Most therapeutic relationships start with what psychotherapists call the ‘positive transference’ between client and therapist. This is where the client projects their positive feelings on to the therapist based on their experience of a “good object’ from previous significant relationships. When this happens, the therapist is somewhat idealised and can do little wrong. It’s a natural part of the process, and it helps establish a solid alliance between the client and therapist.

This is the ‘falling in love’ period and interestingly, parallels most relationships when couples first meet and when the relationship ‘feels’ perfect. There’s a feeling that you’ve met the ‘right’ person who truly understands you and will make your life better. It’s a comfortable period between client and therapist, but it doesn’t last long. 

Therapists make mistakes, and when this happens, the dynamics in the relationship start to shift. Clients can feel unheard and misunderstood, which can make them feel unsafe with their therapist. This is when some clients withdraw and stop the therapy. It can happen suddenly and abruptly without the therapist having a chance to work through the issue with them, which is truly a missed opportunity. 

So, whether the mistake is overt or more subtle, it is important to register the feelings, name them and communicate this with your therapist. Clients often feel unable to express their more negative feelings, even in therapy. This might be due to clients being adverse to conflict or wanting their therapist to like them. But whatever the reason, this is when the therapist needs to create a ‘safe space’ for the client and encourage them to help express their difficult feelings. 

Some time ago, I was horrified to realise that I’d made a terrible mistake with a new client. I booked him in while I was away on holiday. I was clearly too relaxed because I forgot to put the session down in my work diary when I got home. Consequently, I wasn’t there for the initial appointment. Thankfully, the client was able to express his anger and disappointment over the phone, and I was able to own my mistake. I apologised and offered him a complimentary session in the hope of getting us back on track. It was to the credit of the client that he was willing and able to express himself rather than shut down and vanish. Consequentially, this unfortunate start to the therapy went on to create an open and productive working relationship between the two of us.

The more subtle mistakes happen when a therapist misunderstands or misinterprets material. This is when there is an opportunity to understand what just happened. When a client can allow themselves to feel upset and angry with their therapist, the opportunity to name their grievance provides a platform for them to think about other difficult issues that might come up in the future. This is also at the core of the therapeutic work between client and therapist and when clients have the chance to experience a reparative exchange.

Therapy is truly a microcosm of our outside relationships; a perfect testing ground for clients to work through the difficult issues that come up in other areas of their lives. When clients allow themselves to feel what they feel, challenge their therapist and work through the issues; it gives them tools, resources and resilience outside of the consulting room. 

Shirlee Kay