Updated: Aug 13, 2021
By Jennifer Beauvais, LMHC
Maps of the Inner Terrain Counseling Services, PLLC
Years ago, when I was visiting with my own therapist one day, I noticed she seemed short-tempered. Her body language and scrunched facial expressions indicated frustration. We had worked together for a long time, and this was the only instance I had seen her like this. One of my issues was fear of getting in trouble, so I was really scared. I was afraid that, if her anger wasn't about me, that it would become about me at any second. I spent weeks wondering how to bring it up, and eventually...never did.
I keep this experience in mind to this day. I realize that there is a strange power differential in the therapist relationship, even if therapists don't want one. When I was younger, I felt like my therapist was somehow more in power of our relationship than I was. I did not realize that the point of therapy is to practice being human in a safe environment, and that this meant I was allowed as much questioning and say in the relationship as she had.
Now that I am in the role of therapist, I can successfully say that I have gotten rid of all my problems and know how to handle every emotional challenge that comes my way, so you probably shouldn't ever question me.
PSYCH!! Oh, h-to-the-double-hockey-sticks no!
Given my fallibility and personal ability to make obvious mistakes, I like to empower clients to voice concerns, questions, insecurities and fears--including the ones they have about me. But from my own experience, I know that this can feel intimidating and odd for a client to do. Even in day-to-day relationships, voicing such concerns can be hard. Speaking up about a professional- to that professional usually carries some sort of taboo. It's hard to imagine that a therapist could be actually eager for that type of feedback. But we are. It helps us help you, and it helps us grow, too.
Sidenote: I can't help but to think that, if you saw me tripping on a rock while hiking, and rolling off the trail into a patch of Devil's club, as I sometimes do, you would definitely feel on the "Hey, Jenn, you have a booger in your nose" level. But since you have not actually seen that yet (see picture), then you may still feel uncomfortable voicing your concerns.
My co-intern back in grad school, Casey Burnett, once said, "In therapy, we get to have common conversations in uncommon ways." Which means you get to ask, "What does your face mean?" or "I'm wondering what you're thinking right now after I just told you XYZ?" We will address it. Learning to voice these concerns may be an important part of your healing.
Therapists use whatever arises in the moment to help you learn to feel safe and empowered. We are trained to deal with discomfort, including discomfort about us. In fact, we see it as a great way to help you practice speaking up and giving feedback, while learning how we can shift our approach. So here is a list of things you CAN say to your therapist, among the zillions of possibilities:
I don't understand what you're trying to tell me: Part of therapy includes education on how the emotional body functions. Speaking from my own experience, sometimes I can explain things succinctly and clearly. Other times, my explanations spill onto the floor like marbles from a broken marble bag. It's alright. You can let me know if I'm speaking in tongues. It helps me with my skills, too.
Can you tell me what you're thinking about what I just said?: Have you ever had thoughts that kind-of freak you out, and you want somebody's reflection on them, but it just feels too scary? Or, have you ever shared something that bothers you about a person-- to that person-- and wanted to know how they were taking it? If it would negatively affect your relationship? Therapy is where we get to name our fears, as well as all the fears that go with those fears. And no, your therapist will not retaliate or shame you.
No, that's not what I meant -or- what you just said doesn't quite match what I feel: Part of a therapist's job is to truly understand what it is like to be you. So we might harbor some guesses to see if we are on the right track. We do not need to be placated...we would rather know if we are wrong so we can get on the right track if our guesses are in left field. Our job is to know YOU.
I'm afraid you will judge me: Hey, this is a pretty vulnerable setting, and sometimes, if we are afraid of being judged, we may not address what we are really in therapy for. So if there is a thought or belief that is keeping you from sharing, you can say so. That is the work.
Your energy seems different today. I feel nervous. This would be so hard to say to somebody. And yet all relationships experience times when we are like, "Is something up? Is it me? Is it you? WHAT IS HAPPENING?? AM I SAFE?" And, as I mentioned before, "What does your facial expression mean??" So if this is something you are curious about with your therapist, the experience of processing that concern is invaluable, and will likely be beneficial for other relationships in your life. Often, the therapist might name it themselves if they are a little more high strung or jittery that day, but if we forget, it might be nice to know what's up. So ask away.
I'm not sure we are a good match: Hey, you wouldn't expect to be able to get along with every person on the planet as a friend, a significant other, or a family member, right? Same with therapists. There has to be chemistry, and therapists are very aware of that. We really want to know if it is not working for you. We will first trouble shoot and see if there is any way to tweak things, or if something has happened in the past that brought on the Awkward. Then, if needed, we could refer you to somebody who might be a better fit. This is part of the trade. It's really okay to state what you need. Also, therapists are human, and not all will bring the same level of skill to the table. I hate to say it, but it's true. So it is completely in your right to explore if the therapeutic relationship feels helpful, and move on if it does not.
I'm scared to tell you some things. Can you review my privacy rights? I once had a teen tell me they thought they would go to jail for feeling suicidal. This is a really good example of needing to know the facts. Therapists are sworn to high levels of secrecy by laws such as HIPAA and strong industry ethics. However, we also have laws that mandate us to report certain things.* You can ask your therapist if you fear repercussions, and we will help you understand the processes for keeping you and others safe. You may find that these processes are not as scary as you thought they would be.
My hope is that in reading this, you get the feeling that the relationship with your therapist is meant to include you. We know that you are the expert on you, and we are just guides. Stating concerns and questions are a part of the healing. And therapy is a great place to practice finding the words to say the things you didn't think you could say. So yes, please, let's have a real conversation. Oh, and if you can, stay out of the Devil's Club.
*Mandated reporters must report the following: Child abuse and Neglect to CPS/ proper authorities. Imminent suicidal ideation may warrant safety planning and a call to crisis services for more support and monitoring. Imminent homicidal ideation may require the need for safety planning, alerting law enforcement, and alerting the intended victim. Therapists must report elder abuse. Speak to your therapist to get more understanding of the processes around mandated calls, as they are intended to create more safety for clients and victims.