Back in the days before I became a therapist, I went to see therapists. Lots of them. Over a period of decades. Most of them have all but vanished from memory. I got nothing out of most of the sessions. So why did I keep on going?
My mother died when I was twelve. I felt bereft. To the adolescent me, a psychotherapist was a guru privy to life secrets divulged only to a chosen few.
If anybody could fix my loss, a therapist surely could. Therapists seemed to have been put on the planet to set me straight.
These days other people still march off to therapy naively, looking for a wizard who can magically make them right if only they will do as they are told.
Now that I am a therapist, I know better. I long ago ditched the idea of therapist as sage, and so should you.
Except for the severely cognitively disabled and/or those who are unable to communicate, each of us speaks as the expert on ourselves. Each of us can report on our state of mind. We are the sole inhabitants of our heads and bodies, knowledgeable about our feelings, our desires, and our goals.
To get what we seek from life, we must first know specifically what that is. We all need goals informed by our values and our beliefs. These goals will then dictate our actions.
Therapists can offer resources, strategies, techniques, and observations about how we seem. But first, to get the response we need from others—family members, friends, and, yes, therapists—we must tell them, clearly and unambiguously, what we do and do not want for ourselves and our lives.
Like a good auto mechanic, a therapist can listen and help us fix problems of alignment and balance, but throughout this process, we ourselves remain the boss. We alone can judge the efficacy of the therapeutic process. We alone drive the car.
We decide whether or not we have made progress on the journey. We identify the destination and can tell when it has been reached.
This is not about divine guidance. It is about validation, empathy, acceptance, and companionship meted out in fifty-minute hours.
With these points in mind, I offer you ten reasons why you might want to fire your therapist and move on. Therapists can be male or female, and so you should read “he or she” for every gendered pronoun below.
1. He doesn’t listen. Maybe he interrupts to pontificate. Maybe he doesn’t make eye contact. Or he doesn’t acknowledge your words or ask questions to understand better. For whatever reason, you feel that you are not being heard.
2. He doesn’t speak. He sits in silence or occasionally says only, “How did that make you feel?” or “I see.” He comes across like a robot.
3. He tells you what’s wrong with you. There are no valid, reliable diagnoses for most forms of unhappiness. We can’t spot the broken bone or zap the virus. Symptoms are not causes, and some symptoms seem to come with every malady. Flaws and all, your messy emotions are the kit with which you were born. You can learn to work with it, and you can improve your daily life so that you function better, using your strengths to combat your weaknesses as most of us do. This approach is quite practical. Few of us need more criticism or negativity. We benefit more from learning what’s right with us.
4. He blames you for your children’s problems. Unless you assaulted your child, the only way you can establish your culpability is by rewinding the tape, making changes in your parenting, and paying the tape forward again to see whether the kid turns out differently. Parents lose control over their offspring minute by minute after birth. Your child is separate from you, not an extension of you. The kid’s thoughts, feelings, or behavior occur independent of you, no matter how you feel about them. Don’t blame yourself for things you can’t control.
5. You don’t like him. Your therapist is your consultant. You or your insurance pays for his services. Never keep on your provider team anyone you don’t like and respect.
6. He doesn’t like you. If he doesn’t like you, you probably won’t like him. (See above.) If he doesn’t seem to like you, you will also be reluctant to believe what he says. Do we ever enjoy spending time with people who don’t like us? Probably not.
7. He always wants to talk about the past. Some therapists are big on “insight.” They will tell you that you keep doing such-and-such because your mother this-and-thatted. They will attribute your bad habits to things that happened long ago. But God alone has the truth in most such matters, and He isn’t divulging it. Generally speaking, the reason why you do one thing or another isn’t worth much, although it may help you believe that you are rational and life is orderly. The real point is not why but how—what you can do to come unstuck.
8. He tells you what to do. You don’t want a therapist to tell you to scrap your spouse, tell off your mother-in-law, or quit your job unless—and the therapist should be clear with you about this—the therapist believes you are saying you want to do these things. The therapist must not substitute his judgment for yours. It is better for him to help you hear your own voice, to start noticing the options and opportunities that appeal to you. He can probably help you find ways to explore these.
9. He doesn’t tell you what to do. By the same token you don’t want the therapist simply to parrot your words to him. You want him to do more than listen. He might offer a different perspective. Or he could suggest next steps and different strategies to pursue. The object is not to tell the client what to do next but to tell the client how to know for him- or herself what to do.
10. Therapy never ends. The nearest real-life analogue to the therapist-client relationship is the parent-child relationship. The object of therapy is properly support, encouragement, and guidance in correcting course so that you—not managed care, your family, or the therapist—are satisfied with your life.
You want to feel that you are again moving forward purposefully toward your goals. Once you are past the roadblocks, there are better places than therapy to look for friendship, affection, and a listening ear. Your therapist should be making a cameo appearance in your life.