Therapist answers texts during our session
May 26, 2012 5:11 PM   Subscribe

How much does this therapist suck? Or am I being overly sensitive?

I've been seeing my therapist for a year and during that year I have asked for guidance as far as social skills, food and money issues---mostly I get from her "I give you permission to work on your issues". She is a psychoanalyst. Her phone goes off periodically during our sessions and at one time ( I have let her know that it's not cool to look at her texts prior to this) she said, "Actually I have to respond to this because it's urgent" and dashed off a quick text.

Another time she asked me if I had experimented with drugs and alcohol and I told her that wasn't really an issue for me. She then said, "Yes, food is far more satisfying, isn't it?" That felt disrespectful to me.

So my two parted question is this:
1. What should I be reasonably expecting from therapy?
2. How unprofessional is it for her to leave her phone on?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (31 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You need a new therapist.
posted by whalebreath at 5:16 PM on May 26, 2012 [24 favorites]

The point of going to therapy is to have someone who you feel safe and comfortable talking to.

If your therapist is making you feel uncomfortable, it doesn't matter why, you need to find another therapist. This isn't a "is she right or wrong" issue. All that matters is if she is right for you.
posted by Shouraku at 5:16 PM on May 26, 2012 [21 favorites]

Social skills and food and money issues all seem like very concrete problems that can be approached in efficient and constructive ways. CBT would probably be a better fit than a (rude and unprofessional) psychoanalytic approach Theoretical approach is second in importance, though, to personal fit and the qualities of the therapist. The one you're seeing now sounds awful - it may take a few tries but it's worth it to keep looking.
posted by whalebreath at 5:21 PM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think you should reasonably be expecting to see change in the things you want to change. Have you seen OmieWise's comment about effective therapy?
posted by paduasoy at 5:24 PM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

This honestly sounds like a few of the nightmare cases I've heard from people who worked with analysts- the therapy goes on and on, nothing much happens, the therapist is passive and the bills just keep on racking up. But that doesn't matter. What matters is that what this therapist doing isn't working for you or helping you move forward. Time to move on.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 5:25 PM on May 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

I went to a psychoanalyst last year and after 3 months she was at least honest and said something to the effect of "I don't think I can help you but you can keep coming here to talk (and keep paying me) if you want". Since I felt worse EVERY time I left her office, I declined. (I went back to my regular/previous therapist. Not sure if that is working either but it's cheaper and I fell less bad afterwards! So yeah, switch. If you 'miss' her, I'm sure you can always go back. Might as well try a new approach with a new person for a bit.
posted by bquarters at 5:30 PM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yes, you should look elsewhere for someone who better fits your expectations of proper behavior in a therapeutic situation. You are coming to her with help for some of the hardest parts of your life. You should feel comfortable and properly respected.

For what it's worth, I had a therapist who I agreed to let answer a text early on into our sessions. As a one time thing, it didn't seem like a huge issue, but from there it got worse. One time she heard a Words with Friends alert go off, and in the middle of our session started asking me if I played (seriously). Because I was also in therapy in part for social skills, I kept waiting to see if this was a "test" to see if I would be assertive and tell her how I felt about her behavior. It wasn't. So especially because you also have social skills issues, I think you should seek a new therapist.
posted by houndsoflove at 5:36 PM on May 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

I had a therapist who answered her phone, which bothered me until I found out her child had life-threatening allergies. She was great, though. If you hate this person (which it sounds like you do), you should leave, independent of phone calls.
posted by unknowncommand at 5:37 PM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

It sounds like a really poor fit - it's probably more CBT that will be helpful here.
posted by mleigh at 5:47 PM on May 26, 2012

She's doing that stage magician trick where you pick common possibilities to throw at an audience to make yourself seem more knowing, called cold reading: "the spirits are saying a name, not clear, it starts with A, is there a person in the audience with a loved one named A? Now I'm getting a message, a man, a man with a dog. He's walking the dog. Ah, his middle name was Alex? Your father says he loves you and misses you..."

Instead it's almost like rather than paying attention to her job she's throwing out therapy platitudes in the hopes something average will stick. Since many people like being given permission to explore things and many, many people, especially women, have culturally ingrained food guilt, all these hooks might get you feeling like you're making progress finding a problem.

This is probably a great time waster for you, but might fit someone who treats therapy like a placebo to keep the demons at bay or who just needs another human to tell them all their limbs are attached and they are allowed to be themselves. However she sounds like crap.
posted by Phalene at 6:21 PM on May 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

From my perspective, there are times when it's appropriate for a therapist to check her phone during an appointment with a client, but if I were that client I'd want a) some type of explanation up front as to why she might need to do so, and b) apologies for the disruption when she does. Depending on the frequency of texts/calls, I'd be inclined to end a relationship with a therapist, even if she had a perfectly good reason to be answering her phone and apologized whenever she had to.

I think it's great that you told her you didn't want her to be checking her phone during sessions, but I also think you should follow up on that boundary by finding a new therapist who can respect it. There are plenty of therapists who wouldn't dream of answering their phones during sessions.
posted by Meg_Murry at 6:37 PM on May 26, 2012

I could ask more about this therapist to find out how much they suck, or what psychoanalytic school gives the theory that supports their possible suckage, but instead I will tell you the best way to make use of your year-long relationship. Full disclosure: I'm a psychoanalyst. Really! (But not yours.)

It's very hard to tell from the outside looking in what is going on here, including why a year has passed and you didn't leave or have it out with her in some way. Possibly, judging by the way you asked your question, you thought your oversensitivity might have been the problem. However, a therapeutic relationship isn't about politeness or whose fault things are or about being "fixed" by an expert. You (or your insurance) are paying good money so you need not feel hampered by society's strictures on how people talk to each other.

So you have spent a year there and feel it's been mainly a waste but have stuck it out and now you're angry and distrusting. So what to do is to tell her. Most schools of psychoanalysis train the therapist not to treat you as someone who knows less about how to live your life than the therapist themselves, so don't expect to be instructed or corrected or taught stuff, but since I'm not your analyst, I can instruct you. Say "I feel like this whole year has been a waste. I'm really angry. My friends on the Internet tell me I should quit. Are they right?"

You've put in a year and paid her and that gives you the right to talk to her this way--even if you're mistaken and you're just "oversensitive," what ever that means. If you find it difficult to be that challenging of this authority, think of how angry you are and do it anyway. It's actually therapeutic for you to stand up for yourself if this is how you feel.

Then, if she really sucks a lot, she will defend herself and blame you and justify her position in all your complaints (which you should tell her in detail--write them down if you're afraid of leaving any out.) If she sucks that much, tell her to stop defending herself because that doesn't help you. If she can't stop and has to fight you, it's probably time to DTMFA.

But if she's any good at all, or even just sucks less than totally, she should be able to hear what you're saying and understand what you're going through. You might even ask why you had to tell her and couldn't she have noticed this long before. But really, you need to stay with how you feel and not get distracted--don't blame your oversensitivity or anger or anything. Her job is to hear you and she'd better do so.

She (depending on the brand of analysis she practices) may refuse to give you "guidance" but she can't refuse to tell you why she won't, and do so in a way that makes sense to you. She might, for example, believe that there aren't rules to follow that she can explain to you that will fix your social skills issues, but she still needs to help you understand what goes on with you in social situations that makes them fail. In the non-social situation that is your therapy, the first skill you need to learn is that whatever you do in that room, you aren't wrong. And if you feel wrong, or oversensitive, it's a feeling. You're not there to practice being appropriate. You're there to be who you are and to see what happens when you try it. If you feel uncomfortable confronting her, then you can tell her that, but instead of wasting the past year, you need to express yourself. Even if she sucks to the point of being unable to deal with what you tell her, if you do so anyway, then it wasn't a complete waste.

Good luck.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:41 PM on May 26, 2012 [15 favorites]

Datapoint: A friend saw a psychiatrist for three and a half years. Once in that time she started a session stating that she needed to leave her phone on during that session as she was waiting on a call. The call seemed to be about getting a hospital bed/urgent care for a suicidal patient. She apologised heartily for the interruption to my friend's hour.

Once in three and a half years. Your situation doesn't really sound that respectful of your time.
posted by Trivia Newton John at 7:13 PM on May 26, 2012 [5 favorites]

Yes, get a new therapist. The hardest part for me is "breaking up" with a therapist or psychiatrist (or any other provider,) and I'm still working with that, but as a person who struggles with social skills, I'm going to give you the permission my EAP counselor and first long-term therapist gave me when I was really really struggling with how to deal with a truly terrible psychiatrist:
It is OK to stop seeing this person right now. You are in treatment to get help for you, not to make her have a job or feel good about herself. It doesn't really matter if she's doing things "right," it matters that it isn't helping you. You never have to go back. You only owe her either an appropriate cancellation phone call (which is better, and you can definitely leave it with the answering machine or service if you have to) or the fee for not showing up to your next scheduled appointment(*). However, it might make you feel better and be healthier over the long-term if you explain why you're leaving, and that can happen in a letter, over the phone, or at your next appointment - it's up to you and how much you can handle right now.
In the end, I did the "call the answering machine, cancel the next appointment, finally fess up when the assistant calls to find out why I haven't rescheduled" thing. I am SO GLAD. Dr. E and I have issues, but nothing like what was happening with Dr. R.

My therapists never answer the phone or text messages in session - the only time they pick up the phone or get near their computer is if I've sent them an email (or someone else has) and they can't remember what it said and it's relevant to the conversation; that's happened two or three times in almost three years. Maybe. Oh, and like twice, they've accidentally left it on, it's gone off, they've been super apologetic, and they turned it off.

One thing you should always expect from a therapist using any treatment method is clear guidance on where this thing is headed. What are your goals? How do you know if you've succeeded or not? We went over client and provider expectations/strategies/benchmarks at the start of EAP and therapy each time, and we talked about it a TON when I was in the hospital program - at least once in each class, with the intake counselor, with the individual counselor... and when I left, they gave me a printout with the list of things I was having trouble with, the objectives we'd agreed to, and where I stood (along with several lists of recommendations, instructions on how to get help in a crisis, and like two pages of information about quitting smoking, which they even gave the lifetime non-smokers like me.)

My DBT therapist and I actually signed a contract, and I understand that's pretty standard in DBT and CBT - we had daily agreements in the hospital, which had a CBT bent. This isn't the DBT one, but the stuff it says is very familiar to me, and it gives a lot of good suggestions in terms of what you should expect from yourself and your provider.

I also tend to think something like CBT may be more beneficial than psychoanalysis, but I'm biased and that wasn't what you asked, so.
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! at 7:18 PM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

I have asked for guidance as far as social skills, food and money issues---mostly I get from her "I give you permission to work on your issues". She is a psychoanalyst.

Your requirements would be better served by someone who is not a psychoanalyst.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:19 PM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

I meant to add as an addendum:

(*) I did not have regularly scheduled visits with Dr. R. We scheduled one appointment out. Long-term therapy involves many regular visits; if you just don't show up, you're on the hook for the rest of them still. So just not showing up and paying the cancellation fee is probably a bad idea.
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! at 7:20 PM on May 26, 2012

Her phone goes off periodically during our sessions and at one time ( I have let her know that it's not cool to look at her texts prior to this) she said, "Actually I have to respond to this because it's urgent" and dashed off a quick text.

Periodically? And you've already had to point out that she shouldn't be texting while in session with you? Oh, hell no.
posted by desuetude at 8:10 PM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

It sounds like this therapist is not only a bad fit for you personally, but also kinda sucks as a therapist. That food comment is more of a red flag than the texting/phone issue to me, but both are red flags. Find someone else. If you don't click with the next person you try, do not feel obligated to stick with it beyond a few sessions and feel free to try someone else. Rinse and repeat, until you are satisfied. I'm sure you realize that disagreeing with someone or hearing unpleasant truths are different than not clicking. Finding a good therapist is somewhat like dating. if you're lucky, you hit it off on the first try, but you may need to have sessions with a lot of frogs before you find the right one. Best of luck!
posted by katemcd at 9:16 PM on May 26, 2012

If one's therapist knows s/he is about to (potentially) have a family/patient emergency protocol is to contact the patient (with less urgent needs) s/he is about to see and cancel. A competent shrink also provides contact info of colleagues or institutions which can help those patients whose needs are equally dire when s/he is not available.

Nthing those who say find another.
posted by brujita at 9:22 PM on May 26, 2012

I saw my therapist for something like seven years. In that time, her phone rang once, at which point she apologized for having forgotten to forward it to voicemail.

Kinda boggled at your therapist's behavior, honestly.
posted by Lexica at 9:45 PM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've had considerable therapy. Years. Decades even. And not one of my four therapists has ever answered a call during a session, much less answered a text. The phone rings, goes to voice mail, therapist notes she has message, we move on. When I've called in crisis ( the morning I learned my mom had died, e.g.) I got the answering service,and my shrink called me back. If I'd been in danger, they'd have had a special ringtone for interruption. Your therapist needs to know her behavior is unprofessional and atypical.
posted by gingerest at 11:17 PM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Instead of just bailing like almost everyone except the psychologist seems to be suggesting, why not have an honest confrontation with her and see if something constructive comes out of it?
posted by univac at 11:49 PM on May 26, 2012

Instead of just bailing like almost everyone except the psychologist seems to be suggesting, why not have an honest confrontation with her and see if something constructive comes out of it?

Because then there's a good chance the OP will waste another six months paying the therapist to work on their issues instead of working on themselves, which is what they are there to do.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 5:11 AM on May 27, 2012 [6 favorites]

I had a therapist I saw for several months who just didn't work out for me - I never felt that she was connected or interested in me and she seemed to be annoyed that she had to spend 40 minutes talking to me. She would sigh a lot and roll her eyes. She kept ending sessions a few minutes early.

One day I realized it wasn't helping at all, in fact it was hurting me. She was a horrible therapist. If you're a therapist and you dislike someone you need to be able to hide it or refer them to another therapist. I think she was probably keeping me on because she liked the money from my insurance company very much.

I cancelled the rest of my sessions and got referrals to a new therapist who turned out to be very helpful.
posted by Melsky at 5:20 AM on May 27, 2012

A therapist should absolutely not be answering phones or texts during a session. She doesn't just seem like a subpar therapist, she seems like a bad worker in general.
posted by fuq at 7:30 AM on May 27, 2012

This therapist COMPLETELY lost me when she wrote that text. That is absolutely inexcusable.
posted by 4ster at 11:44 AM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you trusted the therapist and felt the relationship was a good one, you wouldn't mind if she occasionally dealt with someone else's emergency during your session, and the "food is more satisfying" remark wouldn't have seemed disrespectful to you. You're not getting what you need. When you talk with other therapists, say that you want practical help with food, money, and social-skills issues, and see what they say.
posted by wryly at 3:25 PM on May 27, 2012

I shared this thread with a friend of mine who's soon to earn her Psy.D. She shared your (and the other respondents') frustration with these bad experiences. Basically, she told me that answering a text in session and so on isn't just unprofessional, it's bad therapy, since building a good relationship with clients is of such great importance. She said, "Therapists have a responsibility to be competent and to practice effective therapies - it's not optional." To that end, she recommended a site from the APA,, as a resource for learning about which therapies have scientific studies backing them. She said, "there's no guarantee a therapist practicing any of the therapies on that site will be professional/good, but there's a somewhat better chance that they will be effective."
posted by ddbeck at 7:05 AM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

First of all, good on you for pursuing therapy because it can be super-helpful although not always an easy thing. (Secondly: hey, were we seeing the same therapist?)

1. What should I be reasonably expecting from therapy?

My experience with therapy is that it's similar to being in a relationship - you don't automatically enter a relationship with the first person you go on a date with, you keep dating until you find a proper fit with someone who makes you feel like you're part of a team.

Therapy is going to bring up some painful realizations & thoughts, so that's why you need the person on the opposite site of the room to have your back. It doesn't sound like that's what you feel you're getting from your current person - I'm not sure what your current insurance situation is, but if you can make an appointment with a new person, please do go for it. Don't feel obligated to explain to your current person why you are leaving unless you truly want this point I'm concerned with you spending the co-pay only on finding what works for you, not on finishing up what doesn't.

2. How unprofessional is it for her to leave her phone on?

Not unprofessional to leave her phone on, but unprofessional the way she's handling the incoming communication (many commenters above me detail the right way to do things).

Please memail me if you want more info, and good luck.
posted by wheek wheek wheek at 7:16 AM on May 28, 2012

"I have asked for guidance as far as social skills, food and money issues---mostly I get from her "I give you permission to work on your issues". She is a psychoanalyst.

Your requirements would be better served by someone who is not a psychoanalyst.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:19 PM on May 26 [2 favorites +] [!] "

A therapist is not a guidance counselor.
posted by DMelanogaster at 10:58 AM on May 31, 2012

A therapist is not a guidance counselor.

No, but there are more-helpful ways of turning a question back to the asker and less-helpful ways of turning a question back to the asker.

One of the things my therapist did for me that I found immensely, immensely valuable was to ask questions I wasn't asking. She didn't tell me anything and she didn't make any suggestions or give any advice, but by asking questions — not just punting with "I give you permission to work on your issues" — she helped me.

(Sometimes the question she asked was answerable, and helpful. Sometimes the question wasn't so answerable, but the process of looking at it and working with it was helpful. And sometimes the helpful part was considering "Huh, when she says that it seems like an obvious track to investigate. Why didn't I think to ask that? What's going on for me around this issue that blocked me from seeing that?")
posted by Lexica at 11:24 AM on May 31, 2012

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