Are you worried that you're becoming dependent on your therapist . . . or frustrated cause your therapist never gives you advice? Yeah, therapy sucks sometimes.
"Therapy makes me dependent on my therapist."
Worried you're too dependent on your therapist?
You've probably caught this scene from a movie. The character is usually female and she's typically high and mighty...enjoying her status seeing a therapist:
“Oh, my therapist thinks I should…”
“I'm not sure, I will have to ask my therapist”
You get the sense that she feels incapable of making decisions on her own. Any onlooker might get the impression that therapy creates dependency that wasn't there before.
Of course, if your therapist is telling you what to do, s/he is not doing you a favour. A good therapist will help you explore your feelings on the subject encouraging you to take responsibility for your own decisions.
But let's say your therapist isn't telling you what to do, nonetheless, you end up feeling dependent on your therapist. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this.
Let me explain.
At some level you are likely aware that this dependence was showing up in your life in any case and no doubt causing problems.
Make your dependency work for you
One of the best ways of changing a pattern of dependency (any pattern actually) is to experience it. That is, you generate the conditions for change by feeling the pattern in the moment and bringing awareness to it.
You see, as you experience it, you are lighting up the neuropathways associated with the dependency. In effect, you are triggering those same neuropathways in the brain.
In doing so, you provide an opportunity for those pathways to find new connections.
A skilled therapist knows how to work with your feelings of dependency so you can learn to move beyond them. In the safety of the therapeutic relationship you develop the capacity to manage the feelings on your own.
Another way of saying this is that as you learn to manage these feelings new pathways develop to enable you to have different feelings and responses.
Depending on how much unresolved emotional material is in your nervous system it may take a greater or lesser amount of time.
This is how therapy creates embodied change.
This also explains why you cannot just tell yourself to be ‘independent’. For one thing your emotional brain rarely takes direct orders from your intentional self!
Too much independence?
Be wary of too much independence. Our strength as human beings resides in our connection to each other. Extreme independence could just be another cover for unmet dependency needs.
Therapy aims for a sense of balanced interdependence.
When counseling isn't working in your favor...
If your therapist has not sufficiently resolved an issue for herself and one that you're wrestling with (e.g. grief over the loss of a child; adoption issues), she may inadvertently create a dependency in you.
You see, if the hurt she feels is bigger than yours, how will she be able to help you surmount those feelings?
Can she provide the type of containment you need to work through your feelings?
This dynamic speaks volume about the need for a therapist to have done their own work or, at least on the issue you're working on. It also suggests the need to be very picky about the therapist you're choosing to work with.
Avoid quick solutions from your therapist
I have been caught on more than one occasion with providing a quick solution to clients' remarks:
"What do you think I should do?"
The desire to help is a pretty human trait and I'm not immune to wanting to a supply a handy solution.
It's these types of situations that could easily lend themselves to creating dependency in my clients. Upon reflection however, I often regret it when I do deliver a quick solution.
The more powerful response is for me to say:
"What do you think you could do?"
"What feels right for you?"
That way I encourage my client to trust his or her own instincts on the matter.
In this way, I'm helping them to learn to tolerate their own level of frustration and to build self-esteem because in the end, it's often the implicit imprinting that requires change, not one's thoughts on the matter.
the problems were me and within me
Why did I let 35 years pass between leaving therapy the first time, and eventually, though not wanting to, returning? A bad experience the first time for one thing, coupled with a horrible feeling of being so dependent on my therapist that I had lost myself, and despite leaving suddenly I felt I could no longer manage anything anymore! Myself, really.
Fast forward 30 years. Repeatedly telling my doctor (MD) that I felt, and actually was very depressed I also repeatedly refused to do as he suggested and go into therapy. I felt I didn't want my mind 'played around with' again. I didn't want to possibly or probably become dependent, I didn't want to have to tell any new person the ins and outs of my childhood. No, not again, not ever ever ever! I plain didn't want to go back there, nor anywhere near therapy and therapists!!
And...my friends would think 'Oh, so she is nuts, I/we have always thought so'!! And they would discuss me. I also believed there was a huge stigma attached to admitting you went to see a shrink. You were weak. Indulgent. And of course nuts. Crazy.
Eventually, to be 'a good girl' and to please my doctor (I mean for goodness sake) I agreed. OK, so I was as tight as a clam with this poor therapist, very nice though she was. I couldn't talk. Wouldn't talk. Felt ashamed I was seeing her. Felt desperately ashamed of my history. Tried to keep it a secret from her 🙂 Ohhhhh, and then transference blew me sideways and away and didn't help one bit, (or so I thought), so after a while I literally ran away for her, therapy, the whole caboodle!
But, and here's an interesting to me anyway but..........6 weeks later I realised I needed to be in therapy, to stay in therapy, maybe even for the long haul. Therapy wasn't so bad in fact, and I knew it had actually helped. I was the problem, and the problems were me and within me. I didn't care what anyone thought. I just knew I had made huge strides without even knowing it.
So with no hassling from my doctor I found another therapist. I smile to myself when I can see/feel people thinking "Well really, what on earth is she wasting her money for'. I know I am far from wasting it! Yes, there seems to still be a bit of stigma attached to being in therapy. I don't particularly like it when I come across it, but tough.
Fortunately therapy is much more acceptable now, and for those who have a problem with it...well, OK then! I no longer really care. I know I am being helped. Very much so. Then there is this website, which is a huge help too, and I really enjoy spending time here (and learning), so thank you.
Great story Karo!
Hi Susan, Regards my earlier message - thank you for pointing out the excellent article on Dependency in the Treatment of Complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder & Dissociative Disorders by Kathy Steele, M.N., C.S. Onno van der Hart, Ph.D. Ellert R.S. Nijenhuis, Ph.D.
As you said, I certainly found that not being a therapist there was a need for a good deal of concentration and dedication - or perhaps even desperation 🙂 to read it, but it was fascinating and I went back to it a couple of times.
My goodness, you therapists have to know and understand an enormous amount of very complicated 'stuff', and so thank you to all of you out there...wherever you might be!
I find myself feeling VERY dependent
I feel as though my life is in tatters. I am in therapy and to my horror not only do I find myself feeling VERY dependent on my therapist, but there is a frightening...well to me anyway...transference (Ha! Did I know anything about transference?!), so this transference thing is going on, which literally sneaked up on me, and then suddenly I am hooked! Every thing in me yells “No” at these two things.
For so long now I have fought being dependent on anyone, and I can't help but feel the transference thing has something to do with it. Dependency/Transference is a bit like "Egg, chicken? Or chicken and then egg"? Which one first? I could astound Science and say I now have the answer – A consideration could be "At exactly the same time!" I was the only child in the family.
My father abused me physically and sexually and when that stopped he moved onto verbal abuse. My mother was a lovely woman who I adored, idolised, and I protected her (from him) as best I could, but it was as though she was not interested in what was happening to me, and was a very inconsistent person. She was moody, changing from moment to moment. I just did my best to try and make sure she stayed loving me which I believe she did, and so I didn't upset or anger her if I could help it. I therefore had no one to depend on, and so I just I kept myself as safe as I possibly could, and ‘floated up onto the ceiling’ during the times of physical and sexual abuse.
Or, in my mind 'drifted off' to a place which was much better, calmer, and less frightening. And I often still go there to this day. So OK, I know why I have such a horror of Dependency on anyone. Transference? If Transference hooks you in (and I could swear it sure does EXACTLY that) it then somehow hooks in and keeps in place the Dependency too. If my therapist is the mother I have always wanted, and I find myself relating to her at times as though she was and is and who I wish could have been, almost, then I understand why I think how wonderful it would be to be able to depend on her like other children did with their real mothers back then. I don’t know if I am making much sense here!!
Anyway, it is then, I guess, I understand what has happened to me, and I certainly don’t like how vulnerable it now has me feeling. Not one bit do I like it! Now I know I should just let go, go with the flow, be in the present, do all of what you have written, trust my therapist (I would say I do absolutely), experience in the present, in the safety of being with her things that happened in my past – however, I am so frightened of doing this because of panic attacks and flash backs and etc. But, and here is the huge but, I can't. What makes great sense to my thinking brain(?) just won’t and can’t seem to happen in actuality. I am like a horse facing an impossibly high wall which I know I have to jump, I know I want to jump (well, OK, I want to have jumped), and so be in a “Good, done that" position, but…… I can't. Yet I know it's possible - within its impossibility for me.
So what do I do please please help me. I can't undo the Dependency. I can't undo the Transference, because I have tried and also because I can't do what I know is required of me to do. Oh, and I can't run away from my therapist either. I have tried that one too, but the problems not only stay glued onto me, but somehow became worse. I miss my 'mother' so much, and, I am so dependent on her that I constantly think that even if I could just sit with her (I know she wont, and shouldn't advise me) but even if I could sit with her I would feel less tormented. Safer. Less frantic.
And then I hate myself for being so dependent. Or anyone. When I just had myself to rely on it felt as though my life was somehow so much safer. Maybe I value "safe" too highly?
So, what can I do, if I can’t do what I need to do? Why can’t I do it…I believe the “why can’t I do it” is more important to me than the “what can I do” bit of the question. Help help help!
Thank you for a really marvellous website. I am thrilled to have been told about it and I’m learning so much, but with so much I have yet to find, read, enjoy and learn. Lara
I have become emotionally dependent on my therapist
Thank you for this writing (and your wonderful website!) This is exactly the issue I'm facing (along with transference). I have always been very independent - very scared of any dependence. I have become emotionally dependent on my therapist, add to that transference issues, due to severe emotional abuse, and I can barely stand it.
I've been seriously thinking about ending the therapy or taking a break to stop the dependence and the associated pain. Everything seems like such a huge muddle, but I think I have to talk about this, even though it scares me tremendously. This wasn't supposed to happen. I was supposed to deal with my issues and get on with things.
Thank you for giving me a little insight and clarity about all this.
Anne (Grandview, US)
Your welcome, Anne. Yeah, it is defintely scary...but that also means you're onto something. And, with a therapist that you feel safe with the potential for real change is there.
All the best in your journey,
I began to move through it
Not sure how I missed this before, but this is dead on! I really struggled against the dependency forming because basically I HATE feeling dependent, but once I understood it and stopped fighting it, I began to move through it. Slow going, painfully slow sometimes, but it is getting better.
I really do trust now that I'll come out the other side better able to care for myself AND get what I need from my relationships from others in a healthy way. You really need to write a book!
Thanks Attachment Girl.
It also helps to bring her chocolate!
you are very funny (rolls eyes)
"My therapist never gives me advice"
Coming to your own conclusion on any decision you make has far more long-term benefits than the short-term relief you might feel from letting your therapist advise you what to do. As hard as that is to take in during a crisis, remember no one is living your life except you.
- Client to Therapist: "You know me better than anyone - do you think I should leave this guy?"
- Client to Therapist: "I can't stomach my job anymore. What should I do?"
- Client to Therapist: "Now that you've heard all my pros and cons what would you do in this situation?"
Ask yourself what use is it to be given a solution on a platter if the next time you are in the same position you're unable to make a decision because you didn't develop the capacity to do so?
If you reflect on some of the important decisions you've made in your life you'll recognize that the ones you made on your own are the ones that you carry with you. These are the ones that have the potential to make you feel good about yourself. You own them.
Even bad decisions carry the same potential for learning. We've all made bad decisions. And we don't easily forget a bad decision because we've learned the hard way (It's called "one-trial learning" in psychology). However, if you felt influenced by someone else in making that decision there is a good chance you're not reaping the rewards of this hard won lesson.
That is, in your mind you have shifted the blame to someone else. Like it or not, you'll probably find yourself down that road again!
We tend to lie to ourselves
We are very prone to blaming others, blaming events for our circumstances in life. The brain is structured to protect our perception of events so it can maintain a strong consolidated self.
In other words, we will unknowingly rationalize, confabulate, or attribute fault or reasons to other than ourselves. Lots of research in cognitive labs illustrate that we tend to do this.
We will interpret events so as not to threaten our core self. This may not necessarily be the way you intend it to occur but that's the way our brain is biased to work.
Therapy is about learning how we are responsible for our life. And with that learning comes greater self-esteem. Unless you are able to get to a place where you can take full responsibility for your decision you won't hold the lesson in your mind in the same way than if you made the decision yourself.
A good therapist is aware of his or her potential for influencing a client. S/he also knows that a therapist cannot know the best answer because ultimately s/he can never know your life as you know it. A good therapist will empower you to find the answers within yourself, so you can profit from this experience.
Good therapy builds the capacity for making our own decisions
Either way you must be in the moment to develop the capacity to solve your problems differently next time.
And that's what a good therapist offers. A good therapist creates a safe place from which to experience certain emotions so you can learn how to move through them or label them enabling you to make decisions from a more integrated place.
I liked the way Virginia F. Conway a family therapist in Atlanta, GA explained it: "People know what they need, what is happening to them. They may not know that they know, but they know. Once they can stand to be with themselves, this knowledge can be counted on to guide them."
The Networker Magazine, May/June 1989, pg 27.
Learn to make your own decisions
If you are struggling with this notion as I find clients new to therapy do, you might want to reflect on your personal relationships. For example, do you find yourself doing the same thing, trying to pull in your friends so they can give you an "answer" that ultimately should be yours?
Be aware that when you do this, the energy required to make the decision gets split off into your interactions with others. That is, your head will be so filled with the ideas and opinions of others you will have a hard time feeling your own.
Look to your therapist to point out what you should consider in making your decision. Then weigh your feelings against practicalities. Then on, any decision you've finally made a therapist can help you sort out your feelings on so you can learn best from the experience.
Speaking as a Therapist:
Like a lot of other therapists what drew me to the field is the opportunity to help people through their pain. One of my hardest lessons--and to be honest one I am still learning--is knowing the best way to be there for my clients.
I have heard of therapists who like to be the "expert" and enjoy people seeking them out for the quick and simple answer. I can almost understand it. It's not easy to watch a client in pain struggling to find his or her own answers.
In fact, it seems counterintuitive not to tell them what to do when I have a pretty good idea that my suggestion would help them feel better. I also know they would likely feel grateful.
So what's wrong with this option?
Giving advice doesn't change the brain--and, if the brain doesn't change you won't be able to shift how you feel. In order to improve your ability to manage your pain you must experience some of it and as you do so neuropathways in your brain will be altered (e.g. given the right conditions with your therapist are present).
So you see, the harder--and to me the only--option is to tolerate my client's pain and avoid the trap of immediately rescuing them from their distress. I do this purposely because it is only through our relationship and my capacity to self regulate that my client can learn to do so on their own. You can't just think your way there.
Furthermore, getting advice compromises what's important to the nature of the relationship. Therapy is about right brain connection not left brain question and answer.
jermaine (UTAH, AMERICA)
Very helpful thank you.
I'm really helped by your tips
I'm so much grateful that you're such a wonderful person helping others. I'm really helped by your tips.
I want to become a therapist/counselor in my home, Liberia. This is also like a guide for those learning to become therapist. There are no therapist in Liberia or you could only be lucky to find a few.
How do you think I can become one the best therapist in my country, Liberia? I would highly appreciate where you to sent me many lessons and experiences in therapist/counseling. I feel the sense of filling in the gap. I am bless with what you've written on this page. I would appreciate you being my personal best friend.
James (Monrovia, Liberia)
Now at last do I understand.
Now I understand something at last, and oh thank you for this. I swing between getting ready to throw the towel in regards my therapy, and feeling that "Enough is (more than) enough" because, amongst other things I get so frustrated.
My therapist says nothing (almost) and I don't know whether I am coming or going....apart from going crazy! So I swing. Incredible frustration, and such confusion! I ask myself shall I leave? Shall I stay a while longer? Can I even bear it?
Then I read your article on Dependency, and you wrote, ".....In this way, I'm helping them to learn to tolerate their own level of frustration and to build self-esteem because in the end, it's often the implicit imprinting that requires change, not one's thoughts on the matter".
Now at last do I understand. I need to tolerate my own level of frustration and etc. Yes! and Aha! and above all
"My therapist looks groggy. I sometimes think she's going to fall asleep."
Well that's because you're boring!
No, just kidding!
But that's what many potential clients fear.
Let's set aside the odds that your therapist's sleepiness is from fatigue, poor nighttime sleep or health related issues. Certainly any of these ideas might explain the sleepiness but let me share with you a more intriguing possibility.
You may be causing your therapist to become sleepy!
No it's not because you're uninspiring, it's because your nervous system is dissociative.
Few people know that each person has an energetic impact on another. Ever start yawning and then everyone around you starts as well? Or maybe you've been around someone who's really wired? You can't stay in eye contact with them. Their energy is draining your energy.
No mystery here. We wired to sense other people's energy but we've gotten so distracted by modern living we rarely notice it. We affect each other in ways that are mostly outside our awareness.
So when your therapist looks sleepy it's very possible your dissociative energy is maxing out your therapist's capacity to stay grounded in interaction with you.
Use sleepiness to your advantage
I’m careful to make sure I’m rested before seeing my clients the next day but anything can happen. Yes, there might be times when for some reason I don't sleep well, I’m human it may happen and I will own it.
I actually run into this sleepiness in my sessions all the time and I know I’m not sleep deprived. Sometimes it shows up right at the beginning of the session and I know my client is “full”; other times the session is going fine and we’re talking about something and suddenly I can feel my eyes getting pressured and blurry. That’s my cue to check in with my client - sure enough, they notice a heightened charge or a sudden flatness and 'murky head' feeling.
It’s enormously useful. I’m picking up my clients’ energy. Whatever topic we're chatting about is triggering and it’s too much for their nervous system to tolerate so naturally they become flooded.
I have tools to help my clients come out if it and become clear headed again (most of the times). As they do so, I feel the relief in eyes and body as well. So it’s a gauge I’ve been using for years.
The nervous system of the people you hang around are having an impact on you for good or ill. If you practice as an attuened therapist - and your nervous system is working well - you’re already picking these things up.
Yawning as a symptom.
Hi Suzanne, I appreciate this post for myself and for others I meet. I have noticed yawning or wanting to doze on a few occasions with specific people, and came to recognize there was avoidance or resistance (holding secrets, often) on the clients' (young clients who were processing abuse) part when I was feeling like yawning/dozing.
When working in the jail and prison environment, I noticed extensive yawning, including those shuddering yawns you mention, on the part of clients who were processing tension. I took it as a cue to slow the process down a bit, which seemed useful.
I think it is important to note that with these high stress populations, substance abuse is often a complicit factor. Do you think dissociation is a factor in both holding in and letting go?
I want to add that repetitive yawning can also be associated with certain medication, toxins, and substance use/abuse (such as opiates and benzodiazepines).
I have had several yawning clients who were using/relapsing/withdrawing. And we have all known of a therapist or two who abuses substances and/or relationships - they are flawed humans, like all of us. It is not easy to make progress in therapy, and a disengaged, yawning therapist does have some explaining to do.
My therapist modeled great strength through humbleness in being transparent, thoughtful and non-defensive in discussing my concerns; I have been better able to take that skill to my own life and work.
Hi Beth, oh that's so interesting how you picked up on the yawning. Yes, it's a good clue for what's going on - and slowing down would be exactly what I would do also.
Yes, I would agree about addctions. They're often rooted in the individual's need to regulate the nervous system i.e. to regulate the high emotional charge in the body. And it's easy to see how they get hooked. At first use, they feel "normal", what they perceive others must feel. Unfortunately, the drug or alcholol has long-term, addictive side effects.
In answer to your question about dissociation...I'd say that the propensity to constrict or hold in and/or the difficulty in letting go is associated with dissociation. It's not always present though...at least, that I'm aware of noticing it. I guess it would depend on how much constriction is going on.
As you may know, we'll constrict in the face of overwhelm and trauma. If the challenge is too severe or prolonged, I believe dissociation comes online to numb us from the pain.
I think we could probably chat about this topic for hours. Anyway, thanks for your comment.
Other reasons for sleepy therapist?
something may not be fully congruent in your client, or perhaps in your therapist.
Sorry, but I too am a therapist, and RARELY have I closed an eye. If I am feeling like I am slipping away, I comment or ask what is going on. We all know about countertransference - you don't even mention it. And need I mention that therapists are people with issues of their own which sometimes intrude on treatment?
angelique (NYC, USA)
Whoa....there Angelica, that's quite a strong reaction...I wonder what's up?
If you notice, the article proposes a hypothesis...a possibility. And if look in the comments below the article you'll see I reference the countertransference...I just don't label it as such.
You see, the nervous system is quite predictable. What I have found is that if you understand how it operates, then psychological terms can sometimes diffuse more than they help. Why let fancy words interfere with one's understanding of a concept when merely describing what's going on suffices?
Maybe you were confused when I referenced the nervous system. You see, if a therapist is easily pulled into a dissociative pull it's implied that it's going to require therapy or tons of yoga (or something similar) to change this tendency - not more training. That's really the point.
And it's a theme throughout the site that therapists need to do their own work. I'm not skirting that issue at all. Nonetheless, I must admit that I have a completely different conception of what might entail working on "issues" than I imagine you do.
You see, I'm not blaming anyone here. Dissociation is a common among many people, clients and therapists.
I also admit to being pulled into the dissociative pull of my clients. I can't imagine giving up my work as a therapist for several years until my nervous system has sufficient resiliency to avoid the dissociative pull from every client that walks in my door. I don't think that's necessary.
My therapist didn't know how to help me
This isn't the client's problem! It is up to the therapist to be trained in what they are doing. It's up to the therapist to have coping skills to deal with the side effects of their profession. Otherwise DON'T take on dissociative clients.
I'm sick of incompetent therapists who sit around and nod and charge money. This hasn't gotten to the "surface of the phenomemon" as the previous poster has suggested. This is just another excuse to mask the fact that most therapists don't know much about what they're doing and the majority of the profession is filled with complete idiots.
Sorry for the strong opinion but I've seen over 15 therapists over last 10 years - and they ALL had no idea what I was going thru.
Hello Sunita, thanks for your message and your frankness. I'm sorry you've had such bad experiences with therapists. Many people don't realize how hard it is to find a good therapist. They're not all alike that's for sure. One of my intentions in creating this site was to help folks distinguish between therapy that's good and, not so good.
I can certainly resonate with you that therapists need to be more active with their clients. Therapy is a collaborative effort and requires two fully engaged participants.
However, I also wonder if you might be speaking of DID (i.e. Dissociative Identity Disorder)? I can certainly believe that there are many therapists who are not familiar with DID. There certainly needs to be more therapists trained in this area.
The article I wrote was referring to the every day phenomenon of dissociation that 80% of the population suffers from at one time or another. A client who suffers from DID does not necessarily present with dissociation in the form I was speaking about.
I'm pretty sure a therapist's "sleepy" reaction to dissocation has nothing to do with their training. (This discussion is aside from the obvious lack of sleep on the therapist's part). No amount of professional training could stop someone from being pulled into a strong dissociative pull. The therapist's somatic reaction has to do with how regulated the therapist's nervous system is i.e. how resilient it is. And resiliency is a characteristic that relates to the therapist's history.
I could use myself as an example. I've had training up the wazoo and I still get caught off guard with the dissociative pull of my clients. Most clients that I see are dissociative to some degree. When I notice it in myself - a sorta starry-eyed moment - it has often proved very useful as a point of discussion.
It's probably true that if my nervous system was better regulated, I might not be impacted so much. That said, I'm certainly much better today than I was even five years ago. It was my own personal therapy that helped regulate my nervous system - none of my professional training could help with that.
Speaking as a psychotherapist, totally true!
Totally true! Speaking as a psychotherapist, I can say that I've learned to recognize my sleepy feelings in session as an indicator that something's not fully congruent in my client.
Trust me, nothing keeps me awake and energized MORE than a therapeutic session. I love what I do, so it's so incredible when my client is talking and I feel waves of tiredness coming on. Thanks for getting under the surface of this phenomenon, Suzanne!
"Why go to therapy? I'd rather change the world to make it a better place."
I definitely support those folks who are intent on making changes in this world. However, new ideas on the forefront of change are often discredited. If your emotion is strong and passionate you will be noticed, and it can be an advantage to your goals.
On the other hand, if your emotion appears to be driven by ‘unresolved issues’ it tends to be more easily discredited. I'm not saying this is how it should be, but this is what I have observed.
The kind of emotion that tends to be instinctively distrusted is less contained but not necessarily less forceful. Individuals exhibiting this kind of emotion come across as less predictable, and their ideas less believable.
Human beings pick up on instability whether we are consciously aware of it or not and I believe it tends to influence our views even if what is being said is credible. That may not seem fair but that's the way it seems to be.
So get started on your therapy and let your passions drive you!
What would you say?
I always find it interesting to hear why people won’t go to therapy (even though they openly acknowledge having problems that are easily treatable).
Maybe you have a beef that we could include here? Drop me a line!
Love your website
Love your website
Gabrielle (somerset, United Kingdom)