"No, we can't be friends": 12 Things Your Therapist Wants You To Know
Ever wondered what your therapist is really thinking? Oh, phew! So it’s not just us.
It’s a funny old thing, therapy. Not funny, funny – but you know we mean. Because more often than not, you don’t really know what to expect if you’ve never been before, right?
Will it be like the movies? Will they show you those pictures of dark splotches and ask you what you see? Will they go home have a big gossip with their partner about all your secrets?? Omg, WILL THEY?
The good news: Chances are, your therapist is nothing like what you’ll see in movies and TV shows. Really!
In fact, they’re probably more like you than you might think.
Watch: These signs will help you know if you should see a psychologist.
And here’s the thing – while it’s always good to be able to seek out help from those around you, like your family and friends, sometimes you just need to chat with someone from outside of your circle. Someone who is like a blank sheet of paper.
Below, we asked psychotherapist Lissy Abrahams to tell us everything she wants you to know about therapy..
Take a seat.
1. We understand that you may feel daunted or frightened about starting therapy
Sharing really intimate details about your life, your relationships and some of your deepest secrets to a complete stranger can feel super scary and daunting. Therapists get it.
“Most people come to therapy because they need it. This doesn’t mean that they want to go. And I can tell you, no one starts therapy for fun – even though in my consulting room we have some fun,” said Abrahams.
“Good therapists understand that it can take time for some clients to feel safe in the space and that’s absolutely fine. You will feel safe when you feel safe and feel free to talk about this with your therapist.”
2. There's no experience needed
Going to your first therapy session and nervous that you won’t know what you need to… do or say? Don’t worry – Abrahams said this is a really common feeling.
“Some people worry that they don’t know what to do in therapy and they may not be “getting it right” as a client. Let me tell you now – there is no ‘getting it right’.”
“All you need to do is bring yourself in – just as you are, no experience needed.”
3. We’ve seen it all
Spoiler! While you might think you just have too much stuff, chances are your therapist has seen it all before. Your past behaviours, relationship struggles, life concerns – the whole shebang. Ten times over.
“So many people come to therapy worried that their therapist won’t be able to handle them – that they’ll be too much,” said Abrahams.
“Even though every client is unique and brings a different flavour to the therapy, an experienced therapist generally won’t be fazed by what you’re presenting with to have treated.”
“This doesn’t mean we don’t care or that we’re going through the motions – we’re not. It’s that you’re unlikely to be shocking to us in any way.”
So, know that you’re not ‘too difficult’ to work with. The right therapist is out there for you.
4. We understand fight-or-flight reactions
Heard of a fight-or-flight response? It’s basically a knee-jerk reaction to a past experience or event that you might perceive as stressful or frightening. Your pulse might start racing. Your breathing gets quicker. You feel tense. Uncomfortable.
It’s kind of like a psychological defence mechanism.
“We understand that you can have reactions to people and situations that trigger your fight-or-flight responses. Sometimes you may react as if you are being chased by a hungry bear,” explains Abrahams.
“Your body has a cascading reaction where your adrenaline and cortisol levels surge, and your heart rate and blood pressure increase.”
While it can be scary, it’s important to know that this is totally normal, and an experienced therapist will help you navigate the situation.
“Good therapists understand that in this mode, you may say or do things that may seem extreme. We help you understand these.”
5. Your history matters
One of the most important things therapists want patients to understand is just how crucial it is to explore past and present experiences – even if you might not feel like it’s relevant to why you’re seeking help.
“Any good therapist understands that your history shapes everything about you. This includes the stories you tell yourself, your beliefs, values, expectations, how you relate to yourself and others, what makes you upset, fearful, or angry, and so much more.”
“Therapists understand that you’ve been consciously and unconsciously programmed from forces outside of your control – we all have. They’ll work with you to understand how your programming is alive and kicking inside of you today and how your ego operates accordingly.”
Sometimes this can be incredibly tough and uncomfortable for people, especially when you’ve experienced hurt in the past. So, be patient with yourself.
“Many of our clients have experienced childhood trauma and we help them understand how this impacts the way they function in their day-to-day lives.”
6. Most parents do their best
Fact: Blaming your parents for everything is not the goal here. Abrahams said it’s about helping clients realise the reality that their parents may have done the best they can, and at the same time may have hurt you in ways you now struggle with.
“Most therapists understand that parents do their best. This doesn’t mean they always supported, cared or kept you safe. But most parents do their best, even though they have limitations and shortcomings. Therapy is not about blaming parents.”
“Most parents are just operating from the program they received from their conscious and unconscious experiences. It’s important to understand how the limitations affected you and shaped you, yet to also understand most parents don’t try to hurt their children. They’re often preoccupied, stressed, and exhausted.”
The goal is to try to navigate the life you’ve been given – because at the end of the day, you’re the only one who can change it.
7. We're non-judgemental
Abrahams said any good therapist will never judge their client – even when you feel like they’re doing more listening than talking.
If you ever do feel judged by your therapist, she said this is something you should bring up with them – it might seem really uncomfortable at first, but it’s extremely important you voice your feelings.
“Good therapists are non-judgemental therapists. How is a judgemental therapist helpful? Actually, they’re harmful. If your therapist is, call them out on it or find someone else who isn’t judgemental,” she said.
“Our position is to help you understand how you operate and we do this alongside you – not towering above you on a pedestal.”
8. Your therapist is a mere mortal, too
Yep, therapists are real people. And they’re not perfect, either.
“Clients often feel they need to see their therapist as angelic – those who are only good and perfect. Whenever I sense my clients are placing me in the ‘perfect’ bracket, I quickly let them know that there are no halos in my consulting room – not on their heads and certainly not on mine.”
“I’m not perfect and nor is any therapist. We struggle like you do in life. We feel pain, sadness, anger and more. We have our battle scars and life experiences. We’re all mere mortals, and sometimes we handle life’s tribulations well, and sometimes we can stuff up royally.”
9. Distress tolerance is everything
According to Abrahams, many clients come to see therapists because they have distress intolerance. This means they haven’t learnt how to tolerate upsetting emotions and sit with them.
“They didn’t learn this as a child through their parent-child relationship. This means that they suffer because they don’t understand that this unpleasant feeling inside them will pass.”
“It feels catastrophic, and that’s where they look to the external world to make themselves feel better. This includes shopping, eating, restricting food, gambling, promiscuous sex, turning to drugs/alcohol, talking excessively with friends or creating drama.”
Abrahams goes on to explain that these actions in the outside world never resolve what’s going on inside – they’re mere distractions that numb, but don’t address, what the unpleasant experience was.
“A good therapist will help you understand this and teach you other ways to tolerate the sensations inside you, such as breathing techniques and mindfulness.”
10. You leave a mark on our lives, too
Any good therapist will truly want the best for you – and their investment in you often goes outside of the time you spend together. So, don’t think that you’re just another number.
“Even though you’re the one who is going through a transformative experience with the therapist, you leave a mark on them, too,” said Abrahams. “Our relationships are meaningful and real, and we care deeply about our clients’ wellbeing.”
“I genuinely love my clients and my heart can bleed for them when they suffer and my heart can expand with joy at their development and other wonderful moments.”
11. No, we can’t be friends
While it’s common to develop a close relationship with your therapist, Abrahams said it’s important to understand that you can’t be friends with your therapist.
Awks, we know. But it’s for the best.
“There are many clients who would like to be friends with their therapist. This shows that a great connection has been made. However, it’s important though to keep the relationship in the therapy-client space so that clients can always return for top-up sessions.”
Being friends with your therapist can create what’s known as a ‘conflicting dual relationship’, which is when people are in two very different relationships at the same time – and this presents a number of different challenges.
So, yeah – it’s both good and bad news. Don’t ask your therapist around for dinner, friend.
“Your therapist holds your history in a particular way that no-one else does – besides you. It’s a special thing you share. You can make more friends of many different varieties, but having someone hold all of that knowledge of you and your work together is valuable and worthy of protection.”
“I had a client return for sessions yesterday after not seeing him for seven years. Whilst I don’t remember every detail of our time together, I certainly remember him and his essence. We were both able to pick back up and get back into the work together.”
12. We have a privileged role
Abrahams said, “Being a therapist is such privileged work, and most therapists take their role and responsibilities seriously.”
“We know how transformative the experience of therapy can be and how profoundly it alters lives.”
If you would like to learn more from Lissy Abrahams, check out her e-book on what makes a couple’s relationship happy.
Lissy Abrahams is part of Mamamia’s health expert panel. She is a leading individual and couple psychotherapist who has dedicated her career to helping hundreds of clients navigate life’s obstacles and challenges. Lissy studied psychology in Sydney and then completed her Masters in couples psychotherapy at the internationally renowned Tavistock Relationships. Here, she worked therapeutically with couples, as well as lectured and tutored trainee counsellors.
Lissy founded and manages the Sydney-based therapy clinic, Heath Group Practice, and works therapeutically with clients around the world. She has published academic work and launched a successful online course to help partners stop fighting and communicate respectfully.
Lissy believes we all have the capacity to improve our lives and relationships with the right knowledge and practical strategies. Her mission is to help as many people as possible transform their lives by creating happier and more loving relationships.
Feature image: Getty