Therapists. They're a mysterious bunch, aren't they? Some are reserved, some very outgoing. Some are talkers, others observers. Some type or write incessantly and others don't. Have you ever wondered what they're thinking of you - and what they're writing in those ever-flowing notes? Have you ever found yourself surmising your therapist probably finds you boring, annoying, weak, or just unlikeable?
It happens easily. A therapist may be running late, yawn in the middle of a session, look at the clock one too many times, or seem like they're not listening. Before you know it, you've at least considered that your therapist probably would never be your friend in "real life."
Am I Weird For Thinking About This?
It's a horrible, scary thought and thousands of people in therapy think about this at least once in their time in psychotherapy. Often people toy with asking their therapists, but just feel too awkward to come out and say it. So instead they apologize for being "dramatic" or for being "a hot mess." They apologize for "dumping all that" on the therapist and may feel like they are having an oversharing hangover after session. They tell the therapist "I don't know how you deal with people like me all day."
Because the mind is so complicated and interesting, this topic itself is complicated and interesting. And it has a name - countertransference.
Countertransference is most easily defined as the feelings your therapist has about you.
The Therapist: A Familiar Stranger
Often in therapy, you will have an automatic and strong response to your counselor that you may not understand. You may feel threatened, understood, ridiculed, dismissed, praised, loved, etc. and not quite understand why. You may feel the therapist is familiar to you, like you'd make fast friends - or enemies. This is called "transference", where your mind unconsciously transfers emotions you have about early life experiences and caregivers onto your counselor or therapist. Countertransference, then, is basically the same thing but it flows in the opposite direction - from therapist to patient. This happens in many human interactions, especially long-term relationships with people at work, in romance and in friendships. But where friends and lovers unconsciously allow themselves to act on those feelings, therapists are trained not to do so.
Because therapists are human and have their own emotional background/needs, they will have reactions to all their patients/clients. Countertransference is an automatic, unconscious reaction, that may make a therapist have a strong positive or negative emotional response to a client. However, they should not show favoritism or disdain, or alter their treatment plan, appointment length, appointment frequency, etc. based on their feelings about a client. One of my teachers in psychiatric training used to say, “It’s ok to have countertransference, but it’s never ok to act on it.”
Is This a Deal-Breaker?
When it comes to trying to figure out what your therapist thinks of you, it's important to remember these two facts:
Countertransference, whether negative or not, is not necessarily a deal-breaker.
I Still Think They Hate Me. What Do I Do?
In therapy, it’s always best to communicate openly and honestly. It’s always best to ask questions directly of your therapist - even though it may feel uncomfortable. I have had patients ask me if I like them or find them annoying. I have had patients tell me they find ME annoying. All that is fine, it gives fertile ground to work through important relational issues that the patient may have. Does a person have an unhelpful desire to be liked that is playing out in therapy? Good to see that and process it. Does a person’s therapist have a trait that reminds them of someone they hate? Good to know and work on that, too.
But if you’re worried your therapist doesn’t like you, (or has an unhealthy attraction to you) I’d definitely bring that up. The skillful therapist will know how to explore those concerns in an ethical manner. They may not share this with you, but they will likely go and reflect on whether they do have countertransference that is interrupting the work. Sometimes a therapist will refer you to someone else because of this issue. But don’t be afraid of that happening! It’s better to work with someone else than be subject to a person's unchecked emotional reactions to you.
Remember, your therapist is not a "paid friend" or a person you pay to listen to your problems. Your therapist is the witness and gentle guide to you discovering, understanding and mastering yourself. And THAT is all that matters.
Under Construction: What to Expect When You're In Counseling