Dear Therapist:

A few years ago, I went to a therapist to deal with something very difficult going on in my life.  Instead of validating my pain and letting me share my feelings in a non-judgmental environment, my therapist hurt me deeply.  She said things that damaged my self-esteem more than anyone in my life had ever done.  You might say that she was trying to help me grow?  There is a way to say things to someone.  The tone she used and the way her face looked as she delivered those hurtful words cannot be justified.  I left feeling damaged and traumatized.  I had trusted her and she betrayed my trust...My question to the panelists is, how can I heal myself from traumatic therapy and from those hurtful words?  I am hesitant to ever re-enter therapy because of this.

 

Response:

I’m sorry that you were hurt by someone who was supposed to be there for you, and on whom you counted for support. Unfortunately, the therapist who you saw caused you to feel pain. It certainly makes sense that you’re hesitant to again seek therapy.

Your therapy experience was highly traumatic. After we experience a trauma, a natural response is avoidance of things that remind us of the trauma. After being mugged, people often have trouble walking alone. Even when the source of the trauma can be mitigated, an emotional association between the event and the trauma can exist. Though a mugging victim may now only walk in safe, populated, well-lighted areas, they can still feel a visceral fear. This can keep them from doing things that they know are safe.

In your situation, an experience in therapy is what caused your trauma. Although you may recognize that the right therapist can help you, it can be very difficult to overcome the feelings caused by your association between therapy and being deeply hurt. You felt judged and betrayed by the therapist, which caused you to feel badly toward yourself. It’s only natural that you have an aversion to the concept of being in therapy.

As adults, when we feel hurt, betrayed, and judged, this can be due to similar feelings from childhood being triggered. No one is immune to this type of triggering. We all get triggered to one extent or another. The strength and duration of your feelings have me wondering whether there are underlying, unresolved feelings that may have contributed to the severity of your response.

I wonder, as well, whether the therapist may have prematurely attempted to elicit these feelings, hoping that she would be able to help you begin to resolve them. This is referred to as transference, whereby a client’s feelings (often toward a parent) are transferred onto the therapist. This is sometimes used to help the client deal with the feelings in a less threatening and less emotional manner. If this was purposeful, the therapist clearly did not anticipate your reaction. If not, the transference may have taken her as much by surprise as it did you.

Another, related phenomenon is called counter-transference. As the name implies, this is when a therapist’s feelings are transferred onto the client. You mentioned the therapist’s tone and facial expressions as well as her words. It’s possible that the therapist’s feelings—and therefore her biases—were somehow triggered within the session, leading her to react emotionally rather than logically and clinically. If this did occur, I fervently hope that she recognized this and is working on identifying any issues or people that cause this. Otherwise, she is likely to have similar responses in the future.

You are absolutely correct about therapists carrying an awesome responsibility. In my experience, most therapists are aware of this responsibility and are careful to try and place themselves in their clients’ shoes. They work diligently to help their clients and to create a safe, non-judgmental environment. Therapists, however, are not infallible. Like anyone, we make mistakes and say the wrong things. These mistakes are generally minor. Hopefully, in most cases, we acknowledge our errors and work to correct them. Other times, our clients challenge us, helping to lead to better communication.

I cannot advise you on whether to discuss your feelings with this therapist. This could allow you to take control of a traumatic situation, helping you to reduce the negative emotions. However, depending on various factors, this could reopen the unhealed wound, causing you to feel even more traumatized. Regardless, I hope that you are able to find a therapist with whom you feel comfortable. The right therapist will allow you to explore your emotions at your own pace, helping you to work them through in a supportive atmosphere. 

Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

 psychotherapist in private practice

 Brooklyn, NY   |   Far Rockaway, NY

 author of Self-Esteem: A Primer

 www.ylcsw.com / 718-258-5317