When I was 16 years old, I had a metabolism that was to die for. I could eat anything I wanted, whenever I wanted to, and was always hungry, which led to developing an undesirable habit of snacking at 3 a.m. My parents saw the litter of dishes and snack wrappers in my room that I had been too lazy and tired to clean up before crashing back into bed and wrongfully concluded that I was closet bingeing. Coupled with my string bean frame, they were concerned enough to book an appointment with a therapist. Unyielding in the face of my denial and protests, I soon found myself subjected to Thursday afternoons spent with Janet.
Janet was a classic caricature of a therapist. She wore long, flowing maxi skirts with tie-dye prints, and had waist-length, bushy, white hair. With a penchant for cross-legged floor sessions, deep breathing exercises and a determination to force eye contact with her clients, I found my therapy sessions to be particularly nightmarish.
Janet did not believe that her clients were the experts in their own lives and was adamant I needed to realize I had an eating disorder. After about a month of going round and round with her, I soon realized I wasn’t going to get her to see reason, so I falsely admitted to bulimia. I’ll never forget the look of triumph on her face.
After about six months, I was successfully “cured” and once set free, vowed to never set foot in a therapist’s office again.
Fast forward to adulthood and I once again found myself sitting across from a therapist we’ll call Iris, this time of my own accord. I had been having some personal issues and my health was suffering due to stress. I hoped that maybe some therapy sessions might be able to straighten me out. I put aside my negative associations with therapy, chalked it up to immaturity and a lack of communication on my part, and told myself I would try harder to make the therapeutic relationship work this time.
Although Iris chose a chair over a rug, and didn’t torture me with the smell of incense, she was another advocate of intense, burning, eye contact. I tried to look past this, along with her constant assertion that I should emote whenever I discussed some sad bit from my past. She frequently vocalized concern with my lack of constant tears, although I did try to shed a few when required.
After working so hard at trying to meet her demands, I was quite distressed to receive a letter in the mail from Iris. Only three months in, Iris no longer wished to continue therapy with me because of my lack of investment in the process, as evidenced by my failure to show enough emotion. Apparently, Iris found tragedy in what I considered to be banal and was miffed I didn’t share the same sentiment. I felt like a failure from this rejection.
After these two strange experiences, I believed for a long time that therapy simply would not work for me. While I’m still an advocate of talk therapy and urge anyone who is struggling to try it out for themselves, I also think it’s equally important to do your research before committing to working with a particular therapist. My therapy experiences are funny in retrospect, but looking back I see a few warning signs I shouldn’t have ignored.
What I felt but couldn’t articulate at the time due to my lack of understanding of the process, is that a therapist should never make you feel guilty for not living up to their demands or expectations. With both of my therapists, I felt bullied into submitting to their beliefs and views on what our relationship should look like, which isn’t exactly client-centered. Janet wanted so much to be right in her diagnosis of me that she filtered out everything I told her that didn’t fit with her initial belief. Therapists who view the relationship as a game to be won are missing out on wonderful opportunities to help people who need it.
Working with clients should also not be a one-fits-all approach. After all, each client is unique, with their own life experiences to share. Some clients may be more affected by certain events from their past than others and it’s a therapist’s job to guide the client rather than force their own belief systems on them.
And not everyone cries all the time, but some clients will, and that’s perfectly okay as well. The therapy space should be a safe space where you don’t feel judged or uncertain. Is there really a wrong way for a client to behave in therapy? Beyond violence and sexual inappropriateness, I wouldn’t think so.
I realize I may sound as though I’m blaming my therapy failure completely on my therapists and I do feel it’s important to clarify that therapy is a team effort. Your therapist is not a mind reader and if you don’t speak up or take an active role in the process, you will be wasting your time. I could have been more assertive when I felt we were spinning our wheels. Instead, I deferred to them, so I too can shoulder some of the blame for why therapy didn’t work for me.
Would I ever try therapy again? Absolutely. I firmly believe that my negative experiences have armed me with the knowledge of what to look for in a helping professional, what to steer clear of, and what I should also bring to the table. Hopefully, none of that will involve patchouli.