How to Fix Problems with Your Therapist and Deepen Your Therapeutic Relationship
Your relationship with your therapist is the most important part of therapy. It’s what heals you the most. It’s the essential ingredient that makes everything else work.
Even if you find the perfect style of therapy for your needs or come to therapy knowing how it works and what you need to do, it won’t matter if you don’t connect to your therapist.
Taking the time to research and choose the right therapist so you start with someone compatible with you is an important part of building a strong relationship. However, it’s not all you need to succeed.
For therapy to work, you also need to be able to repair your connection when you have problems. Even the best therapists make mistakes, say the wrong things, or misunderstand you sometimes.
These moments will inevitably crash into the emotional wounds you’re coming to therapy to heal in the first place. If unaddressed, they can alienate you from your therapist and even make you want to quit. But they don’t have to break your bond. In fact, dealing with them the right way can deepen your relationship.
Read on to learn how to do the essential repair work that will help you go deeper in therapy.
How the Therapeutic Relationship Gets Tested
A good therapist is caring, warm, understanding, and non-judgmental. Experiencing a safe relationship with someone who has these qualities is healing on its own.
When you spend time with someone who listens deeply, you start to hear yourself. When you spend time with someone who accepts you as you are, you start to appreciate and accept yourself, too.
It also helps you do the work in therapy. When you trust and like your therapist, it’s easier to open up to them. You’re more motivated to do your homework. You feel like more is possible because of what they see in you.
The chemistry you have with your therapist is an essential part of the therapeutic alchemy that makes transformation possible.
How Important Is the Therapeutic Relationship?
We believe the connection you have with your therapist is more important than anything else in therapy.
Don’t just take it from us, though—researchers have come to the same conclusion. A 2017 study showed that the therapeutic relationship was the strongest predictor of success in therapy. This means a good relationship with your therapist is even more important than a therapist’s level of experience or your individual strengths as a client.
Even inexperienced therapists get better results when they’re trained in methods that focus on strengthening the therapeutic relationship. Other researchers agree: nothing is more important in therapy than your relationship with your therapist.
But even with a good therapist, there will be times when your relationship doesn’t work so well.
Chances are good your therapist will misunderstand you at least once. Maybe one day they’ll seem bored or won’t laugh at one of your jokes. Perhaps they’ll joke about something that isn’t funny to you.
They might misinterpret something you’re trying to tell them or seem disinterested in something that’s important to you. Maybe they’ll be silent when you want them to say something or say the wrong thing when you hoped they’d let your words speak for themselves.
If betrayal is like a lightning strike that instantly splits a relationship, misunderstandings are like a trickle of water that can slowly erode your connection. The break that eventually occurs can be just as profound and final as if you were betrayed. This is as true in a relationship with a therapist as it is in any other relationship.
The worst is when your therapist seems to misunderstand or judge you in the same way your parents or other important people in your life did. Being misunderstood or rejected by the people who matter most is the source of some of our deepest wounds.
One or more painful conversations with an out-of-touch parent or teacher can put you off from pursuing your dreams. Repeatedly feeling judged or rejected in the same way by intimate partners can make you feel unlovable. These wounds are often what bring us to therapy.
When a therapist repeats the same misunderstanding that deeply wounded you—or even just seems to repeat it—the result can be devastating.
One bad moment with your therapist can reinforce your deepest fears. It can loop through your head on repeat and color how you see yourself outside of the therapy room. It can make you feel hopeless, doomed, and like there’s no way to heal because even your therapist doesn’t understand you.
This is why it’s important to not just react and walk away. One of the most powerful things the therapeutic relationship can teach you is that you can fix relationships that have been damaged. You can connect and be accepted for who you are at the deepest level of your being. You can talk things through and finally be understood, even if you weren’t the first time.
How to Repair Your Relationship with Your Therapist
If you end up with a bad therapist who can’t accept critical feedback, all you can do when something goes wrong is leave and try again with a new therapist.
Most of the time, though, therapists are earnest, ethical, and at least somewhat skilled in the work they do. If they get something wrong, they want to address it.
Your therapist wants to know if you’re feeling hurt, upset, or misunderstood. They might have made a genuine mistake or you might be misunderstanding them. The only way to sort it out is to talk about it.
One of a therapist’s most important skills is talking through and fixing problems that other people in your life ignore or make worse when your relationships with them get tough.
Don't Quit Without Talking to Your Therapist First
The most important thing you can do when you feel hurt, misunderstood, or rejected in therapy is to tell your therapist. If there’s a problem, no matter how big or small, talk about it.
Telling your therapist how you’re feeling about what’s going on in therapy is one of the best and fastest ways to break through blocks and make progress in therapy. Healing relationship ruptures isn’t just repair work—it’s the heart of the therapeutic process.
Telling your therapist about something that hurt you requires courage and vulnerability and brings a lot of deep emotions to the surface. These conversations may not be the easiest, but they can be so powerful. They can completely change how you think about relationships.
You’ve probably had more than one misunderstanding that was never mended. Maybe instead of fixing things, your attempts to repair a relationship led to arguments or distance. Perhaps the person you tried to work it out with with denied the problem or even retaliated in some way.
It affects you deeply when a break in a relationship remains unresolved. It’s even more painful when you tried to fix the broken places, but things only got worse. These losses can lead you to the conclusion that relationship issues should not be talked about and are not repairable.
When you lose faith in your ability to work things out with people you care about, it has a catastrophic effect on your capacity for security and intimacy. Realizing that damaged relationships can be fixed is one of the most healing gifts therapy can give you.
A good therapist will be open to talking about repairing the relationship and will lean into the conflict with genuine care for your concerns. This might surprise you or even seem a little weird because you’re experiencing something different and better than what happened to you in the past. This is what makes therapy therapeutic—what makes therapy therapy.
Learning What Makes or Breaks Relationships
The weight of all that goes unsaid can lead to the eventual death of a relationship. This is as true with a therapist as it is with an intimate partner.
If you form a strong belief about your therapist and never bring it up, it can poison your emotional bond. The unexpressed feelings you carry will feel worse and worse until you’ll just want to leave so you don’t have to feel them anymore.
It’s just as (if not more) damaging if your first attempt to fix the issue doesn’t work and you just bury the feeling again without talking about it.
There’s no downside to talking about it. And while not everyone handles these conversations gracefully, good therapists usually do. They’re trained for this. They’re waiting for it. They know what’s at stake. They know how much it can help you heal when they do it well.
Therapy Can Help You Improve All Your Relationships
Learning how to work things out with your therapist isn’t just important because it makes therapy better.
Resolving misunderstandings with your therapist can also show you how to save other relationships when they hit a rough patch.
Therapy is a safe place where you can experiment and learn what actually works when a relationship becomes strained. You can learn through trial and error whether to be firmer or more flexible. You can learn new ways to say things and new ways to communicate.
All of the skills you develop in therapy will make all of your other relationships stronger.
When you successfully work through an issue with your therapist, you’ll gain insight into how you can address similar issues with other people in your life.
But it does more than just beef up your relationship skills. Working things out with your therapist will also allow you to experience the personal growth that happens when you talk through and repair the broken places.
So, tell your therapist if you tried to fix an issue but feel like your concerns weren’t addressed the first time. It might be a difficult conversation—or it might not—but it’s necessary. A good therapist won’t get defensive but will try to figure out what they can do to make things right.
How Relationships Connect the Past to the Present
Exploring the difficulties you have with your therapist can give you vital clues about where others may have failed you and the emotional wounds and blocks those failures created.
For example, if your parents never cared for you, or you never believed that they did, you might have difficulty believing that your therapist does. If your parents or a long-term partner minimized your feelings, you might have an unusually strong reaction if you feel dismissed or invalidated by your therapist.
Follow Your Big Reactions
Big emotional reactions are like breadcrumbs. If you follow the trail, it will eventually lead you to past pain, loss, or trauma that needs your attention.
Look out for these strong reactions and talk about them. The specific nature of what affects you can be an important clue about what you need to heal. This is even more important if the same issue has come up in multiple relationships.
For more information on how to spot and work through some of the biggest reactions you have in therapy, you can read our article, “What Is Transference?”
It’s rare that a reaction you’ll have to your therapist will be something you haven’t experienced before with someone else.
Tracing the feelings that emerge in the therapy room to their deeper roots can help you revisit and resolve the issues that have been affecting you for years.
So pay attention when your reaction to your therapist seems way out of proportion to what happened in your session. It’s often a sign you’ve opened up an old wound that you never worked through with the person who actually caused it.
The issues in your relationships often repeat because you’re trying to fix something that happened in the past. While you can’t go back in time, you can still “fix” it in therapy by exploring what you think it means is true about you in the present. You can set yourself free from the self-beliefs that keep you playing out these same patterns and give yourself a chance to experience something different.
We hope that when you’re with your therapist, you feel warm and safe. We hope you feel like they get you and like they care. Ideally, your relationship with them lives up to everything you’ve hoped and dreamed therapy can be.
But even when you’ve got a good relationship with a good therapist, things won’t be good 100 percent of the time. Even if your therapist does seem to get you most of the time, there will be times they won’t. And what you do when they don’t is so important.
Talk to Your Therapist About It
When something goes wrong in therapy, it’s vital to talk about it. When you don’t talk about what happened or how you felt, resentment and mistrust can build until you finally just quit. However, when you talk about it, you have a chance to repair your connection.
Therapists excel at having difficult conversations—especially about their relationship with you. When you open up about how you really feel, you can take your therapy to the next level.
When you work through a problem in your relationship with your therapist, you change the game. You challenge the stories you usually tell yourself when things go wrong between you and other people. You learn new skills you can use in your other relationships. You recover trust and hope—not just in your therapist, but in yourself and your ability to overcome setbacks.
The mutual effort to repair your relationship with your therapist can be one of the most healing parts of therapy. It shows you that you don’t have to give up when things go wrong. It shows you that someone can hang in there with you until you figure it out. It shows you that you matter and that the right people won’t give up on you.
So, if your therapist does something that upsets you, don’t keep it to yourself. Don’t worry about hurting their feelings. Tell them they made a mistake. Tell them and see what happens. It might not just resolve the issue—it might make your relationship with them even better than it already was!
Stephanie Hairston is a freelance mental health writer who spent several years in the field of adult mental health before transitioning to professional writing and editing. As a clinical social worker, she provided group and individual therapy, crisis intervention services, and psychological assessments.