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The Therapeutic Relationship

Updated: Nov 3, 2023

For those who have not had therapy before, the relationship with the therapist can be very confusing. It is also one of the essential elements to get right in order to make therapy effective. There are many things I wish I had known before I started my first series of therapy sessions, it may have prevented some of the pain and confusion I experienced.

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The first thing to mention here is that the therapist, no matter how 'friendly' they are, is not your friend. In the development of a normal friendship, you expect to learn about the person you are making friends with. It would be normal for them to share personal information about themselves and their life experience and circumstances. It is also normal in a friendship for there to be some sharing of emotions and concerns and that the caring nature of the relationship will go both ways, mutual care and concern. The problem with having this type of relationship with your therapist is that, automatically, you would be impacted by the things you know about your therapist. For example, if you knew they couldn't have children then you may feel awkward to talk about a pregnancy or a problem with your child. You may even feel unable to broach subjects that you know could affect them.

In my experience of being a client and being a therapist, there are times when your story is so painful to you that you hesitate, or feel unable, to talk about it because of how it might impact the therapist. If you then add the complication of knowing their life experience, this makes for a very tricky experience of therapy, which is potentially damaging as you add another experience of being unable to be fully yourself, open and honest. As therapists we are obliged to be aware of our own emotional responses to things that we hear and see, and we have in place the support that we need in order to manage our ongoing experience of the distress of our clients who are impacted by the world just like we are. As a therapist I regularly have therapy myself, when I feel I need it, because that makes sure that I am able to offer to my clients the attention and responses they need to be able to work at depth with their emotional responses to life. This is a normal part of the work, if I fail to take care of my own personal development, I can't help you to take care of yours.

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My experience of being a client is that, when the relationship is developing with my therapist, I go through phases of being intensely curious about them and their lives. This is part of a drive in me to relate to them. It can feel very strong and, when the information I feel I need is not available, it can feel quite unsettling. I sometimes witness my clients go through the same. They may ask questions or they may mention doing some research about me. At times I have been that client and I have felt ashamed that I felt a strong need to know the therapist more than they wanted me to know. First of all, this need and the related frustration is extremely normal. Some people feel it a lot and others not at all. It is complex, but identifying it in the therapy room can be really helpful. You may experience a strong drive to know something specific about your therapist, you may even have developed a fantasy about them. Bringing this into the open can lead to some greater understanding about yourself, your previous relationships and the impact on how you have learnt to function in life. It can also deepen the therapeutic relationship as you dispel the power of the shame or the fear of the unknown.

Another aspect of the therapeutic relationship is that it will have boundaries. The boundaries will be explained to you by the therapist and so should not be a surprise. However, time and time again, part of the therapy is that we have a response to the boundaries imposed that come through in the relationship.

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One of the more painful times in therapy for me was when I spoke to a therapist about some deep childhood pain. Then between sessions, I saw my therapist at a social event and we acknowledged each other. My response may seem extreme, but I was flooded with emotions. The unexpected collision of my therapy world and my social world felt unbearable at that moment. I had never spoken to my therapist about how we would approach the scenario of seeing each other outside of the room. To be fair, we lived in different cities so it was really unlikely and strange that it happened. This happened long before I became a therapist myself and so I hadn't anticipated the response that I had. This one experience, having reflected on it for many years, taught me a lot about the incredible value of the boundaries of the therapy relationship. I had been able to go to the depths of my childhood experiences because I was not expecting to be faced with them in my everyday life. It also taught me the importance of talking and agreeing the boundaries with clients. Many of my current clients live in the same city so I make clear the boundaries of the relationship and try to agree with them on a way to manage any unavoidable contact outside of sessions. I also invite any impact of the boundaries to be brought into the therapy we are doing.

Another boundary and difference in the relationship with your therapist is that the relationship will come to an agreed end point. In life, we experience many endings. Some endings we choose, others we don't. Some endings cause deep grief responses, others deep relief, often a mixture of emotions. Ending with your therapist can be one of the most therapeutic opportunities for growth, a good therapist will help you face the ending and potentially process it in light of other experiences.

A huge advantage of the boundaries of the therapeutic relationship is that, in ending with the therapist, you can walk away from what has been worked through and know that it is kept safe and won't follow you into the rest of your life. You can enjoy the changes that you made without having to live with the fact someone else has known that process and the struggles it involved. You retain control of what is lived out in your world.

Why not use your free initial session in our clinic in Leeds to understand the boundaries better?

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