Arguing with my therapist. Again.
November 2, 2017 7:09 AM   Subscribe

How do I move on from arguing with my therapist?

I’ve been in my current therapy relationship since July, but we only see each other twice a month, so it doesn’t really feel like I’ve been seeing my therapist for that long. From the beginning I thought I was pretty clear about what I was looking for out of my therapy experience from the beginning and I have been very forthcoming about my previous experiences, and what I’ve done to cope that hasn’t worked. Unfortunately for the second time in as many months now I have spent most of my session arguing with my therapist.

It happens like this: the therapist lays out options for how I could proceed. I explain again that one option is something (let’s call it Z) that I’ve tried before and did not work, and that I don’t understand the other, so I ask questions: “I don’t know what X means. Does it look like Y?” The therapist rejects my interpretation of X and claims I’ve rejected all of her ideas. I explain again that Z did not work for me when I gave it my honest effort. Does she believe that said effort was not honest? (No. she responds.) Why should I continue to do things that don’t work? Why is my experience invalid here? She denies that this is the case. I explain again that I am trying to understand what X looks like. How am I supposed to do that other than the way I’ve done it? How should I be communicating my lack of understanding? She repeats again that I’ve rejected her options and need to be more open. What am I supposed to do, I ask, once again explaining that Z was not effective and I’m trying to understand X. Round and round we go until the session is over, by which time she has repeatedly suggested that our relationship isn’t working, and I am frustrated and in tears – less because of the subject matter of the conversations than because I don’t like to argue (I don’t need to be in therapy to do that), I don’t feel heard because pressing the whopping two possible solutions on me seems more important than understanding why I am struggling with them, and the experience only contributes to my feeling that my problems cannot be solved (which I’ve shared with the therapist) and no one really wants to help me.

I understand that there is no guarantee that I will come out of any therapy feeling better about my life issues or more empowered. I am aware that therapy can make me feel worse for digging out old trauma and bad memories. I have told my therapist this and that I have not come away from our sessions feeling better, though again when you count the sessions we haven’t been seeing each other that long. I have read that arguing with a therapist is a sign that I am close to something that needs to change about me, but I don’t know how to work through that than to continue to be communicative about my frustration and to continually seek understanding even as the therapist claims I am doing the opposite. I am very loathe to quit, because I don’t want to be seen as a quitter, and just finding a therapist that I can see has been extremely difficult. Sunk Cost Fallacy or not, I feel like I would have thrown my money away and have nothing to show for it. This would not be the first time a therapy relationship has ended this way, either (which my therapist also knows about), but as of right now I am not excited about seeing my therapist again at all, nor for starting the search for one all over again from scratch. I mostly feel exhaustion and despair on top of my existing problems. How have other people handled arguing with their therapists? Where do I go from here? What should I be doing that I’m not already doing?

Thank you in advance.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I have occasionally argued with my current therapist, and I think our working relationship is better for it. She calls me on my excuses - of which I have many! - and plays devil's advocate for me, which is definitely something that my anxious brain needs.

That said, I can't tell from your question if the arguing you and your therapist are experiencing is healthy or productive or appropriate.

I'll just say this:

I explain again that Z did not work for me when I gave it my honest effort. Does she believe that said effort was not honest? (No. she responds.) Why should I continue to do things that don’t work? Why is my experience invalid here?

It seems like you are asking rather antagonistic questions? Having not been in the room with you myself, I can't really say if your tone was aggressive or not, but the way these questions are worded, they seem very aggressive. Therapists are only human, which means they don't always respond as well as we'd like to more hostile lines of questioning.

Just something to consider. I could be totally off-base, here.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 7:45 AM on November 2, 2017 [9 favorites]

Would you consider printing out what you typed to us here, and bringing it in to share with your therapist (providing some context for why you typed this), and making it a point of focus for the next session? Speaking very generally, when there's an impasse in therapy--particularly around communication--the resolution will likely have to start with meta-communicating about that communication issue.
posted by obliterati at 7:50 AM on November 2, 2017 [7 favorites]

Addendum: therapy often falls on a continuum (regardless of how it's labeled by the therapist), between "problem-solving/symptom resolution," where you're working on generating and executing solutions to specific difficulties and symptoms on the one end, and "changing yourself," where you're working on recognizing and reshaping broad problematic patterns of engaging with other people/life overall, on the other end. The way you describe it initially sounds like it falls within the former, but as you gave more details I start to see hints that it is getting at the latter (e.g., "I don’t feel heard," "I don’t want to be seen as a quitter.") It might help people with providing answers if you can give a bit more detail about that, but of course, only if you feel comfortable doing so.
posted by obliterati at 7:56 AM on November 2, 2017

My question to you, and I really mean this as a thought exercise and not antagonistically, is why are you going to therapy if you won't at least try cooperating with the therapist?

I sympathize because I recognize my behavior in your description of yours: I don't like relinquishing control and I don't like doing something without knowing exactly how it's going to go, and my inclination is to shut down and make blanket statements of impossibility instead.

If you are being offered a choice of something you are absolutely sure won't work (which is not something you can fully know about this time and place and situation) and something you don't yet understand (and so will have to be guided through), pick one anyway. If it gives you more comfort, ask for a two-month trial and at the end of that two months you can decide what happens next.

It may help you to think of therapy as being a form of troubleshooting, an iterative process. Sometimes, what you learn from what "doesn't work" is as valuable or more valuable than what you learn from what does. If you were having headaches you are very certain are environmental, there is still a lot that can be learned from an MRI that might inform the explanation of why you get the headache and the person sitting next to you does not.

An argument could also be made that there is no such thing as "doesn't work" because there is no "works". There's never going to be a one-stop solution for what ails you, there's no button that gets pushed and everything is suddenly fine. You explore one methodology and examine the data that gets returned from it, then you explore another. Some of those methodologies you are going to have to trust the expert you hired to guide you through, and you didn't hire a psychic so she may not be able to tell you what that's "going to look like" and you did hire a therapist so she may know that giving you an answer to that question will prejudice the outcome.

Assuming she is not proposing something you think is actively dangerous, could you try it her way for maybe four sessions instead of spending four more arguing about it? Otherwise I would agree, you are not interested in having a working relationship with her and should stop or find someone you are willing to do that with.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:18 AM on November 2, 2017 [7 favorites]

Can you ask her to model options you don't understand instead of trying to come up with comparisons? "If I did X, what would that look like? How would doing my normal routine, with steps A, B, and C change?" I think that the suggestion to go over what you've written is good, because this is your interpretation of how you're communicating, and your therapist might be seeing it a completely different way.
posted by mikeh at 9:29 AM on November 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

she has repeatedly suggested that our relationship isn’t working

If that's what she's saying, I would believe her and try to find a new therapist - and shop around a lot before engaging in ongoing sessions with anyone given that this isn't the first time you've gone through this.
posted by dotparker at 9:31 AM on November 2, 2017 [15 favorites]

The other thing that kind of stands out to me is this feels a little like someone who views their actions in terms of their "logic" trying to justify a logical progression of why options don't work. That's a slippery slope, because while some things might not work, taking the therapist at their word and doing exactly as they say, instead of trying to negotiate them into describing all the minutiae, is probably a reasonable approach. If you're spending all the time lawyering the fine points of an approach, then you're missing the broad point.
posted by mikeh at 9:39 AM on November 2, 2017 [4 favorites]

“I don’t know what X means. Does it look like Y?” The therapist rejects my interpretation of X and claims I’ve rejected all of her ideas.

This really sticks out to me. The therapist's response, that you've rejected all her ideas, is a non sequitur. It makes no sense, in response to the question, as you've presented it. If this were a script for a TV show, I wouldn't be able to follow the plot.

It makes me wonder: was this really exactly how the therapist responded? Or are you summarizing a longer response, or putting an interpretation on her exact words? Is there perhaps something about how you asked that could have led her to interpret your question in a different way than how you intended it?

You may want to think about this exact moment of interaction between her and you, but pretend you're her. Think: what's your reason for responding to that question in that exact way? How can you interpret your questioning, from her perspective?
posted by meese at 9:40 AM on November 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

It's not you. The problem is that therapists just...have no idea what to do when therapy isn't helping, so they blame you. They don't have a Plan B, so they don't know what else to do. Can you imagine if any other type of medicine worked like this?
Client: I have an infection.
Therapist: I'm prescribing amoxicillin.
Client: I've tried three rounds of amoxicillin and this infection isn't improving; it's resistant to that antibiotic.
Therapist: You won't try! Take it again!
posted by Violet Hour at 9:49 AM on November 2, 2017 [12 favorites]

I'm so sorry people aren't taking you at your word here. I'm framing it as: You're the consumer, and this is about you and what you want, not about the therapist. The therapy relationship is causing you pain and stress. Like any relationship, that happens sometimes, but if the bulk of the relationship is then it seems like it's time to move on. Finding a new therapist is something it's understandable to have trepidation about, but it's better than staying in this situation, which sounds like it is hurting you. I would also suggest if you can afford it finding someone who can see you weekly.

You are being proactive and seem forthright about what you want, which bodes well for you finding someone new. Therapy can be hard but it should not make you miserable. Sometimes, it's just not a good fit, and that's all there is to it unfortunately.
posted by colorblock sock at 9:50 AM on November 2, 2017 [8 favorites]

My question to you, and I really mean this as a thought exercise and not antagonistically, is why are you going to therapy if you won't at least try cooperating with the therapist?

Because they've already repeatedly tried one of the things the therapist is suggesting, and it repeatedly failed. You want them to waste time and money just to prove a point? Why can't they be taken at their word? The other thing the therapist suggests, they cannot understand HOW to try, and the therapist blames them instead of explaining.
posted by Violet Hour at 9:53 AM on November 2, 2017 [11 favorites]

The fact that this has happened to you twice suggests a pattern, and for me there are two possible reasons for it:

1. The issues that you are discussing with your therapists are particularly complex and difficult to understand, pick apart, and find solutions to. The equivalent of a very very complex leg injury - if two surgeons told you to cut the leg off, you probably would either press them to try and save it, or seek a better surgeon. Sunk cost or no, it's ok to keep looking until you find someone who can offer solutions that you are happy with.

2. You are not yet being fully honest and open with them and/or yourself, or working on the things that need working on, and perhaps behaving defensively because of this. If I see a physiotherapist and they tell me to do regular stretches in order to regain movement and I don't do them, and come back and say I am still in pain, I might well get defensive. If I can't find time to do the stretches, or I don't really want to, that is on me, not them.

Bonus: they could both be true.
posted by greenish at 9:53 AM on November 2, 2017 [10 favorites]

It's hard to say from the question whether your therapist is invalidating or whether it is just a bad match. Alternately, while we don't like to 'blame the patient,' it's also possible that she's right that you're dismissing approaches too quickly, or lumping them together without justification (e.g. thought restructuring is a versatile and varied approach. If a client told me that they'd 'tried CBT and it didn't work,' we would be addressing that as a cognitive distortion in itself. I don't know what methods you're dismissing here, but you may be dismissing them out of hand. Or you may not be, it's impossible to know without more details.)

I would ask yourself whether you've found this to be a pattern for you with past therapists. If so, it may be worthwhile to stick around and work through your dissatisfactions. If not, maybe it's just a bad fit. In most models of psychology, switching is a good idea if you're not getting benefits within a few sessions.
posted by namesarehard at 10:38 AM on November 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

There's at least one possibility that hasn't been brought up. The therapist may be encouraging you to try something new not because she doesn't believe that you tried it and it doesn't work, but because she wants to know what happens in you when you do try it. After all, you need something to discuss. IF you're not trying anything, there's no way to understand the nature of your attempts and your reactions and your perceptions.

I'd suggest at least trying one of those suggestions, even if it means the next time you go in what you're saying is "it didn't work again, and here's exactly what happened that makes me say that." That could actually produce some insight. If you categorically reject the suggestion, you're blocking off the possibility of more deeply analyzing what about those tactics isn't working or cannot work.
posted by Miko at 10:52 AM on November 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

It's really hard to know in cases like this what is really going on on each person's side. That said, as someone who has been in your position multiple times in multiple contexts, what bothers me in this kind of situation is the feeling that the other person either just does not understand what I am saying or does not care enough to make the extra effort to work with my non-standard needs or requests. I would expect someone who did care and did understand to communicate those things: to say "I hear you; you tried this and the results were ...; the reasons I'd like you to try again are X, Y, and Z; if we do that, I'd like us to evaluate at Q intervals to assess your progress with this approach. Would you be willing to work with me on that?" In other words, I would want a response that conveyed understanding of my concerns, acknowledgment of their validity, reasons for putting them aside, and reassurance that my treatment is being taken seriously.

I haven't found a lot of people who respond in that way. That seems like a real lack of skill or professionalism on their part to me and a decent reason to stop working with them, but on the other hand the fact that I've come across this so many times might indicate that the problem is at least partly with me. For whatever it's worth, though, you're not the only one to have met with this situation.
posted by trig at 2:01 PM on November 2, 2017 [4 favorites]

something you don't yet understand (and so will have to be guided through), pick one anyway.

they said they asked for guidance and the therapist declined to provide it. they could be lying. or they could be just a frustrating person to whom the therapist doesn't feel like explaining things. but I don't like assuming either.

I am very familiar with the sensation of confessing to not understanding something and not being believed. especially when you do this with great reluctance because you find it generally shameful to not understand something, particularly something that other people find simple and obvious, particularly when "understanding things" is a big part of your self-image. particularly when you give a prefatory explanation of this personal issue before laying out what you don't understand. to then be treated as though you're just being difficult and willfully choosing not to understand is a special nightmare. once out of childhood, therapy is the only place you can go to have this nightmare dynamic recreated unless you are lucky enough to find yourself an abusive intimate relationship.

OP, I suggest saying simply and clearly, "I do not understand X. I am not pretending to misunderstand as a rhetorical gambit; I am not making excuses to not try it, I am interested in X and I want to talk about it; I ask questions because I want answers, not because I want to argue. I need to know if you believe me, because I am telling the truth." something like that. that's probably not simple and clear enough.

and then if you get another bad reaction, maybe leave.
posted by queenofbithynia at 3:12 PM on November 2, 2017 [8 favorites]

Honestly I think this is probably just not a good fit and as painful as it is to try to find a new therapist it might be your best bet. But since you say that's not what you want to do:

Reading your description I wonder if your therapist is getting activated (a word my former therapist used to use) because she feels you aren't taking her advice and/or she's insecure and afraid she's not being effective. That's not really your problem to solve*, but since you do want to get something out of therapy here's something that might be worth trying: when you recognize that you are both repeating this pattern, stop talking and and work on disconnecting from the pattern and calming down. Let some silence happen so she can refocus too and hopefully ask herself "what the hell am I doing?" Even if you have to excuse yourself for the restroom or something. Breathe for a minute. Ground yourself in what's important. Do you really need this advice to figure out how to proceed?** Then stop responding to anything about Z and focus on X. Lower your tone of voice and make it very calm - not scary calm, just quiet calm. Say something really simple like "Where can I get more information about X?" Or "I'd like to understand how X works."

Hopefully this will help her calm down and focus on helping you. If she doesn't give you a straight answer after that, I'd start to wonder if she understands X well enough to recommend it to you.

Also ask yourself: Do you *NEED* her advice? Is that what you're in therapy for? Sometimes therapy is really not about advice at all. If you don't need specific advice to make progress, when she offers suggestions you can say, "Thanks for the suggestions - I'll look into those." And then move on. I prefer to talk about things after I've had a chance to read up on them myself.

If you don't need her advice on how to proceed, just do the same thing but instead of talking more about X, move on to something else.

* Ideally the therapist should be the one to recognize that you're repeating a pattern together and help you both break free of it. But if you don't want to argue, you don't have to. Just stop arguing.

**If you have trouble figuring out, in the moment, what you need to proceed, just work on ending the argument by not participating. If later you decide that understanding X is really important, you can read up on it and bring it up at the next session.

***It's probably okay to quit therapy if it's this completely frustrating for you and you're not getting anything out of it. I'm wondering if she's young. The older, experienced therapists I've had have seen it all and are not easy to rattle if they're any good.
posted by bunderful at 4:59 PM on November 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

My last therapy relationship had shades of this. I would feel this urge to push back on things he suggested and I also felt, after years, that we weren’t getting anywhere. So I could continue to struggle through that or I could leave.

I was ready to give up but I found a new therapist. And it turns out it wasn’t just me being difficult, it was the therapy relationship. The experience with this new therapist is absolutely transformative and I completely trust her. It’s not necessarily that she’s a better therapist, but she’s a better therapist for me.

The way she talks and her style of therapy (Emotion-Focused Therapy, not CBT) gets through to me. We’ve made more progress in four sessions than I had in years with the other guy. I suggest finding a place where they do an intake assessment to match you with someone based on your goals and personality.
posted by wreckofthehesperus at 5:00 AM on November 3, 2017 [7 favorites]

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