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How to Fix Problems with Your Therapist and Deepen Your Therapeutic Relationship
The relationship with your therapist is one of the most important aspects of therapy and one of the most curative. 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 all you need to know to succeed as a client, it won’t matter if you don’t connect to your therapist.
And while taking the time to research and choose the right therapist is an important part of building a strong relationship, it’s not all you need to succeed. You also need to be able to repair the fractures and fix the problems that you’ll encounter as you work together. Even the best therapists will 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, they can deepen your relationship if you address them.
Read on to learn how to do the essential repair work that will help you maintain and improve your relationship with your therapist.
How the Therapeutic Relationship Gets Tested
A good therapist will be caring, warm, understanding, and non-judgmental. Experiencing a safe relationship with someone who has these qualities does a lot of the healing work on its own.
When you trust and like your therapist, it’s easier to open up to them. It makes you more motivated to do your homework. It creates the essential alchemy that allows healing and transformation to occur.
How Important Is the Therapeutic Relationship?
We believe the quality of 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.
When Nina Simone sang, "Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood," she voiced a plea we all feel deep in our hearts. It hurts when someone misunderstands your intentions or misinterprets your words.
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. The ways we were misunderstood or rejected by parents, caregivers, close friends, or partners are at the heart of our deepest wounds.
A simple misunderstanding can change the course of your life.
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 things that have been damaged. You can connect, can love and be loved, can be accepted for who you are at the deepest level of your being.
How to Repair Your Relationship with Your Therapist
A bad therapist can cross lines that should never be crossed in therapy. When that happens, all you can do to fix the damage 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.
And 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 things get tough in your relationships with them.
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. 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 the most powerful. Think of them as elevators that can take your therapy to the next level.
When you talk through misunderstandings with your therapist, it gives you the opportunity to witness a broken relationship being repaired. This is something many people never experience.
You’ve probably had more than one misunderstanding that was never mended. Maybe instead of recovery, your attempts to fix a fracture led to arguments or distance. Perhaps the person you tried to work though it 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 the experience of unsuccessfully trying to resolve the brokenness is traumatizing. 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 the ability to heal your connection 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 surprise you with their openness to talking about repairing the relationship and will lean into the conflict with genuine care for your concerns. This feeling of surprise is an indication that you are 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
Another reason it’s important to resolve misunderstandings with your therapist is that it can 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.
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.
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 damaging if your first attempt to fix the issue doesn’t work and you just bury the feeling away again without talking about it.
So, tell your therapist if you tried to fix an issue but feel like your concerns weren’t addressed the first time. Even the best therapists can’t keep your relationship from falling apart if you’re not willing to tell them when they hurt you or get it wrong.
Working things out with your therapist will allow you to experience the personal growth that happens when you talk through and repair the broken places.
How Relationships Connect the Past to the Present
Exploring the specific difficulties that you have with your therapist can give you vital clues about where others may have failed you, especially your parents, 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.
Look out for these strong reactions and talk about them. The specific nature of what affects you can be an important clue to what you need to heal. This is even more important if the same issue has come up in multiple relationships.
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.
It’s rare that a reaction you’ll have to your therapist will be something you haven’t experienced before with someone else. And no matter how strongly you feel about your therapist, it’s not the same as what you feel in more intimate relationships with parents, partners, family, and friends.
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 you never worked through with the person who actually caused it.
By exploring these recurring issues in therapy, which is usually a safer place to examine them than in other relationships, you can start to understand the source of these issues and how to heal them.
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.
Often, the first step toward change is gaining insight into why you feel the way you do.
Your habitual feelings, thoughts, and reactions may reflect distortions in how you understood the world at a certain time.
Even when your reactions were reasonable in the past, they may not be reasonable in the situations that trigger them now. Holding on to them holds you back.
By examining and repairing the wounds that are behind your most painful stories, you can learn how to rewrite the script for your life so that it's less painful and more empowering.
We hope that when you’re with your therapist, you feel warm and safe. We hope therapy has shown you what it’s like to be cared for by a generous and spirited person who gets you. Ideally, your relationship with your therapist lives up to what we all hope and dream 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. When things go wrong in therapy, it’s vital to work through them. The mutual attempt at repair is not only an essential part of therapy—it may be what you’ll remember as the most significant part of your healing process.
Starting therapy can be scary, but we’re here to help
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.