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Page Contents: When your psychotherapist crosses boundaries and then pulls back.                    

 

I have been seeing my psychotherapist for nearly eight years. We have had a very profound, intense relationship with varying degrees of transference and countertransference. At one point in treatment we had to stop so that he could deal with his own issues and countertransference. During treatment in order to help me with my eating disorder we began to have dinners together and talking outside of the office led to his sharing information with me about himself and another client with whom he was having difficulty. He has been a very important part of my life, and we have discussed friendship after therapy. I have seen him outside of the office for other occasions, always respecting the boundaries of therapy and for therapeutic reasons. Our conversations began to feel as if we were friends, and we would process this in therapy. He has always said that I did not come for friendship and I agreed. I have become very attached to him. Recently this other client attempted suicide and on that particular day I was his first patient. I saw that he was a mess, and we talked about the situation instead of my having my session. So he revealed to me his turmoil and personal feelings. A few weeks later he abruptly told me that he could not see me outside of the office and that our relationship would change. He could only see me for sessions and I could not leave him phone messages any longer as I had in the past. At any rate, I have had an enormously emotional reaction to all this. We had some very hostile sessions and volatile exchange of words, raised voices, and nastiness. He is in supervision and I have felt betrayed, abandoned, angry, outraged, sad, depressed, and in total despair. I have continued my sessions with him with a two week break and he seems still torn apart my his inability to deal with this other client and to keep his boundaries clean. I feel ripped off and still at odds with myself and him. When I see him this is all that we have talked about for the past month. I am starting to resent paying him and scared to stop treatment. I need some guidance here.

 
As sad as it is, your experience illustrates several interrelated points about psychotherapy and the psychology of the unconscious.

First, it makes clear the fact that psychotherapy with a student under supervision may be less expensive than treatment with an experienced professional, but it is not always competent psychotherapy. Now, I understand that students can learn only from direct experience—in fact, I had to learn this way myself—and so supervised training is an important part of a student’s training; still, the consumer should be aware of the risks involved. Many students not only are caught up in their own personal issues but also they lack the sophisticated experience necessary to avoid the unconscious traps into which clients can draw them.

This leads to the second point: your unconscious desire was to seduce—that is, to control—your psychotherapist. Let me explain. An eating disorder has its roots in the desire to “be in control.” By controlling your own body both through food intake and through food expulsion (vomiting, laxatives, or exercise) you symbolically control your feelings of vulnerability and helplessness in not being able to control a parent who emotionally manipulated you. Thus, when you are motivated by the unconscious desire to be in control, all your relationships become stained with your need to control them—and it’s no different with your psychotherapeutic relationship.

This leads to the third point: you can get drawn into a dysfunctional relationship because of an unconscious desire not just to control the other person but also to rescue the other person through love. This love, though, is not true love—that is, the selfless giving of kindness, compassion, forbearance, and patience without asking for or expecting anything in return. No. This love that snared you is the common love of romantic fantasy, and it has at its core the desire to manipulate another person to get whatever you want—whether it be bodily pleasure, emotional security, financial security, social status, or any other personal satisfaction. In your case, your attachment to your psychotherapist derived from your unconscious desire to rescue him from his “mess.” And what would you get from this desire? Well, you would get the symbolic satisfaction of reversing your father’s inattention to you and of drawing him back to you emotionally through the person of your psychotherapist.

This leads to the fourth point: anger. Because it’s unconsciously based in a desperation to feel accepted, and so is focused on the self, not on the other person, romantic love cannot cure childhood emotional wounds, and so it eventually must confront the frustration of its own failure. When that happens, common love flip-flops right into rage. Instead of wanting to rescue the other, you want to “kill” him—that is, get rid of him.

And this leads to the fifth point: guilt. Feeling so guilty about the effects of your anger, you remain tangled in a dysfunctional relationship; that is, because you believe that the other person needs you, and that protecting your dignity with healthy boundaries would be cruel, you stifle your hurt and continue to put up with abuse.

So what can you do?

Well, you can realize that now you know what psychotherapy isn’t. It isn’t the process of acting out any of the above points. Once you know what it isn’t, then you can seek out real psychotherapy with someone who won’t let you seduce him. A competent psychotherapist won’t let you get entangled with him like any other person. He won’t create the illusion that he is your friend and confidant. Instead, he will reveal to you your unconscious. He will help you feel the pain of having been manipulated like an object when you were a child, and he will help you learn how to let go of your unconscious need to control the world. In all of this, you will learn real love and forgiveness—and then you will be “fixed.” You will be freed of the illusion that the other person needs you to rescue him. You will be freed of the allure of dysfunctional relationships. You will be freed of your rage at your father.

Go back, therefore, to the first point and find a competent psychotherapist. Then work through the other points properly: instead of acting them out, speak them within the process of real psychotherapy.

Finally, there is one irony to be pointed out here. Whatever you need to in your psychotherapy now is what your so-called psychotherapist failed to do in his own psychotherapy (that is, if he ever had any). After all, this whole mess started because he was entangled in the illusion that he needed to rescue you.

 


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Raymond Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D.
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