It is not easy to trust one’s therapist at the onset. You are both strangers to one another, thrown together by a situation which is artificial at best, uncomfortable at worst. You’re paying a professional for their experience and expertise to help you at a difficult time in your life. Trust does not always come easily in such a situation. And once trusted, how do you ever live up to your therapist’s expectations? After all, you can’t disappoint this professional, now that you’ve learned to trust them. This article examines these two common and interlinked issues in psychotherapy.
Learning to Trust in Psychotherapy
“Opening up” in therapy is one of the most difficult things a person learns how to do. It is not natural for most people to openly talk about their innermost secrets, fears, and issues that they struggle with daily. It is especially not natural for most people to have such a conversation with a complete stranger. It is a process that often must be learn, bit by bit, session by session. Sometimes the therapist can help in this process, and sometimes the therapist is of little help whatsoever.
Learning to trust your therapist is difficult for many people who enter psychotherapy. For a newcomer entering psychotherapy for the first time, an individual doesn’t know what to expect. For instance, some teenagers have heard that a therapist must tell their parents everything that goes on in session. For adults, they’re not sure whether what they’ll say is going to be judged by the therapist (even if that judgment is not verbalized by the therapist). Being “told on” or being judged are things that most people seek to avoid.
So how does one learn to trust their therapist?
Trust is the foundation of nearly every professional and social relationship we have. Trust is usually earned through the process of communicating with a person over time. People who trust too easily may find themselves being taken advantage of by unscrupulous people (and yes, there are some therapists in that group as well). People who never open themselves up to trusting another will find it difficult to grow and welcome change into their lives. Since learning how to change is the foundation of psychotherapy, being closed to the person who can help you learn to change will make therapeutic progress slow (or non-existent).
Most therapists have been trained and have learned through years of experience that not every client is the same when it comes to trusting them and learning to be talkative in psychotherapy session. A good therapist will recognize your silence or difficult talking about important issues in your life and will talk you through it. This in itself is a delicate process, but you must be willing to take the first step of saying to your therapist,
“You’re right. Talking about this stuff is difficult and I’m scared. I’m not sure I can trust you or not. But I also realize that coming to session and not talking isn’t helping either. So here goes…”
Yes, it will indeed feel like you just jumped off a cliff. But with an experience and skilled therapist, they will be there to help you find a way to gently glide back down to Earth and take the next steps toward change in your life.
Once trust takes root, it grows gradually and invisibly over time. Within a few sessions, most people have learned to trust their therapist implicitly, even with issues they thought they would never feel comfortable sharing. If trust for you takes a little longer, don’t fret. For some people, trust in general is an issue in their lives and everyday relationships. If this describes you, you should consider bringing trust itself up as an issue to be discussed in therapy. After all, how will difficulties with trusting ever be helped if you can’t talk about them with the one person who can help you with it?
What about the fear of disappointing your therapist?
Fear of disappointment is a common concern among many clients who are in psychotherapy, newcomers and old-timers alike. In fact, as a client stays in therapy with a single therapist over a long period, the fear of disappointment grows. This fear is a natural reaction for a person to experience. After all, who wants to disappoint someone whose opinion and advice we’ve grown to not only accept and rely upon, but also who’s opinion we now expect and respect. What if we don’t live up to our therapist’s expectations for us? What if we don’t get better as quickly as our psychotherapist wants us to?
Nearly everybody experiences feelings of disappointment in their lives. It’s normal. To not ever experience the feeling of disappointment is to lead a life of having zero expectations of others, and very few people can do that. But some disappointments are small and inconsequential, and are quickly forgotten. Other disappointments are larger, and can impact our ability to have an ongoing relationship or friendship with that person. It is these kinds of disappointments you should try to become attuned to in therapy.
Therapists Are Human Too
Here’s the little known secret most therapists won’t share with you – they’re human and so yes, they experience disappointment from time to time in their clients. Some will be honest with that emotion and feel it’s appropriate to express to their clients. Others have been trained to deal with those feelings (sometimes called countertransference in some psychological orientations) on their own and not with the client. So the way your therapist will come to terms and talk about their disappointment (or not talk about it) will vary.
So it may be left up to you whether you should bring up a disappointing behavior in therapy. If you feel something you did (or didn’t do) is likely going to disappoint your therapist, and it is a significant issue, you may want to approach the topic with your therapist. You have to make a judgment call, though. Things like being a few minutes late to a session, missing a session altogether, or not doing your last week’s session homework are not big issues for most therapists. Nobody’s perfect and most therapists understand you can’t be on-time to every session all the time, or complete all the agreed-upon homework assignments like a robot. There will be steps back and most therapists are trained to expect these. Therefore these kinds of things will not be disappointing to most therapists.
However, if your therapist expresses disappointment in your behavior in a session, take what they have to say and move on. Dwelling on disappointment won’t change past behaviors, so only future behaviors are important to focus on. If, however, you seem to keep disappointing your therapist over and over, perhaps there is something that is putting up a roadblock to progress in psychotherapy. That would be an ideal issue to explore further with your therapist in your next therapy session.
Remember, It’s Human and Natural to be Afraid
Most people fear fear. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, and we seek to avoid it at almost all costs. But fear is just another human emotion that can be embraced and set free once understood. It’s normal to be a little afraid of a stranger you’re coming to for help, and to be a little distrustful at first. That will fade with time and working with your therapist on the issues that bring you into therapy. Being afraid of disappointing your therapist is also a natural reaction to therapy, as you progress and begin to grow. You want to do your best, not only for yourself but also for your therapist, a person whom you’ve come to grow to trust and respect. But your therapist knows you will not always succeed at everything you’re going to try, and will have their expectations tempered by their experience. In the end, you need to learn to become comfortable with yourself, discovering your limits, and understanding that change will come with time and patience. Trust and believe in yourself, and trusting in others will come more easily.
By John M. Grohol, Psy.D.