My therapist appears to have become a conspiracy theorist overnight
April 14, 2020 3:45 AM   Subscribe

I've been seeing the same therapist for about 8 years now, and she's worked wonders for me. However, our most recent session gave me real cause for concern (cut for pandemic anxiety). How do I address this in our next session?

Like everyone else, I've been trying to deal with the current lockdown conditions in the UK. I've been largely okay, with only two anxiety attacks, both of which I managed reasonably well on my own.

On top of that, I've been trying to help my SO, who has been struggling with loss of work due to the pandemic, on top of concerns about other issues which have been ongoing. They've been suffering from (undiagnosed but obvious) depression for most of the last year and a half, to the point where they regularly talk about not feeling anything, and not being sure if they love me anymore. There have been a couple of times when they've talked about just driving away and disappearing, a pattern which has repeated itself a few times over the years, particularly when there were a lot of stressors.

I realise I'm better off than most people, but I wanted to talk it through with my therapist anyway. However, in the session that we had last Friday, my therapist started talking about various conspiracy theories, largely anti-vaxx stuff, to wit: Bill Gates is planning to force everyone to get ID chipped in order to get vaccinated; this coronavirus was developed by the Chinese government, etc.When we talked about how the future might go she made it very clear that she wouldn't be taking -- or allowing her children to take -- any vaccine.

To be honest, it was clear that she is struggling to deal with all of this too -- there were times where I felt like i was listening to her problems, not the other way around. She repeatedly quoted bible verses at me (she knows I'm non-religious) and it felt to me like the therapist I have known and trusted for these 8 years has disappeared in front of my eyes.

How do I address this? If this had been our first session I would have walked away, but we have a long history together. I don't want to just ghost her -- even in a therapeutic relationship that's wrong -- but I do strongly feel right now like she can't provide the support I need, which is upsetting to think about.

Any guidance is, as ever, appreciated.
posted by six sided sock to Human Relations (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I think the main question is what outcome you're hoping for. Taking things that are out of your control off the table, like changing your therapist's mind, what would you like to achieve? To sever the relationship and give some explanation as to why you want to do that? To communicate exactly how unhelpful this interaction was for you?

I completely agree that this sounds wildly unprofessional and unhelpful in terms of what a client needs out of therapy (for disclosure I'm also UK-based and have done private therapy with about five different therapists at this point, so I feel like I have a good understanding of how the process/relationship should work and agree that what you describe above is Not That).

If this were me I would use some kind of written method of communication to put your points across, ideally email if you have an email address for your therapist. I would clearly state, as you have done here, why the interaction was unhelpful - the fact that the therapist's comments felt rooted in unhelpful conspiracy theory, the fact that you found it alienating (assuming you did) to have religious texts from a religion you're not a member of quoted to you, and the fact that you felt like you were listening to her problems rather than talking about your own.

I think it would also be reasonable to outline in plain and straightforward language the impact that this interaction has had on the ongoing therapeutic relationship for you. If you don't feel comfortable talking with her again or continuing with your sessions as a result, go ahead and say that too. State in the email what outcome you'd like (e.g. you don't want another session, or you're happy to go ahead but you have concerns about their professional judgement that you'd like to talk about, depending on what you want).

If your therapist is a member of the Brtitish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy you can also make a complaint to them as the relevant national licensing body, but their first recommendation is to try to talk about the problem with the therapist first, so I'd still suggest getting in touch with your therapist to discuss your concerns, the impact the interaction had on the professional relationship and what (if anything) you want to do next, even if you also want to make a complaint about them to BACP. If they're not a BACP member, BACP won't be able to help you, but it might be worth seeing if they're a member of any other professional body and contacting them for advice if you feel like you might want to make a complaint.
posted by terretu at 4:06 AM on April 14, 2020 [8 favorites]

I would tell my therapist that this completely broke my trust in them. Then I would grieve the broken therapeutic relationship, and I would find a new therapist. I'm sorry that this happened to you.
posted by k8lin at 5:15 AM on April 14, 2020 [73 favorites]

You address it by leaving. You don't owe her any explanation. Just go.
posted by mattholomew at 5:26 AM on April 14, 2020 [28 favorites]

I don't know. These are strange times and people are acting weirdly all over the shop. I would try some compassion. Maybe along the lines of 'I've always appreciated your skills in holding the therapeutic space for me to address my concerns but I felt that wasn't the case in our last session. You seemed distracted and a little fixated on perspectives that I hadn't raised and wasn't expecting to discuss, such as your views on vaccination, and the origin of the disease. I understand that these are fraught times for all of us and that you are also processing the current situation, but I don't feel comfortable having those conversations within a therapeutic relationship."

Then you can either offer to postpone til she is back on the case, or just thank her for the work you've done together and request a termination session.
posted by freya_lamb at 5:34 AM on April 14, 2020 [26 favorites]

This is highly inappropriate for a therapist, and a therapist that does not have enough insight into her own behaviours to either not do this in the first place, or not check in with you afterwards, is not the right therapist. I personally would also be very wary of being in a therapeutic relationship with someone who is exploring conspiracy theories in this way, not to mention the religious stuff.

I would write her a short version of what you wrote here - that you appreciate the 8 years you've worked together, but that your last session has really broken the trust in your therapeutic relationship because of its revelation of anti-scientific and anti-public-health beliefs as well as a lack of regard for you as a client. And then I would grieve and move on.

I completely believe you about the successes, but I also think it's possible that over time you will find that a different therapist will help more. I once had a therapist "go off" on me (for not being a good wife...I'd heard him and his wife arguing upstairs while I was waiting for my appointment) and it was really, really hard at the time. But it led to me finding a great therapist and it was only then that I realized that the prior one had really not been great. Not saying this is the case for you, but it could be.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:46 AM on April 14, 2020 [23 favorites]

If you want to freya_lamb is the exact way to do it but warriorqueen is right to. Regardless, in these circumstances and in this environment your therapist isn't up to the task of being your therapist. And I'm sorry. That's scary. That's frustrating.

If you talk to them, you need to talk yourself into this session being about you. And just about you. If it's not, LEAVE. You are paying for this time. It's for your health. You wouldn't stay with a doctor who diagnosed their
own ear infection during your appointment, don't keep a therapist who works on their feelings during yours.
posted by AlexiaSky at 6:54 AM on April 14, 2020 [3 favorites]

An 8 year relationship is hard to leave. But your therapist needs to address their own fears with their therapist. And bringing in their own personal belief system, especially a deranged, illogical belief, is wildly inappropriate. I would write an email, take time with it, but essentially express concern for Therapist's health and well-being, and concern that Therapist has overstepped therapeutic boundaries dramatically. And ask Therapist what their plan is to address these issues.

The therapeutic relationship is complex, and it is easy to let boundaries lapse. If Therapist has a plan, and returns to good boundaries, great. Therapist may need time off. I hope it's salvageable, but it might not be.
posted by theora55 at 7:37 AM on April 14, 2020 [3 favorites]

my therapist started talking about various conspiracy theories, largely anti-vaxx stuff, to wit: Bill Gates is planning to force everyone to get ID chipped in order to get vaccinated; this coronavirus was developed by the Chinese government, etc. [...] She repeatedly quoted bible verses at me (she knows I'm non-religious) and it felt to me like the therapist I have known and trusted for these 8 years has disappeared in front of my eyes.

Let me take a hard line here:
  1. Your relationship with your therapist as a therapist is over. She is now just a person.
  2. A sudden fascination with conspiracies can be be a sign of deteriorating mental health.
  3. Her support system needs to know. If you know of any of her colleagues, dropping them a note saying that she behaved very oddly in your last session would be a good idea. As a last resort contact her governing board.
  4. This is no longer your problem, walk away.

posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:54 AM on April 14, 2020 [10 favorites]

People stop therapy all of the time. You could say that you feel like you're coping with life much better these days and would like to put therapy on hold for now. Or, you could go less often and taper to none. You don't need to explain that her conspiracy theories have thrown you for a loop.

If this were my therapist I would find this kind of behavior to be a huge disconnect with reality and question her ability to counsel others. I can cut people off easily for stuff like this. This scenario illustrates that therapists are human beings with flaws and quirks. I have had therapy in the past and it's been helpful for me to see destructive or maladaptive behavior patterns. Once I saw those patterns there wasn't a need to draw out therapy. As I grow older and wiser I am more leery of paying someone to listen to my "problems" when I have the ability and skills to cope on my own.
posted by loveandhappiness at 8:05 AM on April 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

Why don't you just tell her this made you uncomfortable? A therapy relationship (or any relationship) shouldn't necessarily be broken by the fact that you have a difference, but by how the parties respond to that difference. If you find that after talking about it, or time passing, that you don't get what you need from therapy from this person anymore, by all means end the relationship, but IMHO given long history of this being a positive relationship for you, I think it's worth seeing if this can be addressed before cutting out.
posted by latkes at 10:05 AM on April 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

So speaking as someone who as a child was at the mercy of some very bad therapists with kooky beliefs- I would go a step further and say that for the health of her future patients you should report her to whatever board or group she's a part of. She should not be practicing.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 10:05 AM on April 14, 2020 [12 favorites]

I’d be concerned about this person’s health.
posted by bq at 10:23 AM on April 14, 2020 [5 favorites]

to wit: Bill Gates is planning to force everyone to get ID chipped in order to get vaccinated

I've just been exposed to a little world in which this is the circulating narrative. It's completely loony and anti-science.

For this reason, I would not only feel betrayed just because of the introduction of a personal political view into the therapeutic conversation - I would be questioning every aspect of the therapist's judgement and powers of analysis. They've left the foundations of science by the point they believe this - how could they be trusted any longer to provide good, evidence-based therapy?

I agree with those who say to communicate this in writing, thank them for the good they've done, grieve the loss, and move on. It's probably a sign of good mental health that you can recognize this as an issue and draw this boundary to protect yourself, and get your needs met.
posted by Miko at 11:25 AM on April 14, 2020 [9 favorites]

Best answer: I am a therapist but obviously not your therapist. I would also feel alarmed and upset if I had experienced this as a client.

Of course, it's understandable that your therapist is stressed and struggling to deal with the pandemic--she's a human being and we're all experiencing multiple collective traumas right now. And it's part of your therapist's job to assess her own mental health and capacity and act appropriately to make sure that she can still provide a supportive space for her clients.

There's a few specific things I'm thinking about. One is that for some people having a therapist who shares a worldview/values framework is very important. This sounds like it might not be true for you, as maybe you already knew she was religious and you aren't and up until now that difference hasn't been a problem for you?

And I'm guessing that part of why that has worked has been because your therapist, appropriately, hasn't imposed her worldview or values on you until this last session. That sudden shift seems to be part of what is so disorienting about this, contributing to that sense that your therapist has disappeared.

So, it could theoretically be possible that it wouldn't matter so much what her personal beliefs were or how they had shifted... if she hadn't brought them center stage into your therapy session in such an intensely disruptive way.

Which brings me to... The second facet is the role of self-disclosure in therapy (i.e. the therapist sharing things about their own experiences or emotions). Self-disclosure can be both powerful and risky as a therapeutic tool. I know that I've been doing more self-disclosure during this pandemic time--saying things like, "We're all scared right now" or "I think that's a normal response, I know I've been feeling that way too" because those things are just so true and also because those seemed to be normalizing, orienting, or reassuring things to say to those clients in those moments. I was trained to think carefully about self-disclosure, to assess whether any particular self-disclosure is likely to be therapeutic or not, and to intentionally refocus the attention back to the client afterwards.

It sounds like your therapist failed to do all of those things in that session. So it totally makes sense that this broke your trust in her, that it feels disorienting and upsetting, and that you don't think she can be a good source of support for you anymore. I would be feeling similarly if I were you, I think.

As far as what you should do/how you should approach this... well, that's tricky. There's this idea in some approaches to therapy that what happens in therapy is a microcosm of what happens in the rest of the client's life, i.e. any big issues will somehow show up in the therapy room as well. And so working through things like conflicts or misunderstandings with your therapist can give you tools and insights into how you might work through those things with anyone else.

So one possibility would be to come at this from that angle. However, that feels risky to me because your trust has been broken and there's no way to know if your therapist will respond in an appropriate and helpful way or continue to act in the ways she was acting in your last session. In other words, you can't be as confident as you once were that the session will actually be about looking at your issues and getting support around them rather than focusing on your therapist's ungrounded/unfounded fears and misinformed opionions. I think (and this might sound very therapisty) that only you can really figure out if that risk is worth it or not, because you know better than any of us Internet strangers what's at stake for you, how upsetting it might be if you try to bring this up and your therapist responds badly, and what your general level of resource/overwhelm is right now.

I wonder if there might be some middle ground approaches or ways of testing the water? Like an option in between just ghosting your therapist and just showing up to the next session (which you seem clear that you don't want to do). That could look like, as others have suggested, sending an email. You could share that the last session felt a little off and that you aren't sure if you want to come back and see how she responds. You could also ask for a 15 minute phone check-in to see if you can resolve the conflict/differences and based on that potentially come in again.

I hope some of this is helpful and that you find the support you need!
posted by overglow at 1:28 PM on April 14, 2020 [8 favorites]

If you do decide to have another session with her, I'd be very clear that the last session left you feeling like the roles were reversed and she spent an extended amount of time processing and venting her own stuff at you instead of engaging with your therapeutic needs. With the serious situation with your partner as well as general anxieties right now, it's wildly inappropriate for her to spend so much of your paid-for, therapeutic time just going on about her own (troubling) beliefs and issues. You're not peers or friends, you are paying a professional for their expertise. If she doesn't immediately acknowledge and apologize for her overstepping of so many of her professional responsibilities to you, it's time to find someone new to work with.

It's also legit to just cancel and move on. I hope that you're able to find the help that you need and I hope your partner does, too.
posted by quince at 4:03 PM on April 14, 2020

If this is a sudden change in personality and behaviour, rather than ongoing issues, she sounds like she might be experiencing mental illness. Just the socially inappropriate behaviour, lack of professionalism that you're accustomed to seeing from her, and paranoid thoughts are enough to make me think she's pretty unwell. Does she seem disorganized in her thinking?

Either way, you're not going to get therapy of any real value from her until she's well. I'm sorry. It's an awful time to be looking for a new therapist.
posted by unstrungharp at 4:29 PM on April 14, 2020

If your dentist messed up your teeth after doing a good job on your teeth for eight years, you'd focus first on getting your teeth squared away before worrying about what to do about your relationship with your (probably now former) dentist. You only know this person because you need competent mental health support. You still need that, and no matter how lucky you feel that your problems aren't worse, you deserve it, too. Don't forget that, whatever you decide to do.
posted by lampoil at 5:00 PM on April 14, 2020 [7 favorites]

If you have worked with this person for 8 years productively and this has never come up before, it seems reasonable to be quite concerned that your therapist may have become mentally ill or experienced a change in her mental status for some other reason. Her disclosures were inappropriate and concerning, and you are right to feel distressed. You don't owe her anything, and should feel free to explore this shocking and distressing loss of a therapeutic relationship with someone else. Your new therapist can, if you want, also help you think through whether or how you want to address any worries you might have about your therapist, as well as help meet the needs that you wanted your therapist to help you with when you went in.
posted by shadygrove at 5:48 PM on April 14, 2020 [3 favorites]

Unethical and unprofessional therapist behavior doesnt need an explanation. Their role is not to cause anxiety. Their role should be cut and dry
posted by The_imp_inimpossible at 5:21 AM on April 15, 2020 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks all for your feedback.

I've had a week to ruminate on this -- a week where I could really have done with having my therapist to talk to, at least about some things, but I didn't feel that I could reach out to her, which is a pretty rough feeling. I do have a support network of friends, but I'm loathe to talk to them about some of this stuff, because it relates to my spouse, and they would consider my talking to friends about her mental health issues and other struggles something of a betrayal (in normal life I might say to my friends "I'm having a rough time" and get a hug, but other than that I keep my marital issues / my spouse's issue to myself, except for in therapy).

I've decided that I'm going to email her and discuss my concerns, and then decide how to proceed from there, depending on her response. I know that there are still services out there for me to access, should I need them, so I'll start putting plans in place to do that if my therapist and I have to part ways.
posted by six sided sock at 6:23 AM on April 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

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