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Time To Get Mad At Your Therapist

Image of a referee holding a red card and blowing a whistle. Newton Psychologist Abby Blackburn Talks About Getting Mad At Your Therapist

A client got mad at me the other day. Really mad. Not irritated or frustrated, but mad. The kind of mad where tone changes, sometimes tears fall and it’s hard to get the words out.

I had said something that hurt his feelings. In the course of discussing a recent issue, I had neglected to point out things that were positive and showed progress on the client's part. It came across as dismissive. Having completed what I thought to be a decent interpretation, I watched as his eyes welled up and he fell silent.

I didn’t do it on purpose, of course, but it hurt all the same.

We do that you know, us shrinks. We make mistakes all the time. Not just in our interpretations, but in our mannerisms, timing and language. We disappoint in all kinds of ways, including ones that one could argue are a natural and necessary part of doing therapy – like ending a session, going on vacation or getting sick and not being able to come in.

But how often are clients able to let their therapists know they have been hurt by them? Not a lot. Sure, it’s easy enough to come into a session and talk about how other people let me down, but tell my shrink when she does that? Never happens.

People worry about being mad at their therapists for all kinds of reasons, including the fact they think it’s not rational, necessary or even real. There is also the problem of being angry with someone you care about and who cares about you!

Folks often recreate with their shrinks the kinds of dynamics around anger that they learned at home – namely “if you don’t talk about it, nothing will get broken.” In other words, if I acknowledge I am mad, our relationship will end and everything falls apart. Better to be quiet and think I am being unreasonable than tell the truth.

That notion rests on the idea that real relationships are fragile , weak and they cannot sustain the stress of people getting mad at each other or God forbid, letting each other down.

I believe the opposite to be true. Authentic relationships can and do sustain disappointment. In fact, it is a good idea to always remind ourselves that the question we should ask about our connections to others isn’t “Is this person going to disappoint me/will I disappoint this other person?” but “Can we have a dialogue about it when it happens?”

A funny thing occurs when we make room for real connection. We get closer. Despite our hurt and anger...we get closer.

Real intimacy is messy, not clean.

Real intimacy also helps decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety that are connected to relational interactions.

So what did I do in the session you might ask? I encouraged him to talk at length, in detail, about how I screwed up. I gave his feelings room to breathe, considered them, learned from them and vowed to pay more attention to how I make interpretations.

And we celebrated that day towards being just a little bit more real and a little bit closer, with the understanding that if he can do this with me – get mad and talk it out – maybe he can do this with other people too.

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