real. This is not easy stuff.


  4. May 3, 2014 at 7:01 am

    You are what you are with your therapist; I do not see myself as just another client. I know that my therapist does care and i try to hold on to this.
    She knows that I want to be different from other clients and I think I am.
    I am going to take a risk and say she treats me differently from others as I am different anyway.
    She has the boundaries and these are well maintained.She knows my thoughts and feelings and is very comfortable with these. She knows she is significant and will continue to be for however long that is needed.
    She bends over backwards to support me and I am really grateful.
    I know her views on idealisation and this does not happen in the relationship.
    I am me and she is her own person.
    Thanks Josie


    • May 4, 2014 at 10:48 am

      I would absolutely agree with you, that you are not just another client. That was the point I was trying to make. That while some of the boundaries can lead to us feeling like we are “just another client” the truth is that we have a deep, real, unique relationship with our therapists. And it is unique because “I am me and she is her own person.” There are two very real people in the room and the relationship they have is unique to them. I know that BN is very clear on how significant he is to me and never shies away from my feelings; I am also rock certain that he loves me. I am just recognizing that I am not as important to him as he is to me and that there are very important reasons why it has to be that way. I am sorry if reading this in any way implied to you that I was devaluing your relationship with your therapist, or insisting that your relationship with your therapist must be the same as mine with BN, that truly was not my intent. ~ AG


  5. liz
    May 3, 2014 at 7:28 am

    Maybe this is just wishful thinking, but I think there is real (ex)change and there is real growth on both parts of the therapeutic relationship, even if we, as clients, are not allowed to see exactly how our presence affects our therapists, and we often get the impression they’re just sitting there getting bored listening to us going over the same stuff for the hundredth time 🙂

    As for my experience, my therapist always says boundaries are what makes me realize I don’t necessarily need to rely on somebody else to keep me well functioning and happy, but I can do it myself; if I had access to his care 24/7 I would probably lean on him too much to really take responsibility for myself.
    This is tough to learn (and often triggers the “oh, so I’m paying you all this money and still I have to do all the work myself” argument, one of my favourites :-D), but on good days I also feel lucky to have this person in my life who helps me discover I am worthy and capable of standing on my own. That is actually an act of love, helping people realize their full potential.


    • May 4, 2014 at 10:59 am

      I absolutely agree that thee is a real exchange and real growth on both sides. I have never met a (really good) therapist who has not talked about how much they learn from their clients. I know what I learn from being on the Crisis Line and that’s not close to being as significant a relationship as therapy. BN has made it clear to me that I have affected the person he is. Again, it is just the asymmetry I was trying to recognize; that I believe BN has had more effect on me than I on him.

      my therapist always says boundaries are what makes me realize I don’t necessarily need to rely on somebody else to keep me well functioning and happy, but I can do it myself;

      That could be a quote from BN. 🙂 That’s the point I was trying to make when I talked about the fact that BN never initiates contact. We’ve also discussed that’s the reason he can allow me to leave at the end of a session even if I am still upset or struggling. I think it’s a crucial message for a therapist to convey. Even when I went through my heaviest period of dependency (which I believed was necessary from a developmental standpoint) it was always with an eye towards learning what I needed in order to “keep me well functioning and happy.” I think it’s very good that you are self-aware enough to know that 24/7 access would actually be a detriment to your healing. It reminds me of how clear I am that hugging or holding would have hurt me, although I recognize its value for other clients. For me that access was an important tool for learning how to make my needs known. I am totally with you that this is an act of love, a good therapist is always working to put themselves out of a job, not because they do not love their clients, but because they DO love them and want what is best for their clients. xx AG


  6. muff
    May 4, 2014 at 10:45 am

    Most articulate and beautifully written AG. Thinks I will take this in for the “old boy” to read too. Your sure to get the nod.

    “He trusts me, which at times has meant the world, since I can struggle to trust myself.”

    We do “get that” without it being pointed out to us. And in time because of that mutual respect with trust we intern become emotionally mature. The ‘relationship’
    (to me) remains an enigma tho 🙂


    • May 4, 2014 at 11:03 am

      I am honored you would take this to the “old boy” and flattered that I would get the nod. 🙂

      And in time because of that mutual respect with trust we intern become emotionally mature. The ‘relationship’ (to me) remains an enigma tho 🙂

      Have to totally agree on both points Muff. 🙂 There is a mystery to the exchange which I trust but is beyond understanding. I take it on faith. xx AG


  7. May 4, 2014 at 1:35 pm

    Hey AG, I never comment but I love your writing and really appreciate how detailed you are about your relationship with BN. It helps me to figure out what is going on in my own therapy… with a very different therapist (who is also awesome) but similar attachment issues. Anyway, you mentioned in this post a crisis line you volunteer on (?)… I was just wondering what that is and how you got involved with that. Ever since needing to use a service like that during a very rough period, I’ve always wanted to give back and be the person on the other end.
    Thanks, Jackie


    • May 4, 2014 at 11:17 pm

      Hi Jackie,
      Thanks for coming forward and commenting! I volunteer on the Contact Crisis Line in Syracuse (I am also a peer trainer, so I work with new volunteers to train them). I have been volunteering on the line for four years this June and I have to say that I find it incredibly rewarding. It is a 24/7 Crisis Line (in operation continuously for the last 29 years) available to anyone who calls for any reason they need to talk. Our definition of crisis is whatever you are upset enough about to need to talk. Calls cover a very wide range of topics. We do get some people struggling with suicide who call but that’s actually a small fraction of people who do call. We provide a confidential place to talk for anyone who needs to.

      I actually got involved at BN’s suggestion. I had actually built up the nerve to ask him if he thought I would be able to handle being a therapist (and was happily shocked by his very affirmative answer) but also talked about the fact that we were putting two children through college so it would be number of years before tuition money was available. He suggested volunteering at Contact as a way of seeing whether I liked the work. He himself had been involved in their Teen Talk program a number of years ago, so he was familiar with the Contact organization. (The Crisis Line is only part of what they do, they are an umbrella agency for mental health and community issues). It turned out to be an incredible opportunity for growth. Going through the training really stretched me (I still owe the very patient Ann a post about what volunteering has been like for me!), but it has really meant so much to be able to use my healing to help other people. Writing this blog and interacting with my readers and volunteering on the phone line both allow me to bring meaning out of what I have been through. As far as getting involved, our Crisis line has a web page and their is a link for Volunteering. Crisis lines are often associated on a county level, so I would google crisis lines in your area, then check their website for information about volunteering. I know we are always looking to have more people become TWs, its make it easier to provide coverage on the line. And I think that people who have done their own healing are usually very effective because they can bring a depth of understanding to some of the problems they hear about. I wish you all the best. ~ AG


  8. muff
    May 4, 2014 at 2:09 pm

    At this point in time, sessions are like going home to the home I never had. That trust in self permits a truth about who we are and where we stand on this foil.

    There is much to be said about nature and our connection with it too 🙂

    Faith was often blind it was never lost tho.


    • May 4, 2014 at 11:20 pm

      “Going home to the home I never had.” Definitely know that feeling Muff. I have told BN that I am grateful beyond my ability to express because he gave me something so longed for and desired that I had long ago given up hope of ever having. It’s a truly incredible feeling. And you’re right, that acceptance and a sense of a place to stand is what makes it safe to learn everything about myself, because there is always, always a safe place to return to.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Ann
    May 4, 2014 at 3:18 pm

    AG, I would love your input about dealing with boundaries. I have always thought that most thoughts, feelings, etc. should be open for exploration as long as the client doesn’t “act out”. I’ve been with my T for close to 3 years and he has helped me enormously. However, there is one area he seems closed about and I can’t figure it out. I use therapy as my “safe place” to practice emotional risk taking, then try to practice it in the real world. In my family I was scapegoated and not protected. I kind of absorbed all the denial my parents carried and buffered my siblings from it. I see therapy as a corrective experience to discover my value and personal identity. I use my T as a mirror to try and see my reflection. Some parts of this “reflection” I embrace, some I ponder on, and some I throw out. My only problem is when I take a risk that is really hard and involves him (mostly to do with discussing either my attachment to him or feelings around him), he throws up a big wall and I get frustrated. He has known me for 3 years and I don’t call between sessions or touch him or act out. I know the difference between emotions and behaviors. I have strong boundaries.
    In a recent session he said something about himself that rattled me and I tried to stay present and not react. The next week I told him his statement had rattled me and that I felt at the time like I wanted to “cover his mouth with my hand and say, but you are beautiful”. I also said I knew I was reacting to something about myself. (I had hoped to explore my emotional reaction). He said, “If you had done that, we would have to talk about it.” (Of course I wouldn’t have acted on my impulse). I kind of acknowledged what he said, then he repeated it again! I hadn’t done anything inappropriate and haven’t in the past. I didn’t understand his point. Well that totally shut me down, because it had become about him and boundaries. Almost like a way to shut me down before we could talk about what I had felt. I just changed the subject and we never did talk about it.
    This has happened a couple of times. I would understand if I was a new client or if I had ever acted out, but it felt like he wanted to assert some kind of control. It is during these times I feel he doesn’t trust me or wants to avoid a topic . Our last big impasse came when I had taken an emotional risk and said I had missed him during a break. I feel shame when telling someone they are important to me. He gave no response on purpose, then later when I brought it up, he told me sometimes clients need to stew. This led to a horrible month. In the end he said he had misinterpreted my meaning and thought I wanted something from him.??? ( well yeah, emotional support and safety). I want to talk to him about it but am afraid nothing good will come of it. Do you think that even good therapists have blind spots? Is there a boundary I am missing? I know the answer is to talk about it, but somehow it gets twisted into him saying he thought I was testing him or “wanting something”. I still don’t know what this mysterious “something” is. If this isn’t the right place to ask this let me know. I would love to know what you and your readers think or suggest. I like honestly, so if I’m overreacting let me know! Xoxo


    • May 4, 2014 at 11:24 pm

      Hi Ann,
      It’s getting late so this will be a brief reply, but I will be back, hopefully tomorrow with a more thoughtful reply. FWIW, I do not think this is all you, I think there may be some form of counter-transference going on for your T. The best option would be to take this comment into a session and read it to him so you can discuss the issue. Facing it head on could really help, especially since it sounds like you have a very solid alliance with him. I also want to provide you the feedback that I have never seen even a hint that you were acting in an inappropriate manner, I truly see you wanting to explore your feelings to better understand yourself which is completely legitimate and therapy is the place it should be done. More later, I promise. xx AG


  10. muff
    May 5, 2014 at 1:14 am

    “We keep trying to make it about them, when really it’s about us. “


  11. Mrs. Sharkey
    May 5, 2014 at 12:04 pm

    I’ve struggled with this too and my therapist and I have discussed it many times. He said that caring is something is something that happens organically, that it’s not a choice someone makes. He said it could be argued that he cares because he gets paid to, but he said it would be pretty grim work if he didn’t feel a genuine connection with his clients. He said it’s impossible to sit with someone as they tell you about their journey and not come to care about them.

    He also said that his reactions in session are genuine and that one of the reasons why he enjoys working a therapist is that he doesn’t have to fake anything. He also says that the relationship is different with each person that he works with. As he put it, each dyad is unique.

    Finally, he says that many therapists agree that doing this work is good for them too, good for their souls is the way he put it, but that it’s an incidental by-product of the work. They should not be looking to their clients to provide an emotional payoff to them.


    • May 5, 2014 at 9:15 pm

      Mrs. Sharkey,
      That’s a good therapist you have. 🙂 That echoes what I’ve heard so many therapists express or write and I know its true on the phones. There are some people who call regularly and over time you come to know their story and I do think about them and wonder how they’re doing and are geniuinely happy to speak to them when I get a chance. With the glaring exception of a psychopath, people just cannot sustain “faking” a real connection. But I know it is still difficult to trust, our experience tells us not too. Thanks for sharing that. xx AG


  12. Ann
    May 5, 2014 at 1:58 pm

    Thank you, AG! I go in Wednesday and am going to work hard to talk about it in a non- threatening way. The only way I think I test boundaries is by asking him questions about his thoughts about things that aren’t always relevant to our work (my big defense against stress and natural way of interacting). He has called me on it and I have agreed that I do that. I am aware of that tendency so I try not to push these boundaries, though I am very aware that it is hard to keep my focus on myself for an hour! Having said that, when I have brought up a reaction I have to something he says or does (not often, because it feels shameful) that is when he sets up a huge wall. I hate that, because If he says something triggering, I want to explore how these triggers are imbedded from family interactions. Instead it becomes about “something else”. That is where I get confused and feel misunderstood. As I have said we do have a strong alliance and I respect him a lot. It is just this one area where it happens and I hate that. I am scared, because 1) it takes a lot of guts for me to acknowledge his words affect me, 2) I am confused as to why he reacts defensively 3) now that I have learned to trust him enough to express my feelings, I feel shut down when this happens and 4) I have no idea how to negotiate this type of situation, so that I can be heard!!! I guess I just wrote for moral support! And as usual your “presence” helps me be braver! Thank you for your imput, I will try to push through and will let you know! Xoxo Ann


    • May 5, 2014 at 9:52 pm

      Hi Ann
      From what you are describing, it certainly sounds like some kind of countertransference is going on with your T. There are so many possibilities: he hasn’t had very many clients who were brave enough to express these feelings, he is uncomfortable when the focus shifts to him, he didn’t maintain clear enough boundaries in the past and a client got hurt or quit, he has stronger feelings for you than other clients and puts up more of a wall to compensate… and that’s just off the top of my head. The only way to know what is going on is to ask him.

      I know I am certainly not the first client with these feelings that BN has dealt with. When I first told him about my feelings, he told me about a former client that left and went to another therapist and then came back to tell him about how she felt because the other therapist advised her to work it through. He has told me that he is much better now than he was earlier in his career (I feel like owe those earlier clients a debt of gratitude for breaking him in! 🙂 ). I remember one session where we were discussing my sexual attraction to him. I am not comfortable discussing sex and I think I spent most of the session blushing. At one point I said to BN that I imagined it could be pretty uncomfortable being on the other end of this. And he said “but I’m not.” I stopped and looked at him and he really, really wasn’t. I asked him how he possibly managed that and he told me that he had cleared a lot of his own crap out. He also has a good handle on the fact that he’s not all that wonderful, that it is the dynamics of therapy and a client’s past history that causes such intense feelings. He once told me in an email that he knew he represented what I didn’t or couldn’t get. I think that sums up his attitude really well. I honestly think BN handles these feelings really well.

      But I also know there are a lot of therapists who don’t. Part of it is I think that its a small part of the population that has this kind of intense transference, then it gets narrowed down by the number of people actually willing to discuss it. and for those who do, if their first attempt is shut down, they won’t go there again or they quit and go looking for someone who will listen. So there are therapists, even with years of experience in the field, who have not dealt with these feelings in a client. BN was aware that some therapists did not handle it well, he told me about a therapist that actually told a client he was moving to another city when he wasn’t! But that way he could terminate without being open about the reason! So I think it is courageous of you to pursue this with your therapist and to try and understand what is going on. You need to be able to separate his stuff out from yours in order to understand yourself. Ann, from what I know about you, I truly trust that you are picking up on SOMETHING from your T, that you are not imagining the differences in how he reacts when certain topics come up. But the only way to understand is to discuss it. BN has often told me that he has the boundaries, that he will keep us both safe, and nothing inappropriate will happen, but that any and all of my feelings, even about him, are welcome in his office and can be discussed. But I will also tell you we do NOT discuss BN’s feelings. He’s a master of deflection when I try to. There was a period during our work when I got really concerned about his workload and finally said something to him. He was more than willing to discuss my feelings, including normalizing the fact that I would worry about him, but I have to tell you when I brought it up, a steel door slammed down. BN doesn’t let a lot through about himself on the best of days, but at that moment he became impenetrable. The discussion went nowhere near whether or not he was overworked, or if I was picking up on a real problem. Don’t know to this day. So it can feel very weird to discuss your feelings but be so cut off from theirs.

      Last but not least (sorry I know this is a novella at this point), I don’t think you should need to do this, but in the interest of being able to discuss it, I am wondering if providing a preamble up front would assist in having your T not go on the defensive. Explain that you have no wish to violate the boundaries or act out your feelings, that you believe it would be fruitful to be able to discuss and explore your feelings because of the symbolic nature of the therapeutic relationship and you are not trying to find out how he feels about you, you wish to keep the focus on you. In a sense telling him that he has nothing to defend against, may make it easier for him to hear you. I would also be honest up front that you feel like these discussions in the past have not gone well so its scary to bring this up again. And if you think it would help at all, please feel free to take anything I have written about discussing these feelings or the meanings behind them into session with you. I’m cheering you on Ann and no matter what you say or don’t say or how it goes, I will be pulling for you. Please know that I feel like what you are doing is very courageous and healthy and there is nothing wrong with and much right with going in to talk about this. I am looking forward to hearing how it goes. much love, AG

      Liked by 1 person

  13. May 5, 2014 at 3:31 pm

    The relationship does shift out with the room; and if you happen to attend a conference where your T or ex T is present; this is a totally different situation. Have you had any experience of this?
    Thanks JD


    • May 5, 2014 at 9:20 pm

      Hi Josie,
      I haven’t ever seen BN outside of his office (ok a couple of times in the parking lot). Syracuse is a large enough place and BN and I live in opposite directions from his office so chances of running into each other are fairly slim. I think you are very blessed that you feel so certain of your T’s care. As you can see from the comments, a lot of people struggle with knowing that it is a real relationship and that their therapists hold them in high regard. I wrote this to reassure people that they can trust the relationship; I don’t think this was something you needed reassurance about. ~ AG


  14. Ann
    May 6, 2014 at 7:35 am

    Thank you for your advise! I am nervous, but will try! I like your idea of a preamble, that is more my style in “confronting” an uncomfortable situation. I don’t ever want my T to feel that I am attacking him, his counseling skills or value as my therapist. But I need to also be brave enough to not take on what is not mine. I know if we work through this, it will make our therapeutic alliance better! You are invaluable. (Even without the wise advise!) xo Ann.
    Also to JD, I once ran into my T at an out of town conference. It was a little strange, because of therapy. We said hi, and we introduced our spouses. That was about it. I figure when he is away from the office he has no interest in engaging with patients. I totally get it, because all Ts need a total break from their work, and I am part of his work! I hope you weren’t bothered if your T did the same. If your T was more effusive, then I bet that felt good!


  15. May 6, 2014 at 3:45 pm

    Hello AG/ Ann
    Re attending a group that your ex T is part of is hard. This has been occurring since last year. This T has retired and I last had sessions with her more than 15 years ago. Yet the feelings arise yet there was no verbal communication or even acknowledgement. I felt hurt and awkward and I am not sure that she was that comfortable.
    I was respectful! As I could have easily sat at the same table as herself but this I decided not to do.
    I did not want for her to reject me and that is the reason as to why I said nothing to her.
    This situation will not go away unless I stop attending. In some ways I do not want for her to attend but that is me being very arrogant.
    I am not sure what to do; there is no point suggesting speaking; this happened before and I think I previously annoyed her and told her what I thought of her and her manners. This did not go down well as far as I am aware.
    Any advice, thanks Josie


    • May 7, 2014 at 2:25 pm

      My apologies, I misunderstood what you were saying. I thought you meant that you experienced your T as even more genuine outside of therapy when you said it shifted outside the room. I certainly understand your feelings of awkwardness and hurt at not being acknowledged. But you said that you did not wish to risk rejection so you did not say anything to her? A therapist is obliged by confidentiality to NOT acknowledge a client in public unless the client first recognizes them, even 15 years after the fact, as it would be a violation of your privacy. Even the fact that you are a client is considered part of the confidential information as well as what goes on in sessions.

      So I think you have two possible courses of action open to you: to continue to ignore her, trusting that her not reacting to you is done out of care to protect the work you did with her. Or greet her first and see what she does. I honestly couldn’t imagine a T just ignoring any overture. On the other hand, I wouldn’t really expect to exchange anything more than pleasantries for a minute or so. You are not in a place conducive to confidences. I certainly understand you wishing she just wouldn’t come because it would be a lot more comfortable for you, but I think its very respectful of her needs as a person that you know it would be too much to ask that and that you are being careful not to intrude on her “space.” I’m not sure there is really a solution for the feelings beyond trying to greet her and see how it goes. I am hoping that you will at least get a warm reaction so that it will be more comfortable to be in the same place.

      I have had a chance to attend a talk BN was giving once but made the decision not to go. I worry about what seeing him in the “real” world would do to my relationship, especially at that time as I was still very much idealizing him. I needed to see him as perfect so I could feel safe. I would not want to risk our work together by seeing him in another setting and having something come up that would get in the way of our working together. So as much as I can daydream about it happening, if it came down to it, I don’t think I’d go through with it. Best of luck.



  16. May 7, 2014 at 5:05 pm

    Thanks AG for your reply; you are so sensible at times with your responses. I suppose it is easier being more objective looking at others issues than always self examination or reflection re your own.

    My situation with my ex T is a little more complicated in the sense that the first time I met her at the conference; I did approach her but felt her response to me bordered on being dismissive and rude. There is a history over the past year and perhaps that is why i received this response. Yet whilst she was my T I had nothing but admiration and respect for her.

    Anyway 5 months have passed and this was my second occasion in meeting her and due to the previous response I could not risk greeting her. Maybe I expected her to say something. The reason I say this is due to the fact I wrote to her and told her in no uncertain terms my thoughts and feelings.

    I did not receive a response to the letter and somehow or other I imagined she might just say something. I am not sure I agree re boundaries considering the fact she has retired from the profession and there was the gap of 15 years.

    The emotions stirred up in me were painful to say the least and i felt I was being ignored and rejected.

    These seminars are going to continue and both of us will be attending. I am not comfortable and I do not think she is comfortable either. What I find so difficult is; she is the only person in the room (say out of thirty others) that i cannot speak to.

    I can speak to everyone bar her; just really gets to me!

    I suppose I could create a fuss the next time and watch the scenario play out in the sense I could position myself at her table and I wonder what she would do!

    Equally I could claim to others that I am not allowed to speak; yet we are encouraged to network during the breaks and change groups etc.

    I would appreciate any further thoughts you might have.
    Thanks JD


    • May 9, 2014 at 10:39 pm

      Hi Josie,
      This is a difficult situation. Being ignored by someone with whom you shared a deep relationship and admired and respected is really painful, so it is understandable that this is bothering you so much. I think this reply may be a bit difficult for you, but please know I say this out of desire to help you resolve the situation.

      You said that you wrote to her after the first time and “and told her in no uncertain terms my thoughts and feelings.” Your wording implies to me, and please correct me if I am wrong, that you sent an angry email and criticized her behavior? Did you first try to ask for an explanation and see why she behaved as she did or did you assume what she was thinking and feeling, and react to those assumptions? If you were critical and angry without giving her a chance to explain her behavior, I can understand where she might be hurt and bothered by that. You mentioned that you do not think the boundaries should still apply after 15 years and her being retired (the confidentiality still would, there is no expiration date on that, but I get why you think it would be reasonable to expect to be able to have another relationship with her. Ethical guidelines state a gap of only two years before pursuing a personal relationship with a previous cient), but if that is true, then you cannot also expect her to react as your therapist and remain non-defensive and engaged no matter how you act towards her. There is a chance that she feels angry and hurt by how you treated her which is informing her present behavior. So I am wondering if it might be possible to approach her and say that things feel very uncomfortable ignoring each other, especially as part of the dynamic of the group is the need to network and interact, and ask if it would be possible to talk about what happened? That you want to hear her side of things and would appreciate a chance to reduce the awkwardness. I think that approaching her this way will increase the chance that she will hear you, while just pushing the situation by sitting at her table, or making accusations of being silenced, might put her even more on the defensive and make it even more likely the situation will continue and even become more uncomfortable. This is difficult, because I know I am not in the habit of thinking of BN’s feelings or how things would look from his point of view, but we do need to do that in all of our other relationships. Since she is no longer your T, and it even sounds like you are in a peer position at this conference, it may help to just think of her as a “normal” person, not as your therapist. I hope you can work it out, I certainly understand why this is a painful and difficult situation for you. ~ AG


        May 10, 2014 at 1:27 am

        Hello AG Thank you very much for your sensitive reply. To provide further context to you; I had been previously in touch with her prior to the conference. I wanted to meet with her but this she turned down. She felt it would be arrogant on her part to have a session whilst I have my current T. This of course I refuted. The reason I wrote to her (not an email) was due to the reception I received from her at a previous conference. My eyes do not deceive; I was pleasant and polite; yet I felt I was dirt and being dismissed. This was the reason I could not broach her again at the recent conference; the thought of further humiliation was just too much. Yes I think she is angry with me, this implies that there is still a connection. I know there is one and she does too. I shall pretend from now on that I do not exist in her eyes and that she does not exist either. This is the only way in managing; it is farcical! The reality being that T’s really at the end of the day do not give two hoots outside the room. I have nothing to lose and I will suggest that she does not attend; by the way she is an executive member; whereas I am only an ordinary member. If this is refused; I shall confront her and I will alert others to the situation that her and I cannot speak or sit round the same table due to bloody boundaries. Yes I am being arrogant and possibly selfish; I do not care; I have nothing to lose. I have always tried to consider her feelings but this has been to no avail. I shall not be proud of my actions but I need to assert myself and whether this is at the expense of others I really do not care. I need to matter!

        Sorry I am letting rip but this is a reflection as to how I feel.

        Thanks Josie



        • May 12, 2014 at 11:37 am

          It sounds like you are very clear on how you need to handle the situation and I trust that you understand both yourself and the situation much better than I do. I certainly understand the deep need to both have a voice and to feel like you matter. I hope that you can elicit a response that helps you to feel that way. Best of luck and let me know how it goes. ~ AG


          • JOSIE DUFFY
            May 12, 2014 at 3:24 pm

            Hello AG. I very much appreciate your response and you seemed tuned into how I am feeling re ex T. My current T takes a different approach and actively encourages me to ignore this and make no contact. She feels all, that I do is end up being hurt. This is when I become caught in the middle; do I listen to self or my T. I just want her to support my actions; yet this does not happen. Thanks again for your support. Kind regards Josie



  17. Ann
    May 8, 2014 at 4:29 pm

    AG, After all your wonderful advise-I missed my session. Tuesday my husband passed out in our yard and was non-responsive. Neighbors called 911 and I happened to look out the window and saw an ambulance in front of our house. I ran outside to see that my husband on the ground, blood trickling out of his mouth, and medics working on him. I guess I emotionally went on automatic while riding in the ambulance. He finally came out of it about 45 minutes later. He was very disoriented for 3-4 hours. They ran tons of tests and couldn’t find the source of the problem. He is back home, back to normal, but still having more tests. I am now allowing myself to feel my fear and anxiety over the situation. I guess my point is- having a life threatening crisis can quickly change priorities! His parents both died fairly young of heart attacks so I do worry. I guess my earlier issues are taking a back seat to my current situation! I am still glad to have my T, because I can now process my emotions around fear and loss. I guess that takes him off the hook for now! 🙂 Hope all is well with you and have a great weekend! Xoxo Ann


    • May 8, 2014 at 11:48 pm

      ((((Ann)))) I am so sorry that must have been very frightening! I hope your husband feels better soon and they are able to diagnose what is causing this. And yeah, those kinds of incidents do tend to clarify our priorities. I am glad that you know your T is there to help you work through the feelings evoked. As for the transference stuff, it will keep. If you really need to discuss it, you’ll run into again. 🙂 please take good care. Much love, AG


    • Marijke
      May 11, 2014 at 4:19 am

      Hey Ann,

      I’m so sorry about what’s going on with your husband. It must have been horrible to go through that. I’ll lit a candle tonight to send some good vibes – my way of praying .
      Keep taking good care of yourself and connecting here.
      I wish you strength and peace,



  18. Ann
    May 14, 2014 at 2:23 pm

    Marijke, Thank you for “prayer” for my husband! Lighting a candle means a lot to me. We are still testing, but so far no cause. However, my husband is back to his old self so he “lets” me do all the worrying! 🙂 . Thank you AG for this forum. You are one of a kind. Xoxo to all. Ann


    • May 14, 2014 at 10:54 pm

      Oh well if you’re doing all the worrying that’s all right then. 🙂 Sheesh! Ann, I am truly happy this can be place that you find comfort as you are so good at providing it. I hope your husband continues to mend and that you get some answers. Take good care of yourself! xx AG


  19. TexasGirl
    September 6, 2014 at 7:41 pm

    Good gosh, I’m glad I found your blog. I am crying my way through your posts! 🙂 I am really struggling with understanding my feelings about him. I’m still struggling, but this helps. We haven’t talked about it…yet… I guess that might be in order, although I’m reluctant to do so. I’m still stuck in trying to dazzle him with my effervescence 😉 , do therapy “right” to make him proud (both proud of me and of himself for his awesome therapy, which is a patented technique in my arsenal too) and ultimately make him adore me.


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