So, my therapist broke up with me. Is it worth trying to find another one?
February 23, 2011 5:34 PM   Subscribe

So, my therapist broke up with me. Is it worth trying to find another one?

I entered into therapy for some work-related anxieties that I was experiencing that I was having difficulty dealing with. The problems were part of a longstanding pattern, but over the past several months I had felt they were getting worse and that tipped me over the edge into seeking professional help for them. It was something that was difficult for me to do, because I have a tough time trusting people and intensely dislike being vulnerable before someone I don’t trust.

The therapist I was seeing --- well, we didn’t quite hit it off right away. She seemed quite nice and was warm, but where she was energetic and open and a bit chipper, I’m sarcastic and sly and a bit cynical. I think she sometimes found me difficult to read; I’m sure I didn’t make it easy for her. This lack of immediate rapport was something I was a bit concerned with from the beginning, but knowing myself, I felt like I ought to give the thing a fair go and was worried that I might be playing up that uneasiness to myself in order to give myself an excuse to abandon the whole endeavor. So I saw her for a few months and I would say over time the relationship improved.

Over the course of the few months, the work-related stuff improved somewhat and I felt like things in that area of my life were a bit better but not like I had a real handle on what was causing me to act like that, enough of a one to prevent myself from falling into those old patterns again. The therapist, without coming right out and saying it, always seemed a bit less engaged in the work stuff and a bit more interested in other areas of my emotional life in which I might experience anxiety. I think her therapeutic interests just seemed to run that way.

For myself – well, there are other things in my life that sometimes cause me anxiety, and certainly there are events in my past I look on with regret. But none of that stuff was really bothering me much day-to-day; it didn’t strike me as a problem I particularly wanted solved right now. There was one incident, however---I’d helped a friend through a minor emotional crisis a few months ago, and doing so caused me to think about how many of the same misperceptions and flawed ways of thinking I saw evidenced in my friend’s behavior could equally be applied to myself.

When I mentioned this in therapy, my therapist asked me to think more about what I wanted to get out of the whole therapuetic experience. I did, and found the idea of dredging up my whole past incredibly depressing; in the end I wrote her an email saying that while I recognized that there might be other areas in my life that were kind of fucked up, and that I was willing to go into all that shit if I had to in order to solve my current problems, I was not convinced this was necessary and I was mainly concerned about the work stuff. Then, due to other circumstances I didn’t see her for a few weeks.

So last week she brought up the letter, and asked me if I wanted to talk about that stuff. Fairly or unfairly, I confess I felt a bit blindsided by this; I’d walked in the door feeling rather upbeat and hadn’t thought about the letter in over a month. And so I said no.

Long story short --- hah – she then suggested that if I didn’t want to go into all that with her then maybe she wasn’t someone who could help me. So I said I’d think about it and eventually told her I wouldn’t be back.

That’s probably way too much background for what is in the end a fairly simple question: Is any therapist I go to going to want to have access to every aspect of my life in order to help me deal with this immediate problem? Is it simply that I’d need to find someone I got on with much better in order to make this work?
I’m going into all this detail because I recognize that my judgment in these matters is not the most objective; it is not clear to me whether the bigger problem is that I’m too unwilling to open up about stuff in order for therapy to work at all, or that I just didn’t trust her, or if the way she likes to work doesn’t work for me. You are, of course, a bunch of random internet strangers, and not doctors, etc. Throwaway: solitaryoyster [at]
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (24 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Your first therapist didn't work out. This isn't your fault, or the therapists, necessarily. Friends that are therapists and even associates/friends that have been in long term therapy have told me that isn't uncommon to "shop around" until you can find a good match for YOU if the first one doesn't work.
posted by xtine at 5:43 PM on February 23, 2011

I'd say how well you connect and get along with a therapist, and vice versa, is one of the most essential ingredients for a successful therapy experience. When it comes down to it, you're just two people in a room together and the relationship itself can be one of the most healing aspects.

I'd say if you aren't interested in delving too much into the past (and maybe you would be more willing if you had better rapport with a therapist), you might want to see a primarily cognitive behaviorally oriented clinician. Also, look into the Paradox Process. (Disclaimer: I don't know much about it at all but a friend of mine, who didn't click with other therapeutic approaches, loves it.)

Good luck.
posted by tacoma1 at 5:44 PM on February 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is really just a tangentially related anecdote rather than an answer to your question, but one of my therapists actually left the state to get away from me (just kidding, he was moving anyways... or at least that's what he told me) and the next one I found turned out to be generally more skilled, smarter, and better at asking insightful questions.

Also, I think you probably get better in selecting a therapist every time, which is probably a worthwhile skill to develop. I think I remember coming across one or two books about selecting therapists at a library at some point, which were interesting to thumb through.
posted by XMLicious at 5:48 PM on February 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

It seems like you do need to continue therapy, so yes, it's better to get a new one than stop all together. You may find that you like the new one better.
posted by lettuchi at 5:50 PM on February 23, 2011

Well, therapists vary wildly in their approaches. So the answer to " Is any therapist I go to going to want to have access to every aspect of my life in order to help me deal with this immediate problem" is probably no. Some may feel that its important, others will be fine working on a problem in isolation.

Similarly, comfort / rapport is kind of like chemistry in dating: sometimes it's there and sometimes it's not, and it's important. So you may have to shop around a bit to find someone you feel comfortable with, and whose approach you like.
posted by wildcrdj at 6:17 PM on February 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

1. Some therapists are very oriented to working on the problem in current life and are only interested in the past to the extent it is playing out in the present. Other therapists take the approach that all (or almost all) problems are rooted in childhood. Generally, someone who says that they are CBT (cognitive behaviorial therapy) or solution focused or short term therapy are more likely to be focused on solving the presenting problem.

2. If you have a therapist that you trust, you may find yourself wiling to go into some of the deeper stuff that you would not feel comfortable working on today. So good chemistry is more important than particular style.

3. In making sense of what happened with your therapist, remember that when you walked in last time, your letter was something that you had written a month ago. For your therapist, it was her last contact with you (sort of as if it had happened hte day before.) Plus you had missed a couple weeks, which may have sent the message that you didn't really want to be working with her. Finally, if she thinks that going into "all that stuff" is important and you don't want to go there, then she probably is right - she is not the best person for you to be working with. However, if you ask, she should be willing to suggest a couple of names of people that she thinks are a better match. (At least in California, a therapist can't just dump you.)
posted by metahawk at 6:39 PM on February 23, 2011 [5 favorites]

If a therapist wants to explore an area that a client isn't inclined to discuss, the therapist should be able to supply a compelling reason why he or she feels it would be worthwhile for the client to do so. This happens a fair amount of the time - the therapist may believe that the roots of a work problem reside in something that happened in childhood, say.

However, it is still *your* decision to make. Going into some areas can be painful and time consuming and costly. Since you are the person who will have to bear those burdens, you should be convinced that it's worth a shot, at least.

Do talk to another therapist, if you feel you still need some help in those areas. Another therapist may have a different approach, a different sensibility, or may just be more artful in working with you.
posted by jasper411 at 6:47 PM on February 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

To answer your question, no, not every therapist will insist on drudging up your past if you're not interested. I'm being trained in a clinical psych program at a major university right now, and they emphasize very strongly listening to the client's concerns, building a plan of action with the client, and working on what the client defines as the problem. Find someone who says they work with empirically supported methods. I'm not sure what your work problems are, or I'd suggest more specifically. Feel free to message me.
posted by namesarehard at 7:38 PM on February 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree that you should maybe try it out again. And, no, not every therapist will want to delve that deep with you, but I think it's good to realize why they might. She may have thought that your pattern of anxiety could have root in a past experience. Negative feelings often are created or intensified when they echo with an unresolved past issue. She could have thought that your pattern of anxiety wasn't about your current predicament, but about you subconsciously being wary about repeating a past event.
posted by shesaysgo at 8:09 PM on February 23, 2011

Yeah, therapy works a billion times better if you and the therapist are compatible. I have seen some very nice people who I just didn't feel that particular spark with, so it didn't last very long.

You should keep looking for the right therapist. Feel free to interview them over the phone (or have a trial run meeting) and see if you hit it off or not, same as you would a friend or a date. If you have any reservations after interacting with them, keep looking.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:10 PM on February 23, 2011

First of all, you never have to push yourself to stick it out with a therapist with whom you don't have a good rapport. Shopping around for a therapist that's the right fit for you is an expected practice, and nothing you have to feel shy about. For the benefit of both yourself and your therapist, it's best to enter into therapy with someone with whom you feel more or less simpatico. It's never good to see a therapist you don't personally respect.

Now, therapists have different styles and techniques, and come from different backgrounds. So, no, not all therapists will be as interested in talking about your past quite as much. I do think it's unlikely that you'll find a therapist who agrees with the notion that your present day work-like can be treated as discreet from the rest of your present day life. What's more, many, if not most, therapists will see your resistance to talking about your emotional life and history as a red flag suggesting that's exactly what would benefit you the most.

The best approach would be to make this an early topic in therapy -- in the first or second session, discuss what you want to get out of therapy, what areas of your life you do and don't want to discuss and why, and why you feel that this would be the most helpful to you. As always in therapy, go into this conversation with an open mind -- you're having a dialogue and working together to come up with the best plan of attack, not dictating terms. Therapy should feel like a collaboration, not a negotiation.
posted by patnasty at 8:57 PM on February 23, 2011

i agree with shopping around for therapists. i've met some good ones and some terrible ones.

on the one hand, i agree that if you don't want to talk about stuff from the past, s/he shouldn't keep trying to force that on you. however, you might be really surprised by how much stuff from your past DOES affect the way you interact with people now. i was, and wow, did it make a big difference for me when i figured that out. there's a reason they ask that stuff. i hope you find someone that you feel comfortable enough to delve into that with at some point, it may really help you. but if you weren't feeling it with that particular person i wouldn't sweat it.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 9:00 PM on February 23, 2011

Hey! I've had some interesting conversations with some newly minted therapists I think you might find HIGHLY encouraging!

Long story short, I've been told that there is a current popularity around helping clients on only what they ask for. The example I was given was something along the lines of this: If, say, a sex worker comes to therapy and wants to work on how to service her clients better, then that's all the therapist helps them with. Goal stated and fulfilled.

The example of a sex worker was actually used in one particular conversation I specifically remember.

I'm sure this technique has a specific name, but I wouldn't know it. My point is that you can find exactly what you want.
posted by jbenben at 10:47 PM on February 23, 2011

Not to be contrary, but I had a slightly (or, vastly) different experience.

My therapist made me miserable. I felt like he didn't particularly like me; he challenged me on everything.

But for reasons I'll never understand, I slogged through it. The only reason I can put together is that I sensed it was time to stop trusting my gut on account of my gut had clearly been failing me.

He changed my life. Had I receded into my comfort zone and broken up with him ... well, I don't really have words.

Maybe you're not ready, but you will get out of it what you put into it. And not to be a dick, but it doesn't sound like she dumped you. What you described sounds like you bailed a month before she had an opportunity to say anything. Finding someone new only works if you let it.

I sounded a lot like you when I first went to my old shrink but I'm extremely grateful I stuck it out and worked my ass off. I'm glad I didn't find someone I immediately "clicked" with, but stumbled on a shrink who was smarter than me and had my best interests in sight both long and short term.

FWIW, once he broke through my bullshit, our relationship changed. He alternately challenged me and bolstered me and seemed to know which I needed - not necessarily what I wanted.
posted by crankyrogalsky at 11:23 PM on February 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

I agree with all the folks above who've said that it sounds like you guys didn't click, and that shopping around for someone else would be a good idea.

But let me play Devil's Advocate for a moment here.

I can see a lot of areas in your account where you don't come off as someone who is open to the therapeutic process. There are a lot of areas that are closed off, and you sort of sound like you're trying to "drive the bus" - deciding what is and isn't relevant to your work anxiety, declaring entire lines of discussion a waste of time by fiat, sending an email to this effect and then refusing to even talk about it the next time you see your therapist. You even sound like you distrust your therapist's motives - assuming she's asking you about past memories because it's personally interesting to her rather than because she thinks it will be helpful for you.

I mean, what's the point of being in therapy if you won't at least listen to the suggestions your therapist makes or trust that, when she leads you in a certain direction, it's because she thinks it's worthwhile for you? What do you hope to get out of this?

From a personal standpoint, I'm often surprised at how closely my current stumbling blocks (especially anxiety!) are related to elements of my past. Even things that aren't really about that side of my life at first glance. When I first started therapy, I didn't want to delve into all that Freudian "how my parents fucked me up when I was three" stereotypical B.S. But if it comes up, it comes up.
posted by Sara C. at 11:46 PM on February 23, 2011 [8 favorites]

I myself find the past stuff very helpful in therapy. However, I have a friend who has told me that she has no interest in discussing her entire life with her therapist, and is very pleased that her therapist is happy to focus on what's going on with her now. So they do exist. That's not what I was looking for, because I know what I need to work on does have roots stretching pretty far into my past. But I can say that this is my second therapist, and she is a *much* better fit for me than the first. I gave up on the first therapist for a number of reasons, but we really weren't making much progress. I've only been seeing this hew one for a couple of months, but things are going very well so far.

Therapy is a relationship, and you absolutely *have* to be comfortable with the other person for it to work out well. I tend to think of the first couple of visits as job interviews more than anything. I mean, you are essentially hiring this person to provide a service for you. If the first applicant is not right for the job, it's only reasonable to move on and try to find someone who is. In fact, both of my therapists have made it very clear upfront that they wanted me to feel free to tell them if I didn't feel that it was working out, and they would do the same for me. They want clients they can help and will enjoy interacting with, and you want someone who can help you. And I suspect there's one out there who will be more appropriate.
posted by Because at 12:49 AM on February 24, 2011

I think that the phrasing "my therapist broke up with me" is unnecessarily flip in this case. Sounds like both of you were having trouble connecting, deciding on appropriate goals and foci, etc. If you were interested only in dealing with a very circumscribed set of issues (and it sounds like your therapist was more of the style to delve into the past), then it is perfectly appropriate for her to suggest that another clinician might be a better fit. Just as you shouldn't feel pressured to completely adapt your style to hers, she is also free to maintain a style that might not fit with your desires/expectations. People talk about "therapists" as one monolithic entity, but there are schools of therapy that are VERY distinct from one another. I think your therapist was wise to be upfront with you instead of dragging things on or trying to subtly change your focus.

As was mentioned above, it sounds like CBT is the approach that would fit you. It's very problem-oriented, practical, active, and short-term (something like 3-4 months in treatment, generally). Not much focus at all on the past.

FWIW, I am not one of those people who automatically assumes that because talking about one's childhood in therapy is difficult or unappealing, that that means the childhood is really the core issue and you especially need to focus on it. I don't think wanting to not focus on that stuff makes you "not open to therapy." Yes, some people really groove on looking into family patterns and past experiences and all of that. Yes, a lot of these issues are rooted in childhood, in the sense that every mental disorder has both biological and environmental components. But I think that talking about childhood in that way is just one path to getting the message across, one that works for some people (as noted above).

CBT is a school of therapy full of highly-trained people (with an empirically-minded bent, I would add) who believe that you can get better without delving into the past. And have proven it time and again in rigorous trials, too. So there's that. Not saying that it's the perfect treatment for everyone or everything, but in your case it looks like a good fit.

I think your therapist did the ethical thing by recognizing your preferences and letting you know that she was not the person who could fit them best.
posted by Bebo at 4:03 AM on February 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

Your (or anyone's) personality is not just a random collection of traits but, correctly viewed, is part of an integrated whole. I would be surprised if what you show us in this question and in how you choose to describe what took place between you and your therapist bear no relationship to what causes problems for you at work. By insisting on approaching your problems your way, you may be refusing to see what would require a perspective outside of yourself to notice. Even CBT therapists will insist that the characteristic ways you think about your life need to be changed if you expect anything different to happen, but if they're good at their job, they won't get into a power struggle with you about it, especially with someone who has difficulty (as you say) trusting others.

Paradoxically, it is the dynamic therapies, those which are most likely to "dredge up the past," which are "non-directive," which means that they are not out to tell you to be other than who you are, what you should be working on, make you explore something you don't want to. If you said you only want to talk about work, they would do so. Such a therapist might, however, want you to tell them why you don't want to look at an area of your life which you prefer to skip over. If you said, because it was depressing, they might want to know why you found it so. You could, of course, say you don't want to explore that either, but eventually you would have to explore something.

You say "Then, due to other circumstances I didn’t see her for a few weeks." Imagine trying to explain to someone you were dating that this occurred. Therapy is a relationship and both you and the therapist need to invest in it (meaning you don't take a break casually). As in any relationship, your therapist might think you're just not that into it.

If you choose (note, I'm being non-directive here) to go back in to therapy, I have some suggestions for you.

1) If, as you said above, you find yourself "concerned," about a "lack of immediate rapport," don't just grit your teeth and continue. Bring it up for discussion. Say you feel you aren't being "gotten." Or "appreciated" Or whatever.

2) Similarly, if you felt "always seemed a bit less engaged in the work stuff," you need to say this as well. Ask why. Or better, say why you don't like it.

3) Likewise, if you think you could be "playing up that uneasiness to myself in order to give myself an excuse to abandon the whole endeavor" don't keep this feeling to yourself. This stuff isn't the past. It's the present.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:34 AM on February 24, 2011

Try CBT. I didn't like it when I tried it, because it seemed like it ignored the "whys". That was what convinced me that maybe I wanted a therapist who'd get into all of the crap I didn't want to deal with, because maybe they Were related to the present anxiety. CBT works for a lot of people, so it's worth it to try it.

Important wording - you state several times that the therapist broke up with you. Might some of your trust issues be related to abandonment? Just a thought from the long proud history of askme projecting personal experience on to the question.

I would urge you to try a different therapy and therapist, as it sounds like even this therapy that didn't mesh well for you did help. And being freer from anxiety is totally worth it.
posted by ldthomps at 6:09 AM on February 24, 2011

I've had therapists like this but I don't necessarily believe everything is traced back to rehashing the past. This is where you lead the discussion in a very "what is the problem and what do you want to get out of it." And then the middle part is called therapy.

But if you're kind of all over the place with no goals, that's when they get reflective on the past and expect you to find some links.

Good luck. It sucks.
posted by stormpooper at 6:47 AM on February 24, 2011

It sounds like she interpreted your behavior (email instead of discussing in session, changing your regular pattern of seeing her, confining what you were willing to discuss to professional topics rather than personal) as indication of your desire to terminate therapy with her. By bringing up the question of whether you wanted to continue, she gave you the power of choice; she also told you how she saw your therapeutic relationship developing were you to continue working with her. All that is exactly the way it's supposed to work.
posted by catlet at 8:46 AM on February 24, 2011

From the OP:
"The break in treatment was due to the therapist's canceling two sessions b/c of bad weather. There had been two other sessions, bookending the break but after I wrote the email, but these were mostly taken up with a mini-work crisis and with catch-up after her having not seen me for so long."
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:38 AM on February 24, 2011

I honestly believe you have to build a solid and safe relationship with your therapist for any real change to be effected. That takes time, but you should know within the first few sessions whether you have enough of a rapport with a particular therapist to build that relationship. If the basic rapport isn't there (for both the patient and the therapist) then it's probably best to move on and try someone else.

In my experience, the right therapist will push you just enough to make you want to explore the past issues that are uncomfortable and painful, but won't bully you into it before you're ready to tackle it yourself. Also, I think sometimes deep seated, long term issues come up within a good therapy relationship that you don't expect, leading you to enter longer term therapy than you initially planned.

FWIW, I've therapist shopped and finally found one that I was able to build that relationship with-she's changed my life in ways I couldn't have imagined 2 years ago. I really hope you find someone that fits you in the same way. Best of luck :)

Also, Stormpooper is exactly right: it's not always necessary to analyze the past, but sometimes it has more to do with the present than you realize-and a good therapist will begin to push that during therapy.
posted by hollygoheavy at 10:11 AM on February 24, 2011

I had a similar experience to crankyrogalsky. I came in expecting to talk about immediate problem X. I offhandedly mentioned issue ...let's say K. Therapist asks a few questions and zeroes in on root issue A. It was unexpected, not fun for me to deal with, and incredibly valuable. YMMV--maybe you don't need that at all.

One important thing that it took me a while to realize (and that I really think the therapist should have point-blank said) is therapist-English is not normal-English. "Why do you think that?" or "Why would you want to do that?" actually means "Please elaborate on the reasons behind what you just said," rather than "I am expressing skepticism and/or disapproval." Heh.

Anyway, best of luck!
posted by wintersweet at 6:48 PM on February 25, 2011

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