Attachment to Your Therapist

*** Now Available: Attachment to Your Therapist: A Conversation. This series of posts in expanded E-Book form, on Amazon.***

A reader submitted this wonderfull comment:

Anyway, I’ve been in therapy, on and off, for about 12 years. Dealing with “neurosis” I guess – trust issues, attachment issues, etc. Anyway, I’d love to see something about attachment, and more specifically, attachment to your therapist. I have a very strong attachment to my therapist and have come to see him as a father. I struggle with this on a constant basis, because he’s not my father, he is my therapist and is one hell of an ethical one at that and would never ever stretch the boundaries (which of course are some of the things that I wish for…). Anyway, anything on those issues, would be incredibly useful. And yes, I do talk to him about it as well, but having a more detached view of it would be really helpful for me.

The consulting room is an emotional candy store. It is a place where you are the only person in the world and it’s all about you. The therapist has no other mission but to understand you just as you are and help you heal and grow. It is as close as you can come in adult life to the one-way relationship of childhood where you receive but don’t have to give back. In the case of psychotherapy, you do give back, but in a different currency, that allows for all the feeling of being taken care of. One therapist said, “you buy my time, but the rest is free!”

So it is no wonder that patients get attached to their therapist. Is that bad? No. It would only be bad if it caused harm. Anything this powerful can cause harm, but not if it is handled right as it seems to be in our reader’s comment.  I think it is the main source of energy to drive the therapy forward. Here’s how it works.

When patients come to therapy, there are really two patients. There is the adult patient who listens dutifully while the therapist drones on on about how understanding will help you make changes and it is hard work and it is really up to the patient to want to change. Meanwhile there is a little kid who knows how things really work. The child in us all knows what he or she needs and is not interested in dull substitutes. She (or he) came in with a list of unfinished business from long ago, all the issues that she was not able to solve at the time. When they couldn’t be solved, what did she do? She saved them up for a time when conditions would be different and now it looks like conditions may just be right.

Why couldn’t she solve the problems back then? Children know that when there are problems, the ones who have the real power to solve them are the parents (or other caregivers). The child’s job is to influence the parent so the parent will take care of the problem. Let’s say a parent is depressed and totally self-preoccupied. The child needs love and attention and can’t get it. The child will invent a whole list of strategies:  Give the parent love, be unworthy so the parent will feel less bad, perform brilliantly so the parent will wake up and take notice. What they all have in common is the goal of changing the parent.

You guessed it, the child going into the psychotherapy consulting room is planning to use some of those very same strategies to get the therapist to change because that is how things get better.

Of course the therapist has another idea. The therapist thinks that the solution is for the patient (both child and adult) to accept the fact that there wasn’t enough love from the parent and to go through all the painful feelings of rage, hurt and sadness that the child knows are best avoided.

Let me digress for a moment. The power of this situation is hard to underestimate, and with so much power there are opportunities for bad outcomes. Fortunately our reader’s therapist has good boundaries and his patient is talking about what she is feeling. The key question about boundaries is whether the therapist has made or implied promises that he or she won’t be able to keep. This one rule covers essentially all the bad things that therapists can do. When that does happen, whether blatant or subtle, it is an indication that the therapist’s needs are taking precedence over the patient’s, and that is not therapeutic.

So the two go through their dance. The therapist’s humanness and real presence give the child hope and bring out young wishes and needs. On the other hand when they do come out, it is painful because they are not fulfilled. Hopefully the therapist understands this pain and, by being an empathic witness, helps it to heal. On the other hand, as the process goes on, the wishes are more and more obviously young ones. It is characteristic of childhood wishes that they don’t have limits. As they intensify, they become less realistic, less adult and more insistent. This may be embarrassing, even cause for feelings of shame, but it is exactly what has to happen. As the wishes become more intense, the frustration with the therapist for responding only with understanding becomes more sharply painful. The anger, hurt and sadness are very real.

By putting off fulfillment to the future, the child was able to maintain hope and avoid the painful feelings. That is not so bad, since there was no way the feelings could be attended to back then. What the therapy has done is to force those long-avoided feelings out of hiding. Finally the situation from long ago has been recreated in the present and the feelings are palpably real. It is when feelings are actually present in the room that they can heal (see more on catharsis in the regular part of my website).

This part of the therapy process doesn’t feel like therapy at all. There is nothing as-if about it. It feels like anger and pain and sadness about life. For better or worse, that is when the most important therapeutic work gets done. Eventually the feelings heal and a more grown-up, philosophical view takes over (not the pseudo-adult one we started with, but a real acceptance). As this happens, it becomes more clear that some of the wishes actually can be fulfilled, but not by the therapist. In time, others in the patient’s outside world become more interesting than the therapist and now we are in the termination phase.

Be sure to check the other posts in this category. The next one is here.


  • This is the best description of understanding what is happening to me.
    Thankyou so very much! These feelings I have do feel so overwhelming at times that I wonder if I made the right choice of therapy. But I did.

  • Wonderful description – I thank you, as does the frustrated, hurt child in me who is so very enraged at her psychotherapist.

  • Hi,

    I’m the one who posted this question. And while I’m fully aware that I’m not ready for termination quite yet, I have made some significant changes in my life with respect to emotion regulation and my willingness to be vulnerable with my most significant relationship (hubby), and “termination” has been on my mind lately.

    This description is great for what happens in the room with respect to the attachment, but it gloses over the termination phase. More on that would be great…


  • This has been the single most helpful thing I have read on attachment, and I am so grateful to you for it… I’m in my 40’s; two years ago I started therapy for the first time – after my husband of 25 yrs was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I had never had any problems functioning or coping in my life before, but I couldn’t accept this blow. My sister-in-law (a psychologist) insisted I enter therapy – I did, reluctantly, but I had almost an instant rapport with my psychologist. Now, two years later, I find myself so attached to this woman; it has been very, very unsettling. I read a couple of books on attachment to try to understand this better; I learned I have an avoidant attachment style (as does my mother) and had lots of pent up sadness and grief that I was not at all in touch with. But the therapy relationship has been scaring me so much as I feel increasingly out of control, crazy and miserable…. I have talked about this with my therapist and she has assured me it’s not only normal but a positive stage of therapy, but my fear has been so great that I’ve been thinking “I have to quit…I can’t let myself keep feeling like this….” and then I think “I can’t possibly quit – what would I do without her?” and become quite despondent. This is where I’ve been the last week – so intensely. I have been helped SO much by what you’ve written. Now I have hope again.

  • i really found this useful as i am having therapy and i got really attatched to my school councellor. i was the same as becky (above) and i didn’t know what to do. above all accounts, you have helped me so much. i thankyou prefusely! ta xx

  • today, my therapist told me that he is getting married this week. His bride to be is a therapist in the same office that I see in a group therapy setting. I feel so distressed tonight. At this moment I hate him, her and myself the very most. I think I may die of embarrassment before my/our next appointment. Sigh…

  • Excellent blog and extremely helpful in explaining attachment issues we may struggle with. I would also like to hear more about the termination phase.

  • This made me cry, for all the grief which I cannot yet face. I love my therapist, and the children within love my therapist. But she can never be our mother. So each week we experience what was missing all our lives, and then each week we need to leave, alone. And attempt to survive and parent our real life children so that they will not end up on a therapist’s couch in 20 or 30 years time…

    So much grief. The termination phase sounds very promising, although incomprehensible as yet.

    • This is exactly the magic of how therapy works. The grief you are experiencing can and will heal, but only because you are actually feeling its full intensity. That healing in the here and now, focused on your therapist, will be the resolution of past grief that you were never able to deal with.

  • Dear brother,

    I faced the same problem with my previous therapist, and I received very bad reaction from her, torched me verbally and harmed me emotionally and badly ended the therapy after seeing her for almost 5 months. And I was in such big trauma for years and at that time I was hospitalized 4 times in 6 months and went to emergency for more than 20 times, what do you think about that?

    • Hello Zainab. Very rotten that this ‘therapist’ treated you so poorly. I wasted thousands of dollars on therapy. I drank the Koolaid that being dependent on my therapist would “heal” me. It caused me to flounder and did not empower me in any way. I think this is a myth perpetuated by therapists who need ego gratification that they are some kind of parent figure! I found healing by participating in support groups and learning to parent myself in a way that I never got growing up.

      • This is so true I wish therapists would realise how incredibly disempowering the dependency is on a person and how the pain and grief and frustration completely take over peoples lives and harm their outside lives.
        Outside of therapy this is seen as very unhealthy and unhealthy for a person but in therapy this retraumatising of early attachment injury is seen as helpful it makes no sense and research shows that it is no more helpful than other types of therapy that do not require such painful dependence and disempowerment of the client

  • Very accurate description. I realized I’m still in phase one, after over 1 year of therapy. It’s a painful and enduring process.

  • Excellent depiction of attachment and what should happen. I would like more information on when attachment does lead to dual non sexual friendship. I have been in therapy with a therapist of the oposite sex but 23 years older for four years now. The therapy has been very intense and as a result we are in contact almost daily. We have a regular session each week and we also go for coffee or a walk as friends each weak. Nothing sexualy inappropriate has ever taken place and we each have our own partners. He has promised me to always be a part of my life and that he loves me dearly. Is this a boundary violation and what could be the harm. Therapy has progressed very well and I have done some amazing healing.

  • As someone who fits within the looked after her parents category, I have a fear about what you say at the end of this incredible article. My therapist gives everything she can to make this grieving process easier (and I do my best to talk about it, despite the humiliation). I can’t help but wonder, after she has given so much how will it be for her if I suddenly reach such a cold conclusion to therapy – with others being more interesting and me just being happy to say goodbye. It seems so cold. Yes, I may pay for her time – but she gives the rest generously. Would such a conclusion not hurt her?

  • Hi jeffery, that was a great article.. the best to explain the subject i have read so far! What if your therapist terminates therapy before all those hurt and yucky feelings have been resolved? I talked to my therapist about how hard I was finding counselling and she seemed to think it was abnormal, and that if it was causing me that much pain then we should stop. I tried to go back and talk to her about it, and she said not to come back unless i was suicidal…because therapy was like a saftey net for me. I think about her a lot now, a lot of the time it is daydreaming about ways i can make her feel bad or guilty:( What do you do when the therapist thinks it is time to terminate and you do not? I feel like i am stuck in the middle of a big mess:s

    • Dear Unistudent, I’m sorry I can’t really know what went on, but a therapist who discharges a person from therapy because it was hard or because they needed a safety net is not one who is ready to engage in the serious hard work that many, if not most patients need.
      This may not apply to your (ex) therapist but many trainees are taught that there is a difference between “supportive” therapy and real “uncovering” therapy. The supportive kind is thought of as inferior because it doesn’t challenge you to change inside. It’s a long story, but I feel strongly that this is a false dichotomy. You are in therapy to change and needing the relationship should not take away from that goal unless your needs are ones that can’t be contained within the boundaries of outpatient treatment. Fortunately, there are many therapists who won’t have a problem dealing with your needs. It would have been better if she told you earlier.

      • Thanks for your reply to Unistudent. I am going thru similar right now, my therapist of a year, just having told me her parts, (we are doing Internal Family Systems) are having a hard time tolerating my 0ppain. So, I finally get in a therapeutic relationship where it is safe to emote anger, rage, and she is saying she may have to bail? WTF? This seems highly unethical. I don’t see how therapy can happen at all now that she has told me this. I can only imagine how much discomfort she must be in to have told me this, knowing that exclusion, abandonment, complete disowning by my family is my biggest trauma. I don’t think I’m going back, but I’m really really destabilized by this and after my last therapist relationship also ended badly aftger 3 years, I seriously doubt I will ever attempt it again. IT is truly tragic, since I have an attachment disorder and really relied on the relationship.

  • Hi I see my therapist 4 times a week and have done so for the past 3.5 year’s I am totally obsessed with her, cry all the time we are apart, she is everything I wanted in a mum, she feels like my best friend. I am totally in love with her, can’t stop thinking about her and can’t bear the end of each session. I have discussed my feelings and she says it’s o.k. To feel this way and it’s normal when you work with someone so intensively. There is no end date, but I am absolutely petrified when the time does come and I lose the most important person in my life and I kill myself as a result. Please help me?

    • Dear Susan, This is an important comment. I’m sorry it is taking me a little while to get to answer, but I’ll try to answer in the form of a new post.


  • Well…I have been reading a lot on this topic due to feeling as if I had a “crush” not for my therapist but my doctor. This is the best I’ve seen on the subject. I have been seeing a psychiatrist for the past 3 years for bipolar disorder. I am also a recovering addict. Sober since October 2008. This time. A few months ago I began also seeing a LPC in the same facility. I usually only see the doc for 15-20 min every 4-8 weeks (depending on what’s going on) just for medications I guess. Not even therapy so I don’t know how this crush thing happened. Doc is female as am I. Totally freaked me out. Produced anxiety like you wouldn’t believe. It’s not as intense now but there’s still a little something there. Now therapy…I like her just fine and feel like she cares and really listens. I guess it’s helping. I don’t know. Not sure why I’m going other than Doc suggsted it. Probably because I was so obsessed with her and learning about the disorder i was making extra appointments and threatening to stop all meds and emailed her about 60 times in 30 days! Don’t know what the goals are etc but I keep going because it can’t possibly make things worse and they both say I should. Good grief! I am 50 years old. I mean how much can you really fix at this point and why. Soooooo I don’t know if this is an appropriate comment or if it makes any sense, I just wanted to write.

    • Dear Sherri, Addiction, besides being a “disease” in itself, can be a way of filling up some very big, very old empty place in yourself. Maybe the crush you have on the Doc. relates to such an empty place. I really can’t tell, but in all situations like this, I have one main piece of advice: if you haven’t already, then talk to your professionals about it. Talking about these feelings helps immensely in taking them out of the realm of dark secrets and into that of mindful inquiry. JS

  • Im glad ive read this today as im really struggling with attachment towards my therapist ive been seeing for 7 years.
    One problem is is that she has made and implied promises that she won’t be able to keep.
    Its very sweet of her but its not really helping me.
    I dont really know where i stand with her even after all this time, weve never discussed it as it scares me to know what she would say and i dont know what i want her to say either.

    • Dear Jacqui, Timothy Ferriss, in one of my favorite books, The 4 Hour Workweek says “A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.” I really hope your therapist is up to having one with you about the promises. Doing so will clarify things one way or the other. For you, the most important thing will be to explore your impressions of what goes on in her mind. Why do you feel she won’t be able to handle a conversation? Maybe you are mixing her up with people from your own past. Could you be making assumptions about why or how she made promises? An uncomfortable conversation can go a long way to helping you get comfortable again. Also, did you check the SPSE self-evaluation? If you haven’t already, it may help you pinpoint areas of question about your therapy.


  • I wish I had read this article 4 1/2 years ago when I started therapy. I have since then read a lot about these complicated, painful, sometimes embarrassing feelings. This article explains what’s going on in therapy so clearly, and I deeply appreciate it.

    Like you said, these feelings are very intense and seem very, very real. Many times I’ve wanted to run away from them, but that does not work very well. I am in the termination (transition) phase of therapy, and even though it was my idea, these feelings are popping up again with a vengeance. There is so much sadness and so much grief. There has also been so much connection, healing, and feelings of warmth and caring.

    I have loved my therapist like a father, and talk about embarrassing! I am older than he is! But now I am starting to understand my feelings, my fears, my shame, and my sadness, at least a little. He has normalized my feelings, and that is what has helped me so much, because I used to think I was crazy. Psychotherapy can be so healing, provide a deep and needed connection, and enable frozen feelings to thaw, and past abuse to surface so that there’s a compassionate witness to what happened in isolation and silence. It does seem magical to me. But I will share that termination, when you’ve had such a meaningful and deep connection, and have felt understood and cared about, can feel very frightening and sad. There is such a sense of loss along with a sense of feeling whole. Nothing about therapy is easy, but it can be the most wonderful thing in the world if you find the right therapist, and in time form a trusting relationship. I believe that feelings of love, for lack of a less threatening word, are part and parcel of it all, on both sides of the relationship. That’s why it is so healing and so powerful.

  • thank you. i thought i was going crazy. i see my therapist as my mom an trully wish she was. to an extend i thought i should not see her again

  • Oh my. What you wrote was so awesome. I feel like I am in a battleground with my t over the stuff you talk about. I can see it so clearly soUrs so hard to accept that child/adolescent part. My experience involves much trauma in childhood and adolescence. I think I am under the layer of professional adult a therapists worst nightmare. I wonder if it’s possible to heal , whether sometimes, the damage done was too extensive. Needs are such a funny thing. Letting them out and forming dependence is the most vulnerable and unsafe place to be. I know it is impossible to have those unmet needs met and yet in the therapy room they are presented. Can all people heal or are there some just too damaged?

    • Dear Wombat, My experience is that, yes, you can heal. Again, in my experience, the reason is that seeking to fulfill old needs is something we do to keep as far as possible from the hurt of being shortchanged. As we become able to face that feeling, the need for what we can’t have is no longer so compelling.

  • Oh my. What you wrote was so awesome. I feel like I am in a battleground with my t over the stuff you talk about. No as in fighting but the anxiety and fear talking about it provokes. I can see it so clearly: see that my conflicts as you suggest relate to these strategies. And then I find it so hard to accept that child/adolescent part of myself that refuses to let go of control long enough to have needs. My experience involves much trauma in childhood and adolescence. I think I am, under the layer of professional adult, a therapists worst nightmare. I wonder if it’s possible to heal , whether sometimes, the damage done was too extensive. Needs are such a funny thing. Letting them out and forming dependence is the most vulnerable and unsafe place to be. I know it is impossible to have those unmet needs met.And yet in the therapy room they are presented initially unconsciously through this attachment bond. Do you think all people can heal or are there some just too damaged?

  • Hi.I am a 42 yr old mother of 3 diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder.I am thankful I found a therapist,woman and a man who will do nurturing holding therapy with me.I also have been told my emotional part of my brain only developed till about 9 yrs old.
    Anyway,I’ve done all the “talk therapy”and it only kept me in pain.Now I have some “real therapy’and I have known I needed this since a teenager.It meeds those unmet needs from childhood and the therapists don’t do it alone so it is ethical or whatever.I can cry out my pain,rage,whatever while being safely held,and then when I’m done,can still be held for comfort,nurturing till I’m ready to be done.Also,if you have a loved one,friend,or family member that is willing to hold you,they will allow that too if you prefer.This is real working therapy with results.Everyone should be allowed if they want it and therapists should be trained for this.
    I see Laurie Landry in Wethersfield,Ct.I highly recommend her.She works with children and adults.
    God bless you all and may you all find your path to healing whichever way you take as well as faith in God through His son Jesus Christ.

    • These are interesting and sometimes controversial treatments, so I’m glad you are having a good experience. My own sense is that with early attachment issues, the mind is especially resistant to change because the feelings are so very big. As a result, the mild methods of traditional psychotherapy often aren’t strong enough to clear a path for change at such a deep level. The principle is, the younger the feelings, the bigger their magnitude.


  • Dear Jeffery,

    Thank you for posting this article. It is interesting, just a bit hard for me to understand. I had been in therapy for more than 10 years, the first five years I did not make any progress because I had huge struggles keeping appointments. I suffer from borderline personality disorder. Then 5 years ago, I met this wonderful therapist, who was extremely loving and caring. She offered me very discounted sessions, 5 years only increase price once (at my request). She awared that I couldn’t afford two sessions a weeks, which I needed and offered me emailing services. She was the only one in my life, I emailed her many times a day and she often repplied me. I became so attach to her, her love and care really helped me to heal. I had been working for the past 1.5 years (never worked before). I am slowly building up friendships but am not in any deep or meaning relationships with anyone. I still email her a lot, but she doesn’t reply that often. I think she once said “I was a special case and needed special care.” I am so attach to her. Now she doesn’t take much attention to me, doesn’t respond to my emails. I feel so pain, my head is about her all the time. I feel hurt, and recently I am thinking if I should quit seeing her for good. I don’t want to think of her all the time, as that is too energy and time consuming and I found it hard to get on with my life. Should I stop seeing her for good? The whole situation now is really killing me inside. I serially thinking if our relationship is doing me harm now. Dolly

    • Dear Dolly,

      Thanks for your comment. I have done several posts about the relationship with your therapist and I think the one from May 29, 2013 would be relevant to you.

      I can’t respond specifically about your situation, but in general, when a therapist meets you more than half way, it is to give you a chance to work on the issues that made your needs so big. What can happen is that without realizing it, an understanding can develop that dealing with the issues is the therapist’s job rather than her patient’s. It might be that she is trying to tell you, now that you are doing better in life, that it is time for you to be working on what it is that is behind your strong feelings.

      My post from May addresses a few of the kinds of feelings that might be waiting to be addressed.

      Yours, JS

  • “As the wishes become more intense, the frustration of the therapist responding only with understanding becomes more sharply painful.”

    Could you please give an example. I,too, am very attached to my therapist and discuss my feelings of how the relationship has changed over time, in that, I feel closer…but the question is how close is too close…is this what you mean by “the frustration of the therapist” ?

    • Dear Sandra, For starters, let me appologize. I meant “frustration WITH the therapist.” I meant that the child within may want the therapist to give more than understanding, and may therefore feel anger and frustration. I don’t think there is a “too close.” I think a more relevant question is what exactly are you wishing for, and why. Is it a wish from long ago that was not fulfilled and needs to be grieved and let go? Or could it be holding onto hope of more closeness so as to avoid the possibility of disappointment and anger? Those questions might be ones for you and your therapist to look at together.

      Hope that is helpful. JS

  • JS, thanks so much for this post. It definitely has started to bring some clarity for me about this issue of attachment. When I first came to college, I was dealing with severe depression and had no one to go to. I met my therapist at my college’s counseling center the first semester of my freshman year, and saw her 1-2 times a week for 4 years until I graduated. During that time, I also became an employee of the department as a student worker. Therefore, I had a slight dual relationship with my counselor although my job did not involve much interaction. Although my counselor was excellent in setting boundaries with the situation, it did allow me to know her a little better. I saw it as a blessing as it I felt it significantly helped my therapeutic relationship with her. Throughout college, I also came to know everyone in the department, and felt as if they were my family away from home. Most of all, I saw my counselor as sort of second-mom. She meant the world to me and was always a large source of encouragement for me. My junior year I brought up how attached I was, but it didn’t really spark a whole lot of conversation. When I graduated, my counselor attended my graduation and promised that we would keep in touch over email and I was allowed to stop and say hi since I had also been employed there for so long. A few months out of graduation, I got a call from my boss telling me that I could not come back ever again (or even email) as the director of the department banned me. She said I was supposed to be referred on but never took the time to do it after I got hired as a student worker (and she did not tell my counselor this). Therefore, I have been cut off from everyone there including my former counselor. Words can’t describe how much pain I’ve been in over all of it. The pain and confusion has been awful. I miss everyone so much, and have had horrible luck connecting with a new therapist to work through it. None of my coworkers expected me to be cut off like that. Do you have any comments or suggestions on this?? The last therapist I talked to was quite shocked himself and didn’t know what to say. I just wanted my work-family back. I miss them all terribly and didn’t have anyone besides them. Moving on at my new job has been difficult.
    Any comments would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

    • Hello, Linda, I’m sorry to hear about what happened to you. It makes me think that brutality is very much alive in this world and comes in all types. An interrupted relationship is very painful. The only thought I have beyond continuing to try to grieve and let go is that you may have had unfinished business with your therapist. Were there things that, deep down, you were waiting or hoping to resolve? If you could identify what they are, then you might be more able to let go and, if needed, find an appropriate place to work on issues that remain.


  • This is exactly what happened to me- except rather than heal I have become severely depressed for 5 years now. If I had known this was the nonsense that went on in so called therapy, I never would have gone. My life is ruined. My mistake was to unquestionably “trust the process”. This glorious process has trained my brain to ruminate and focus on pain. I can’t get out of it. Would somebody with power please address this issue with the apa?? I’m not the only one. There is something very wrong with the process. Shouldn’t I have been informed of what was likely to happen? Nobody should just trust the process. I lost me…

    • What a terrible predicament. It seems like something went very wrong with your therapy and its end. Unfortunately the only tool I know to unravel what happened is the very tool that you have come to see as untrustworthy. You are quite right that therapy is both powerful and fallible. You might want to look at the Scarsdale Psychotherapy Self-Evaluation on this website. It is intended as an aid in assessing how therapy is going to help patients and therapists address the problems before the damage is irreparable.


  • JS,

    I am so grateful to have found your post on attachment to one’s therapist. My question is why don’t I feel attached? I want to feel, to experience all that you say occurs so that I can heal, but instead I feel angry. I feel angry and broken. My therapist recommended two poems by Khalil Gibran, love and marriage, and since reading them, I have felt this anger and jealousy that I don’t “feel” Do you have any insight that could help me make sense of my therapy?
    Thank you,


  • I am in therapy. The philosophy seems to be that therapist is to bring out needs and wishes and then not fulfill any of them in order for client to feel frustration, anger, pain, sadness. Then somehow from understanding and being aware of these feelings healing takes place. This is cruel and unusual punishment for some clients and certainly for me. I am an adult but I equate my needs to that of an institutionalized orphan whose physical needs were met but social, emotional,attachment needs were neglected. I am at a child’s level of these needs. Should one recommend catharsis by provoking pain, sadness and anger for a child? That would be absurd. I can tell you that by being more revealing and open with me and willing to do what i wish for (like being read to) has triggered hope, love, along with fear, confusion, jealousy, unworthiness, pain and sadness. I believe closeness will trigger emotions in a much healthier way. My model is based on the necessary love/bond between mom and baby. My relationship with my therapist is the closest thing to healthy I’ve ever had. And I get to work through all the necessary emotions. I get frustrated that sessions are so short and only once a week but that is golden compared to no therapy at all! When I read the comment above by “Me”, I just had to reply. Some people have deficits that need filling. To do so is healthy. We follow the boundaries. Emotions come to the surface in close intimate therapeutic relationships. Self esteem can be developed. I can socially emotionally cognitively mature into my chronological age. I research psychotherapy and I only find philosophies like yours. I can’t believe it is 2014 and therapy is still so undeveloped! So many forums and blogs are filled with people not getting what they need in therapy! I’d like to find more information on what my therapist and I are doing!

  • This is just what I needed to get through my day. I have a wonderful psychiatrist and psychologist, both women whom I am very fond of. I lost my mother tragically at 15. Lately I’ve been daydreaming about my therapists having been my mother. I daydream about how loving, kind and special they would have treated me. Being 26 this makes me feel so guilty and ashamed. I’m a grown woman who wishes I could have had one of them for a mother. At times I’ve felt like breaking away from the both of them because its painful for me to realize that their life really doesn’t include me. I’m just a young woman who has scheduled appointments with them and nothing more. Equally the thought of having to be separated from them hurts.

  • To try and make a long story short, im 26 and just started seeing a therapist 2 months ago. I was abandoned by my parents at age 3 and left with my older brother. I was physicallyn sexually and emotionally abused from 3 until I was 16. I started seeing a therapist at 16 but didnt have a desire to talk to anyone. So now, 10 years later I started seeing the same lady again. Its only been 2 months and I am extremely terrified of how I feel about her. She also seems to have healthy boundries in place, but I fear if I tell her how im feeling, that she too will see me as disgusting and an embarrassment. Im learning alot about emotional flashbacks and the effect trauma has on my brain, but I dint kniw how to break the ice or admit the attachment im experiencing. I was never taught what feelings or emotuons are, so we have been working in ne learning what anger feels like. I dont know how to tell her that I cant feel anger because I am consumed with the overwhelming emotions attached to her. Any help?

    • Dear Tammy, It sounds like you are doing all the right things. A lot of therapeutic progress comes from taking risks that feel dangerous but rationally are safe. Risking telling a therapist about feelings can be a good way to learn more as well as allowing healing of painful feelings. Perhaps other readers can respond and give you some encouragement, too.


  • To try and make a long story short, im 26 and just started seeing a therapist 2 months ago. I was abandoned by my parents at age 3 and left with my older brother. I was physicallyn sexually and emotionally abused from 3 until I was 16. I started seeing a therapist at 16 but didnt have a desire to talk to anyone. So now, 10 years later I started seeing the same lady again. Its only been 2 months and I am extremely terrified of how I feel about her. She also seems to have healthy boundries in place, but I fear if I tell her how im feeling, that she too will see me as disgusting and an embarrassment. Im learning alot about emotional flashbacks and the effect trauma has on my brain, but I dint kniw how to break the ice or admit the attachment im experiencing. I was never taught what feelings or emotuons are, so we have been working in ne learning what anger feels like. I dont know how to tell her that I cant feel anger because I am consumed with the overwhelming emotions attached to her. Any help?

  • To make a long story short, I was abandoned by my parents at age 3, and left with my brother who was 6. I was physically, sexually and emotionally abused from 3 until I was 16. I started seeing a therapist at 16 but had no desire to talk to anyone. At 18 I decided That the best thing to do was just pretend nothing ever happened. I threw myself into work and school. Im 26 now, have a degree, career, a house and a famiky. So I decided to go back to see my therapist.

  • Thank you for the response. She has been on vaca for 2 weeks and I go back to see her today. You said that rationally it is a safe risk to take, and logically I know its the only way to allow the feelings to dissipate, however I fear she will view it as inappropriate, as I do, and advise me to seek another therapist. I think shes fairly new to “chronic trauma”, and shes been learning alot thru me, which makes it more difficult. I have no idea how to do any of this, let alone tell the only person who knows my secrets that it feels like im in love with her. Its too much

    • Tammy, I have to say that I don’t know what is rational or right in your case. On the other hand, in general, a therapist who can’t handle a patient’s strong feelings might not be the right person to work with trauma survivors.


  • Tammy. Hi I’m completely new here and to therapy too but can relate to what you have said. I am finding the whole thing so difficult. I also have never been taught what feelings/emotions are and it makes it so hard to even talk in therapy.all I know is that I feel so much pain and want it to end

    • In our culture, we tend to go quickly from feeling to action, that is, doing something to take away the feeling. I often see people whose development shows a lack of familiarity with what it is to feel feelings. Even more important, we may not have experience with sharing them, which is the most powerful path to healing. When that happens, actually experiencing strong emotions can feel strange and even frightening.

  • This article perfectly describes how i feel but i also think it’s not completely the same in my situation – i came to my therapist after attending her lectures for 1 semester, i noticed her at very beginning, she seemed very wise and warm, i became obsessed and idealized her (very typical of me). I started therapy 3 months ago and now it seems like a therapeutic relationship builds up, she’s very professional, helps me understand more about myself, etc. etc. – it all should be good but it also feels like my typical idealization. And these never work out well.. I’m unable to attach, but i think about her all the time and the thought that she’s not my real friend and i’ll have to leave her some day (financial reasons, in the end..) frightens me a lot. I really can’t imagine that without feeling pain or devaluating her like it happened with idealized people in the past. Please tell me, is it normal? Is it really possible or am i just hurting myself again?… Thank you very much

    • Dear Laura, I can’t tell you what is right in your case, but many of the elements you describe could add up to a reenactment of some important but unfinished business from the past. Reenactment is normal in therapy, and offers a chance to understand instead of repeating. Good Luck! JS

  • My experience fits your description to a T. I am really concerned because my life is now characterized by constant wishes and longings of wanting to be closer to my therapist. I think about him all the time and I am in constant pain. We talk about my feelings over and over, but when/how does it end? I still have some hope left but this is agonizing. :'(

    I am also wondering–this sounds like psychoanalytic therapy to me. Is that what you practice? Thanks for putting this out there for us.

    • Dora, Thanks for you comment. Mindfulness tells us that focusing on when a feeling will go away makes it stronger. Acknowledging it and accepting the feeling (I call it “surf the feeling”) does more to allow an unmet need to heal.

      Regarding my practice, yes, I have an psychodynamic background but practice psychotherapy integration, focusing on healing and growth processes and how to help them happen. That’s the subject of the book I am working hard to finish up and get out.


  • Great article. I am still struggling deeply with the way things ended with my previous therapist. It was all very confusing and still is. I saw here for a few years, in group and individual counseling. We text-messaged or talked on the phone almost everyday even when I lived out of state a couple different times. Over time I felt like she was acting more as a friend in my life than a therapist and it was hard for me to tell what her role was since at times it felt like both at once, well actually, always less of a therapist (from my perspective anyway). She would frequently call me “her little girl” and say things like how she wished she could take me home…. which of course the child inside loved. We go to the same self-help groups and see each other there too which did not help in clearly defining boundaries. We also exchanged gifts and things like this. About a year ago in our last formal session she said, her husband had said (who is also a counselor at this office) that we should be recovery friends and that they could be “recovery mom and dad” instead of me doing therapy with them. I thought about it and realized I did not even know how it would change our relationship if I didn’t see her for therapy, that I already felt like they were friends/family to me both in real life based on real things which happened between us but also I guess some of this other crap that comes up in therapy was also coming up and it was WAY too much…. I told her how I felt which I felt safe doing since she had even said we all could be “recovery buddies” and I had asked about many times in the past if I was only loved because I was a client and was that the only basis for our relationship and I had always gotten the answer that no I was truly loved not based upon just being a client. SO in the end I told her that I couldn’t see her for therapy anymore, that it was too confusing and too painful…. but that… well what was the basis of our relationship now? I am still not even sure what happened but she got very cold and distant with me at my questioning which was confusing after the way it seemed our relationship was. This hurt very badly and I got very upset and sent emails and left voice mails saying that I thought it was messed-up things which had happened “in therapy” and outside of the office too and I felt abandoned and like I did not know how to cope with the feelings it left me with. Later she said that she terminated with me because she did not have the expertise to be treating me, which is not even what happen, she didn’t even terminate with me. I still see her and her husband in the self-help meetings we attend sometimes, I can not explain the pain and confusion and the difficulty I have in letting go and moving on. I truly loved/love these people and they had become an almost daily part of my life. I have since gotten another therapist because the pain got to where I started using drugs again to cope and wanted to kill myself. I once showed up at their office after relapsing, but not high, where I was told if I did not leave the cops would be called. I guess it was not right of me to show up there, but this pain is insane. I know I might sound insane in this post and no one can know what truly happened through a post, but they both showed me genuine love and friendship in a way which crossed so many boundaries if it was to be a therapeutic relationship. I truly feel damaged from the experience and struggling to move forward from it all. AND the weirdest part of it too, is that when our relationship starting falling apart they started texting one of my friends in the self-help program and showing her the same kinda love and attention they showed me, while I was still trying to reach out to them and even understand what had happened between us…. and I was ignored…. it all felt like one of the most confusing and coldest things I have ever experienced in my life. I felt like they refused to accept responsibility for any part they had and like it was all put on me which is insane considering she said she would stop being my therapist so we could all be recovery buddies and “recovery mom and dad”….. like…. wtf? I am still hurting so much over it all while at the same time I just want to forget about them and the whole thing. But I guess I am a mess because I feel like I still love them because I am remembering when they were loving to me and wondering if those people are ever going to come back in my life….. oh man………. that’s not the therapy I signed up for. Is that even therapy?!

    • Dear Kitty, Boundaries can seem harsh and arbitrary sometimes, but they do serve an important purpose, and when they get confused, a lot of pain and damage can result. I still Like Dr. Marlin Potash’s concept of “Therapy Love” (See Attachment to Your Therapist II) as a special kind of love that only exists within the bubble of the therapy relationship. When the clean boundaries surrounding the relationship are breached, the bubble is broken. I hope your new therapy allows you a safe place to explore those very strong feelings that were awakened. JS

  • Hi, I have been in therapy twice. The first time I was in college and it led me toward getting my degree in social work, because I was so fascinated with the process and probably also had something to do with getting some of my needs met through helping others with meeting some of theirs. Fast forward 20 years…I’m in therapy again and this time am contemplating going back for my masters in clinical psychology. Again fascinated by the process and by the human mind and heart. And wanting to help other people the way my therapist is helping me. But I am ashamed to tell my therapist about this desire in me…maybe she’ll think I’m imitating her? And she knows how messed up I am (very competent but with attachment and trust issues) Is this a very common scenario in therapy? I feel this desire getting stronger and more clear but I am not ready to say it because I’m afraid she’ll think “are you serious? You could never do this job, with all of your issues” Please comment! Thanks

    • Dear Sol, Without being able to give you a specific answer, your comment makes me think three things:
      1. Many people with “attachment and trust issues” suffer from a shaky internal sense of connection. Margaret Mahler called it “libidinal object constancy” and is mentioned in my post on Healing the Damaged Self
      2. One way children compensate for deficits is to build a dream of someday being very special or even perfect. Such a dream can become a source of shame and can be pushed out of conscious awareness. This can sometimes be the explanation of specific embarrassment about an ambitious goal.
      3. A strong relationship with a therapist is always a big deal, and I’m sure most people who have been in therapy can identify with reluctance to tell the therapist that you want to be a colleague. The vulnerability involved is inescapable.

      The first two issues are discussed at greater length in my new book, How We Heal and Greow: The Power of Facing Your Feelings. It should be available by mid-October, 2014.

  • Thank you Jeffrey. I’m looking forward to your book! I too am feeling intensely but ambivalently attached to my therapist. I spent quite a bit of time in the beginning watching and evaluating her to see if I respected her enough to allow myself to trust her…and once I decided that she is trustworthy the child-like longings began – and the realization that with so many limits on our relationship they can never be fulfilled to my satisfaction. How painful and what a predicament. Like childbirth, how many of us would enter into the therapeutic process voluntarily if we realized just how painful and destabilizing can be? I see in myself that I am astutely avoiding anger toward my therapist (preferring stoic suffering) because it represents a very scary loss of connection. I realize just how emotionally dependent I am on her right now, so I’m guarding against that loss of connection mightily. And I wonder, if I’m not able to allow any anger toward my therapist – will I be able to process the rage toward my mother for her absence and abandonment? Sadness and grief seem comfortable, even soothing, compared to anger.

  • I am currently in therapy for the past 2 years and am having some intense and overwhelming feelings that I am finding difficult to cope with. I cannot even begin to accept them as they feel like they will destroy me. I feel extremely angry with my therapist as she seems to give me no direction in how to cope with them and deal with them in the outside world. I feel like I have no direction and don’t know what to do for the best and that I will be stuck. I feel like she is stirring things up, and telling me how angry I must be about certain issues (which I am obviously trying to avoid) and I don’t know whether to trust her or the process. I tell her often how terrified I am so how do I know she is not making me worse? We have a good relationship and she sets appropriate boundaries, is always present and on time, so I cannot complain the way she is. I have improved in some ways, but at the moment it isn’t good enough. I feel like terminating as the thought of going there feels me with overwhelming anxiety that I cannot cope with.

    • Dear Yac,
      When feelings are very strong and your therapist hasn’t done anything grossly out of line, it likely means there are big emotional issue being played out in the therapy, which also would mean a great opportunity to resolve old unfinished business. One way to clarify how much the anger might be due to the therapist’s lack of helpfulness and how much comes from your issues would be to have a consultation with another knowledgable therapist. That might help you see past the feelings and have a better perspective on what you are experiencing. See my post about the value of consultation.


  • Thank you for this article. It was nice to gain some insight from the other side of the desk.

    I had a normal childhood apart from an overly critical father and some sexual abuse at a fairly young age (not by a family member).

    I have been in therapy doing Mindfulness Based CBT and ACT for almost 2 years now. In the course of therapy, I have developed very strong attachment to my therapist. I have been painfully candid with him about my feelings as they have waxed, waned and waxed again. I differ from some clients here in that I do not yearn to have him fill a paternal role.

    However, I wish for lasting friendship and, at times, a romantic relationship with him. This can be most unsettling and often embarrassing for me as we are both married and, to state the obvious, he is my therapist. I know we are physically attracted to each other and we have an excellent chemistry/connection. It is painful to have met him in this way that will not allow me to keep him in my life. I must add, he is highly ethical and has solidly held all boundaries.

    I sense we are nearing termination, but how will I know for sure? How does one go about this the right way? I know the door will remain open if I find myself ill again, but even the thought of saying goodbye to him practically makes me feel sick. I will miss him so terribly

    • Dear happylou,

      In my post, Attachment to Your Therapist II, I mention Marlin Potash’s concept of “Therapy Love.” It might be a good one to describe the very positive aspects of a successful treatment relationship. This is where boundaries are so important, the only thing protecting the special bubble within which therapy can safely operate.

      You ask for thoughts about termination. Often, patient and therapist both know when they are done. The easiest is when the healing is over and you keep coming back to the same familiar and no longer problematic place. Sometimes there may be work that you will need to continue indefinitely, but you know how to do it and know you will be able to. A third possibility is that the investment of time and money no longer justifies whatever remaining benefit there is to be gained. This is the least satisfying, but it does sometimes happen. As I so often say, discuss it with your therapist till you have a full meeting of the minds.

      The subject of termination often brings up a host of feelings. This sounds like it may be a major issue for you. Working with these feelings sometimes takes a while until you are really done.

      Finally, while the therapy may end, the therapeutic relationship does not. He will always be your therapist and you will always be his patient or client. In other words, the bubble that contains therapy love needs to stay intact. This has not always been adhered to, but it is my belief and that of many others, that therapy love is not transferrable to the outside world. When people have tried, it usually does not work out well. So the best is to cherish the experience of therapy and the benefits you have received, and to grieve the loss of regular contact in a relationship that is, nonetheless, lifelong.


  • I like my therapist. I know that she understands me and knows just what to say. Unfortunately at the last session I couldn’t stay focussed in the deep emotions about to arise to the surface.

    I feel like I need her to put her arms around me when I’m at the point of breaking down like a mother does to her child. I have had some unpleasant experiences.

    How do I bring this up and stay focussed on three memories that have been on my mind and not wander off into something else when it gets too hard?

    Is this transference?

    • Dear Confused,

      One principle is “Metacommunication.” That means talking about the process and that sounds like where you got stuck. Talking about why you wanted her to hold you and all the feelings that brought up is a subject in itself. Sharing the process issue usually makes it possible to feel safer, which opens the door to working on the difficult feelings themselves.

      Transference is when expectations or patterns of interaction with a therapist are based more on the past, and are not quite in sync with who the therapist really is.

      I hope that helps, and I hope you take a look at my new book, featured on the initial page of the blog.


  • […] Avoiding dual relationships protects not only the patient from exploitation but also protects the therapist from clients’ emotions. Patients with emotional trauma may relive their most difficult emotions while they work with a therapist. They can grow angry or demanding or fall in love with a therapist. Good boundaries create safety for patients and counselors. […]

    • I was intrigued to find reference to Moments of Change in a blog on those South Korean TV dramas that are currently wreaking havoc in the North. But Odessa Jones, the author of the blog is writing about the poignant feelings brought out by one such drama. It made me realize that the consulting room and the screen have something powerful in common. The boundaries inherent in both give us freedom to experience our deepest feelings and wishes without having to worry about real life consequences. The screen has boundaries because it is not real, so we can let ourselves feel without worry. Boundaries in therapy also give us the luxury of feeling and thinking things that we can’t even approach in outside life without worrying about their impact on others. It is the privilege of feeling freely that allows us to heal issues that would otherwise be barred from consciousness. JS

  • I was very attached to my therapist of 3.5 years. Then she got married and took a month vacation. Then after 4 months she became pregnant. She was taking a 3 month maternity leave but never returned. I waited for her to call me when she was back but she never did. I called her and she had placed the announcement on her service that they needed a larger home to raise their family and had bought a house and moved out of state.
    Bam, that was it.
    I had a breakdown. It’s been nearly 10 years and I still haven’t gotten over it. Some part of me fiercely hates her for doing this, but my little me blames herself for being so worthless.

    • Effie, Perhaps this principle might be relevant: When something goes wrong involving people, young children have two ways to understand: It is someone’s fault, or it is my fault. It takes a good deal of cognitive development to be able to absorb the notion of “one of those things,” that is bad things that are no one’s “fault.” On the other hand, therapists have a responsibility not to make promises they can’t or won’t keep, nor to imply them. They also have a responsibility to take care of themselves. A therapist who is self-neglectful cannot be fully available to his or her patients. When therapy recapitulates trauma, the best hope I know is to process the feelings very thoroughly, looking at feelings and events honestly and clearly, hopefully with someone who understands.

  • I have been seeing my therapist for 3.5 years. I started to see him because of depression. I find myself so attached that I think about him constantly. My comment to your post is that this is more or less hell on earth. Not only was I abused by my parents as a child but I think this process is also abusive and cruel. All of that in the name of healing. While in therapy, your life will be a mess. You feel obsessed with your therapist but know he is only doing his job. He truly doesn’t care about you. Once you leave his office you are on your own unless you become suicidal. If you don’t have an adequate support system as most people in this situation do you suffer. Most therapist understand what it is like through a clinical or academic point of view. They have no idea how painful the process is. I feel trapped in a relationship that I think is unhealthy. I try to leave the process and am convinced to go back for more abuse. I truly don’t thing most therapist understand what their “job” do to people. I am face with leaving which is painful or staying which is painful. So for those who suffer as I do be prepared to help your therapist build a new office in the name of getting healthy.

    • Doug, It is troubling when therapy becomes a painful burden rather than an occasionally difficult but positive exploration. You don’t say that you have discussed this thoroughly with your therapist and tried to help him understand your dilemma. A starting point with someone who has had inadequate parenting is that there is an inner child who knows that the solution should come from the therapist. It can be helpful to explore exactly what is desired and how the actual therapy is unsatisfying. Getting much more specific may be a way of helping an inner child to accept what is possible and let go of what is not. I hope these thoughts might be relevant. JS

      • Jeff,

        I have discussed it with my therapist over and over and over again. I want to say the pain and anger is a level that for me is debilitating. I have asked my therapist over and over again whether this is worth it. Does the pain and anguish ever get better? I want to know if my life will truly be better. Will I be happier? Will my relationships be more intimate and meaningful? I have yet to receive an answer from anyone who has actually gotten to the other side as to whether they felt it was worth the pain. I guess I don’t trust a therapist to give me an answer. What else would they say but it is worth it. I would like to hear from one person who has made it through what feels like hell and are truly happy. For me it feels like it will never end. I think I will always feel like a broken person. I feel I will never be “normal”.

        • Dear Doug, My usual thought is that freedom is priceless, so It must be worth it. But who am I to say? Perhaps more to the point is that I hope you and your therapist are seriously looking at whether or not you are “stuck,” and if so, what will it take to get you moving. There should be a reason why the pain seems to go on and on. On the other hand, I have often said to people that therapy, especially for trauma, is like fighting a war. The reward for winning a battle is that you get to fight the next one, that is until you reach Berlin, and then, suddenly, you are done. Perhaps others will have personal experiences to share with you. I hope so. JS

          • Jeffery,

            Thank you for your response. I bought your book and am reading it. How does having a fearful – avoidant attachment style change therapy? I have big issues with staying connected. I also have problems with dissociation and an emotional flashbacks. I am not sure what freedom would look like. What is the average length of time for treatment? I have learned a lot from your site.

  • Excellent writing and explanation. I can understand it. Still I am left wanting to leave my therapist. It’s been years. I see her with her child and my heart aches. The thought of her on vacation with her family breaks my heart. I know she is my therapist and I am not in love with her. But the pain is too great and felt to my core. I just can’t see her anymore. I end up getting angry and I just can’t take it anymore ;(

  • This was such an EXCELLENT article!! I knew this was something that happens in therapy, but it just seems weird. The first time I went to therapy it was very profound. Not so much the 2nd time, but I’m going again to another person who has been very helpful. I understand it so much more clearly now. Thank you for sharing!

  • This sounds good, in a hypothetical way. But how often does this actually work out? Where is the data that shows that these sorts of attachment theories actually can be translated into healing in the therapy room?

    I went thru a brutally painful therapy experience last year. My core wounds from both childhood and adulthood were brought to the surface. After a while my therapist gave up on me. Was worried the process was harming me too much. I now realize termination and the associated rejection and abandonment was even more harmful. She refused to help further. Her own insecurities and vulnerabilities took over. Massive betrayal and total fraud. I have no real recourse, partly because there is no oversight and therapists can do whatever they want, in isolation. Totally ruined me.

  • Adam,
    I hope you are well now after the ordeal that you went through a few months ago.

    I’m so sorry that your therapist was so unprofessional and I feel terrible that she abandoned you when you needed her most, after she brought you to such emotional exposure because she was not competent enough to manage your emotions. I feel this is analogous to a surgeon performing surgery and getting overwhelmed because you are bleeding a lot more than expected and walking away from the operating room.

    In therapy, just like in any other profession, all possible outcomes should be taken into consideration and have alternative approaches lined up just in case the situation goes that route.

    This profession needs more regulation. Most individuals don’t even know their rights as clients. When someone seeks therapy most likely they are in a heightened emotional state and they just want some relief and are not concerned with the fact that they are paying for a service that should be delivered. If the client does not attain any significant relief for the problem they sought therapy for, they should receive all their money back.

    Therapeutical services are a business and should be treated as such. If a therapist feels they are not competent enough to handle the situation, they should find them another therapist who specializes in those particular issues and start a gradual termination procedure with the client to prevent him/her from experiencing abandonment by the therapist.

  • Thank you so much for writing this article… The last five months of therapy have been very, very painful due to attachment to my therapist and the melting pot of the transference and countertransference going on.

    I’ve been seeing my psychologist mostly once a week for the last two and a half years. She’s helped me a tremendous deal, much more than any other mental health professional. I was very sick with anorexia nervosa in my adolescence and required a lot of lengthy inpatient treatment, so I’ve seen a lot of people.

    Before that time, I had seen my current psychologist for six months when I was ten years old. I went back to her at age 22.

    Our therapeutic alliance became strong over the first year of therapy as I trusted my psych more. After a year, I asked if I could sit by her when I felt vulnerable, which she would allow. I’d sit next to her and she’d brush my hair back gently. It was very soothing to the hurting inner child in me, who I can now see was searching for a maternal comfort and safety that I had never experienced.

    Only, this began to happen after every session. After twelve months, my psych finally told me she couldn’t let this happen anymore, nor would she hug me. On top of this, she completely changed tact with me. She went from emotionally open and warm, occasionally letting me know how her own life was going if I asked, to explicitly telling me she wasn’t going to talk about her own life anymore and changing her demeanour to one that was very emotionally detached and clinical. It was like flipping a switch.

    I was absolutely devastated. It’s been five months and I’m still struggling. I found myself switching into detached adult state at first, totally unable to feel any emotion at all. I was functioning but I was emotionally dead. My psych wasn’t too concerned and actually switched me onto fortnightly sessions at this time instead of weekly. Just this week she told me not to contact her on her mobile anymore, not that I did that much anyway. It might have been once every one or two weeks that I would contact her outside of the office. I didn’t feel this was excessive.

    But I’ve since been experiencing waves of anger, self-hatred, sadness and suicidality. I want to stay in treatment with my psych, because I want to be able to work through whatever’s going on for me. But for most of this year, I’ve been feeling like therapy has become another issue onto itself, rather than a vehicle to help me deal with the issues I already had. I’m really, really struggling with coping with my inner child who sits with me in therapy, hoping and patiently waiting for slightest inkling that my psych still has affectionate feeling for her. Every time that doesn’t happen, on comes the suicidal wave an hour or so after therapy. I think it’s definitely related. I’m trying to retain some trust and connection in my therapeutic alliance, but to be honest, I’m feeling like I’m sitting in a room with someone who no longer wants me there and doesn’t even like me anymore, let alone love me. I feel like a leech that my therapist is trying to pluck off. I don’t feel safe and I don’t feel supported. I feel like my psych is first tearing my attachment to her to shreds and then proceeding to throw me out into a world that my inner child sees as all bad; that the world is bad and all people are bad. She reasons that if my psych could hurt me so badly, then what will everyone else do? It’s so hard to find a balance where I can still trust her and feel safe somehow. I don’t want to have to leave and go to someone else but my God, I really do wonder why I’m putting this poor little girl inside me through pain and rejection session after session after session. My inner child is angry I’m not protecting her from the hurt. What on earth can I do? I’d appreciate any and all ideas xx

    • Dear Sophie!
      I so much feel the way you must feel now. I can not judge the situation or your T but from what you were explaining it seems to me she did not manage to keep the boundaries. Maybe she feels she made a mistake by phisically comforting you..Im really so sorry for what you are going through now must be so hard! 🙁
      When I asked my T what was the hardest thing for her with me, she said to put the boundaries always to the same place. Seems like your T could not really do that and it must be really confusing for your inner child.
      Have you told her all this that you told us here? I guess you did. Please dont blame yourself for anything, Im sure your T wants the best for you, but maybe she is uncertain now what to do or about what she has done. Its just a feeling I have, might be entirely wrong of course. Try to talk to her and figure this out. Im so sorry again..just wanted to support you! I know it feels good when people answer to what we write here. Take care and let us know how you are! 🙂

  • Hello,

    I have been posting before… and now I have a question. My therapy reached a point where lots of childhood wishes came out, the biggest issue for me was being held. I really believed it would help me, but my T had the boundaries well kept and she said it would be a fake thing, making me believe that I can receive something from her that I should actually start looking for in real life.

    I already had this feeling when she kept the boundaries after getting through my shame and asking for being held…or something simular…that I should just leave, you know…I became angry. I could never really show my anger or sadness in therapy. I was crying at home, or in the car or on the street as soon as I was out of her place, but never grieved there. Probably its not a problem, I dont know, but what I clearly feel is that I had to make a decision and start not seeing her because it just about the same thing all the time. I had to come to this understanding, well the understanding of my adult self, that it cant go on like this. I have to stop seeing her, cause I will never get what I want, its over and I need to cry and grieve over it but thats it.

    Im a little confused because I thought that one day it will just happen, like you wrote in the post Jeff, that one day other people will be more interesting and eventually some of the things I lack I will be able to get from someone else. Some. At least. I think Im getting there but sometimes it feels that I just did the right thing by leaving my therapy, in other times it feels I have not yet worked through everything. I know that practically its only me who is able to decide, cause its only me who feels whats going on in me. I think right now its hard and confusing because the child in me still has a say in the things, as she should have of course, but she probably has not yet understood everything.
    I really miss my T, attachment is strong. we worked 3,5 years together, there was no drama in saying goodbye, actually I just walked out of her office, she wished me good luck and a nice journey on the road Im taking. I said I might come back one day, she said all good but I can try other therapists too….this obviously felt very sad…like she wishes she does not see me again for my own sake of course but it still hurts.
    So this is where I am now, being actually very proud of myself to have made a decision like this and to leave the one person I started to love so much, or my inner child started to love so much. But the decision was made by the adult. Cruel as it feels and wise as it is.

    Thanks and keep up the good work cause this place is the best!
    Love, Judith

  • Dr Smith, wouldn’t you agree that therapy attachment work puts the client in more of an abandonment state than an attachment state, given that they are away from the attachment figure (therapist) almost all the time? And isn’t this liable to trigger a sort of chronic separation distress in many clients? Seems antithetical.

    • Thanks for the comment. This warrants a post in itself in response. Let me just say for now, that in childhood development, it is the coming and going of the attachment object that leads to internalization and object constancy. I think therapy can provide a safe environment to do this development work. Simply fulfilling a need does not result in the original trauma being healed, nor does withholding fulfilment.

  • We need to be a good associate between the therapist and us, and we need to give them all the correct information. You have provided useful information about the therapist in the blog. There are so many developers working on this part, but this is one of the best innovative post ever. Thanks for such post.

  • Dr Jeffry
    Thanks for your work on such an important topic. The feelings of and pain grief, loss and abandonment seem insurmountable to me–as sharing my feelings with my therapist was taken as a threat and a horrible experience.
    I had seen her for 11 months and had great respect and admiration for her. We shared similar likes and beliefs. The truth and honesty seem most important to me. I thought about it long and hard, and felt I was disrespecting her and dishonoring the value of truth by not telling her. It took more courage for me to tell her I cared about her and in fact had deep feelings for her. I emphasized they were not sexual and my feelings were like that of a friend or I was like a child needing comfort from his mother. I have a past of traumas, tragedies and parental abuse. My own daughter took her own life 3 years ago. For the first time in years I felt alive again and that life was worth living. I decided it was dishonest to not speak of my attachment, and sent an email requesting we talk about it during our next session. She did not answer for several days and I knew I had made a horrible mistake. After the child in me sent many misguided emails to her, she finally agreed. The child got what it wanted…however when I arrived at our session, I was greeted by security guards and cornered in a room with my therapist and others. We did not talk about my feelings or attachment at all. I was disciplined, documented for wanting innapropriate therapuetic relationships with my healthcare team–therapist. I was told to sign a contract forbidding me to ever talk to the therapist again and never send another email. I was so distraught I could not speak and started to weep, crying like a child. I got up and hurriedly left before they could see too many tears of shame, sadness, guilt….of course I tried to contact her. How could the child inside of me not try? I sent her emails begging to speak with her, asking her to send an email explaining things. I begged her to forgive me. She never responded, and I became hopeless, lost…abandoned and retraumatized. I was suicidal for over 1 month. It has been two months. Each day is still a struggle to survive. I do not recall feeling as worthless and valueless when my daughter died. I was rewarded with a packet in the mail which terminated me from ever going to see her again in the clinic where she practiced. Since my Doctor of 15 years works there too, I am terminated from seeing him. I take many medications for heart problems and other conditions. I cant get them from him anymore. I refuse to start with another Doctor, so I do not take any of my meds anymore and I guess I dont care. I have pretty much given up, I dont know what is right or wrong anymore….I dont know how professionals in this field could abandon someone who needs help like I do. I envy any of you who were at least allowed to speak about your feelings and talk. Even if you were rejected, its better than what happened to me.
    Thanks…T. Allen

    • We have heard of a number of very sad and painful responses to patients doing what they should do, talk about their feelings. It is part of a therapist’s (and supervisor’s) job to tell the difference between a real danger and something that might be mistaken for one. Sometimes institutions are set up to avoid any risk of liability at the expense of the people they are supposed to serve. I have pointed out elsewhere that it is better to know early in the process, rather than years later. We all hope you are able to heal and go on with life. I do hope these pages help you to sort out what you have experienced. JS

  • Thank you for this post. It is so helpful to understand the process, as painful as it may be. I have reached, I think, the stage where I realize that my therapist cannot be my parent. But he is definitely my attachment figure. I grew up with complete rejection, and abuse quite similar to “A Child Called It” plus sexual abuse from my parents and from my siblings, condoned by my parents. This was from age 2 – adulthood. Annnnnyway…..I am now at the point where I want to risk and acknowledge attachment. But I grew up with the constant message, veralized, that “we want to love you but you make it too hard s we can’t.” So, I feel this need to know that my attachment figure therapist can care about me, that I am not nothing. That I matter. And he says I do matter to him, as a person and not just a patient. But I am struggling – will it disappear?
    Is it just a stage that will pass, like when I wanted him to be a parent? So I am stuck. I want more than ever to believe he cares. But I am afraid it is a ‘trick’ and he knows that it is just a stage and not real. I have told him all this.
    But I remain very hesitant, even though I want it more than anything. Teary typing. Obviously still grieving. Any advice?

    • PS I was also farmed out as a prostitute. And my parents were both alcoholics and my siblings abused heavy drugs. Everyone slept with everyone else. I reacted by being a high achiever, leaving home the minute I turned 18, excelling in college and graduating summa cum laude, yadda yadda, trying to earn being worthy of someone caring. I realize that now and have recently claimed my space on this planet, albeit it is nearly microscopic:) but I have claimed it. That’s pretty awesome. Anyway, what do I do about have anxiety that my attachment therapist’s caring is going to disappear as part of the therapy process? .

  • PS Again : I should have mentioned that my therapist maintains the strictest of boundaries and would never cross any lines.

    • Dear Heidi, Sounds like you have made really good progress. What I know about learning to trust is that it is when one takes the risk of trusting positive experiences with the therapist and acting as if he is trustworthy that messages go inside where they can correct the untrusting assumptions formed long ago. This is to say that trusting is an act, and each act of trust amounts to a “corrective emotional experience.” I hope that is helpful.

        • Heidi, I can’t tell what’s in his heart, but I do know that it is natural for therapists who are, after all, human beings, to care, and rather unnatural not to. I believe only a therapist whose feelings are somehow blocked would be able to appear to do this work without actually being emotionally engaged.

          • Thank you!!! That helps SO much. Maybe I’ll give it (trusting him) a try. Fingers crossed. Thank you thank you thank you.

  • I kept going back to a bad therapist for 7 years. I saw another much better one for almost the whole time but did not feel the draw. I quit the second one and then finally quit the first one after being treated like an idiot for one too many times.
    I tried but could never figure out what was supposed to be going on. The woman I hired would always refuse to explain -even after saying she would answer questions. I kept hoping to be heard – so that part is my weakness.

  • How to process the end of therapy when attachment intervenes

    Part 1–It makes perfect sense to my therapist, but emotionally I don’t get it!
    This evening, I made a Google search on the topic of unhealthy attachment and the therapist. I did this because I finally learned the term “unhealthy attachment”, which is how, hitherto unbeknownst to me, my therapist characterized my relationship to her. A year ago, I received 12 weeks of therapy (the maximum allowed by hospital protocols in our country’s socialized medical system–scarce public resources have to rationed) from a very personable clinical psychologist. I was aware going into therapy that I form attachments easily and then feel abandoned when the relationship ends. This is not something I understood at the time–and I am still trying to understand what this is, how it works, and how to change my behaviour in my interactions with people so that I am respectful of other people’s feelings and needs. It is a core value of mine to be respectful of other’s people’s feelings and needs. Of course, I am not perfect, so I am sure I make mistakes in applying this principle and probably always will, but it is important for we humans to do our best, and that means constantly learning to do better. I pointed out my tendency to form attachments easily to my therapist very early in our relationship. She said at the time, “Oh, I don’t think we are going to see each other for long enough for that to be a problem.”

    In hindsight, I believe I told her about my tendency precisely because I had already formed an attachment to her. Believe it or not, at the age I then was, 55, I did not know what attachment really was. I had no idea how powerful attachment can be. And I was overwhelmed when I found I could not manage my feelings of distress when the therapeutic relationship came to an end at the end of the 12 appointments to which I was entitled, and to which I agreed. During the course of therapy, my therapist told me that my feelings of attachments “made perfect sense to her” given my life’s experience (including my early childhood) of what I so often felt was having been left for dead. In my heart and mind, this was literally true–so many times, I actually believed the world was ending. I believe my therapist understood intellectually what that meant; I do not know if in her heart, or emotionally, she could feel the pain of abandonment, to which I was trying to draw her attention.

    As therapy progressed, I felt as though I had to look after my therapist as I would if she were my own daughters, or some other child who needed the assistance of a parent. I have raised 2 daughters, and I recognized the feeling in myself. This, I learned, was not appropriate–the therapist did talk to me about how it made sense for me to “treat her in a child-like way” given that the only “working model” (a term from psychology, the meaning of which I have only just learned now, long after therapy ended) I had was that of being a parent myself.

    As my therapist and I approached the final two sessions of therapy, I had feelings for my therapist that seemed to belong to what a child would have towards a mother. I told my therapist about this, and said that I did not know what to do with these feelings, but that I believed that the only way she could help me with these feelings was to reveal these to her verbally. I do not remember what she told me in reply–indeed I do not know remember anything more of the appointment in which I made this confession, of which I was deeply embarrassed.

    Come the final appointment, my therapist said she was going to recommend to the hospital where I was participating in the therapy and to my referring doctor that I not receive further short term treatment, because, she said, it was “too difficult and destabilizing” for me. She asked me if I knew why she was going to make that recommendation, and I confessed I didn’t know. She went on to tell me that “If I had known of all of the problems you have, I probably wouldn’t have taken you on as a patient.” These remarks were difficult to hear and in response I went into some kind of state of shock. From that moment forward, I heard what she told me as if I were under water and heard her as if her voice, or my ears, or both, were muffled.

    At the door, when we shook my hand, and I thanked her, and we said “Goodbye”, she handed me some papers, which I saw, when I looked at what she had put in my heads, related to dialectical behavioural therapy for persons suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder. She said to me as I was backing out the door “Now, I’m not suggesting you are borderline; we’re all borderline in the right circumstances”. I tried to fix an image of her in my mind in the last instant so I could remember her and was numb and trembling and sobbing and choking back tears that kept bursting forth as I made my way to the lobby of the hospital, where, like Elizabeth Smart at Grand Central Station, I sat down and wept.

    In the seconds, and minutes, and hours, and days, and weeks, and months that followed, I cried and felt inconsolable.

    Part 2: “It would not be advantageous for you to be seen by me again”
    After about 10 days of terrifying agony, I called to book an appointment with the psychiatrist who was supervising my psychologist at the hospital where I participated in therapy. It was part of the discharge plan that my therapist made with me during the last few minutes of our final appointment that I could contact the psychiatrist for follow up. When I called to make the appointment, the receptionist did a bit of prescreening, asking me why I wanted the appointment, and she checked and saw that my chart was still open, and that my name still appeared on the waiting list for Interpersonal Psychotherapy. She felt it was appropriate for me to see the psychiatrist for a single follow up appointment (that was all I had asked for). After making the appointment, I went to soak in a hot bath. When I got out of the bathtub, there was a voicemail from the receptionist saying that she was sorry, but that the psychiatrist had asked her to cancel the appointment. I played telephone tag with the receptionist for about a week before we reconnected. I asked if the psychiatrist was just very busy, and whether I could rebook the appointment. She told me, “No, the psychiatrist does not want to see you”. She asked whether I would like her to ask my psychologist if she would be willing to see me instead. I said I didn’t know how she would feel about it given that therapy had ended. I wanted very much to respect the written agreement I had with her that her help was limited to 12 appointments. After the receptionist had spoken to my psychologist, she informed me by telephone that neither she nor my psychiatrist would see me. When I asked why ever not, she told me that they had told her it “would not be advantageous for me” and that the psychiatrist had closed my file and taken me off of the waiting list for Interpersonal Psychotherapy. I wrote to the hospital asking if they could talk to the psychiatrist and have her reconsider his decisions, or have someone else in a clinical role who had access to my psychologist’s notes speak with me, because I had questions relating to the things I have described above that my therapist told me. After months of waiting, the hospital told me that they no one could see me or speak to me to answer my questions. They told me that as far as the hospital was concerned, I was now in the care of my family doctor. I had already talked with my family doctor about my feelings post therapy, and returned to see my family doctor in a kind of dissociated state (I really did not feel I was inhabiting my own body), in tears, and probably not making much sense, as I blubbered, trying to find words to express what was happening with me. I duly completed an authorization for the hospital to have my medical record from the therapist sent to my family doctor. After months of waiting, my doctor received my psychologist’s therapeutic summary, which indicated that while I had attended all of 12 appointments, and worked hard in therapy (during the actual sessions and on the homework exercises, which included not only chain diagrams and thought records, but also social interaction and exercise), and was highly motivated to change, fundamental attachment issues and dissociative episodes interfered with getting some presumed optimal benefit from the therapy.

    The summary went on to suggest that while the psychologist had not administered the appropriate tests to make a diagnosis of personality disorder, she indicated that I have personality traits–borderline and dependent–that probably should be explored as part of the consideration of what kind of support would be most useful.

    My family doctor does not consider herself a therapist, but, to her credit, she did not send me away. Four family doctors in the practice have tried to help me to understand and learn from and move on from therapy. There have been four, not because I have changed family doctors, but because the same doctor was not always available for the scores of appointments I have had since then.

    Part 3–I have a personality disorder, really?
    Bearing in mind that while my family doctors are very caring, they do not have the training of therapists, and, in spite of their best efforts, have not been able to do much to help me to understand what happened, or to come to grips with my feelings post therapy.

    In an effort to find answers to the questions I have, I took the extraordinary step of submitting an access to information request to see my medical chart from the hospital, containing my therapists appointment by appointment progress notes as well as copies of communications within the hospital that referred to me. A couple of days a ago, I received by courier from the hospital two bound volumes as well as USB stick with voice recordings. When I flipped through the bound volumes, I was shocked to read that my psychologist had told her colleagues in the hospital that I have a personality disorder, and that my request for follow up and distress post therapy are manifestations of my personality disorder. Her advice to the hospital was that they not have anybody see me because of this, as it was necessary to “draw boundaries for this patient”.

    From other correspondence in the bound volumes, my psychologists made arrangements with hospital security and her managers to have the door of a corridor leading to her office locked, saying “A patient is writing to the hospital and I would feel more comfortable if the door were locked, not because I am concerned about my safety, but because I would like to avoid this person [until the hospital tells him that no one will see him and the dust has settled on that]”.

    I must confess I was shocked upon reading these things. Why would my psychologist tell me she wasn’t suggesting I have a personality disorder, and acknowledge in her treatment summary that she did not do the appropriate psychometric tests to make a diagnosis of personality disorder, but nevertheless tell her colleagues I have a personality disorder in order to justify the denial of follow up from the hospital? As hard as it is for me to accept, I can only infer that she lied to me during therapy–in fact she really believes I have a personality disorder. It is undignified to be lied to as a patient, especially as the goal of therapy is learning, and healing, and growth.

    I continue to do my part to achieve this goal, and in that spirit, I found your blog on attachment to therapists. I do not have any psychosis and I am compos mentis. I am not angry in the sense of “stamping my feet”; but I do feel hurt, and I don’t think what happened is right.

    Part 4–Questions I have.
    (1) Would it be appropriate to write to my therapist in the manner I have written to you in order to share with her what happened from my point of view, including my incomprehension of some things I experienced and my sense of indignity about others? Or would that be greeted by my psychologist as a form of harassment? I don’t want what happened to me to happen to any other patient.

    I would like to provide feedback to my psychologist, to the hospital psychologist, and to others at the hospital who were involved in the decision to deny me follow up so they know how this feels from a patient’s point of view, in the hope that they can learn from the experience and make appropriate improvements so that the next patient in my situation is treated more humanely. (2) Would providing such feedback in a politely written letter be appropriate?

    I have a psychiatrist now, and she has determined that I have no personality disorder, but almost certainly do have Asperger’s Syndrome–she is an expert in diagnosing this form of autism, and in supporting patients “on the spectrum” and their families. To be fair to my psychologist, she did not know I have Asperger’s–if I had known I would surely have told her. (3) Would it help to tell this to my psychologist now in a letter to help her understand, and potentially learn more from her experience of our interactions? (4) Would this help her as a therapist in the future? (5) Do you think it would help me to move on to tell her this in a letter?

    (6) Would it be beneficial to myself, or to my therapist, or to both of us, if a meeting could be facilitated between her and I during which we had a brief chat and a chance to shake hands?

    I realize I have written a lot, and that I have also asked you quite a few questions. I am grateful to you for the article you wrote on attachment to one’s therapist. I am also appreciative that your blog enables readers to leave comments. I hope that what I have written and your response may be helpful to others–whether patients, or therapists, or both. Thank you, and all the best to you.

    • Dear Cleo, I hope you have read my most recent post on attachment to your therapist, where I summarize what I have learned. Here are some thoughts. From your description, there might be two things the therapist could learn. One is to treat patients with the dignity of telling the truth, even when concerned that the reaction might be intense. The second is that I don’t hear that the therapist considered the possibility of Asperger’s. I have no way of knowing if this diagnosis is accurate, but it could be valuable to a therapist who had not considered the possibility. From a humane point of view, it is always good to have a civilized parting, rather than an abrupt and inhuman one. Systems often feel constrained to adopt inhuman policies. Whether the clinic you worked with might be tempted to adopt a more humane policy is something I don’t know. If so, they might be interested in your feedback about how treating people as objects is unnecessarily hurtful. I’m currently thinking about a post on how these attachments can heal, but I don’t know quite when I’ll be able to finish it. Yours, JS (3/17/18)

  • Very good information. I have become very attached to my therapist of two years and had started to worry about it. I saw him today and, because we have made so much progress in therapy, I was able to bring up the subject of my feelings of attachment to him. fortunately, he did not bat an eyelash. he said that it was appropriate and that he will always be available to me even after we have ended therapy. this was such a load off of my mind. and now I have read what you wrote and it cemented my feelings of reassurement that it is ok and I have done no wrong. TY.

    • DR, Thanks for this comment. This is what I would have hoped you would do, and your therapist responded the way I would hope he did. This is rare, and welcome. I hope it is an example to others client and therapists alike, on how things ought to go, and that nothing bad happened from speaking or from the feelings of attachment. JS

  • I think I am curious about this statement. Is it really true for all people and all cases?
    “Eventually the feelings heal and a more grown-up, philosophical view takes over (not the pseudo-adult one we started with, but a real acceptance).”

    I think the real acceptance may have been reached throughout life but maybe one did not value it until it is declarative in therapy room. I think this over-valuing of therapy experience than real life experience may create resistance to therapy for some people.

    • Humans are complicated. I very much do think that change healing can happen in life as well as in therapy. that’s why the tag line at the top of the blog: Moments of Change in Therapy and in Life. I’m sure we do sometimes overvalue the kind that happen in therapy. This is why my work often looks like “behavior therapy,” when I think that changes in behavior may be just what is needed to advance healing and growth. JS

Leave a Comment