How Do You Really Feel? Expressing Disappointment in Therapy

Person with long hair sits on stairs outside old wooden door, looking up with disappointed expressionPeople seek out therapy for any number of reasons: anger management, trauma, relationship issues, or anxiety, just to name a few. But whatever the issue or concern bringing a person to therapy, when they are able to express a full range of feelings they have the potential to achieve even deeper healing.

When I talk about feelings here, I’m not just referring to the person’s feelings about their own experience, especially because some people may hold off on that for a while, wanting to fully trust their therapist before they share that. I’m talking about a person’s feelings toward their therapist and the therapy experience.

It’s my opinion that many people who go to therapy are just too … nice. By “too nice,” I mean they aren’t open with the therapist about negative feelings, such as disappointment, they might develop toward the therapist. They don’t, for whatever reason or reasons, speak up and let their therapist know what they really think and feel about them. But feeling open enough to express your disappointment about your therapist to your therapist could really help your therapy shift.

Are You Protecting Your Therapist From Yourself?

Sure, I’ve got some skin in the game when I’m working with people, and I’m likely to be affected by how they express themselves to me and what they say about me. But being able to manage the transference of people expressing all kinds of negative and positive feelings is all part of a therapist’s training. And I continue to do my own work, outside of the time I spend with the people I’m working with,  as part of my ongoing upkeep. I work to know myself as well as I can because the feelings I have in response to your feelings inform how I support you. (If you’re interested, this is called countertransference.)

In other words, in order to be fully present and helpful in the therapy room, my personal work involves sorting out

  1. My feelings
  2. Your feelings
  3. My knowledge of systems
  4. Life cycle issues
  5. How people change

Part of my job is being fully present with you, and I want you to also be fully present with me. In order to be fully present with me, you will first have to be fully present with yourself and then share that presence with me. I encourage you to share those thoughts and those feelings you are having, even—especially—those feelings you may be editing out for my benefit.

A New Office

When I moved into my new office, I was excited. I got to buy all my own furniture, wall art, etc.—I got to make the space mine, instead of having to remake the space every time I came in for my day, like I had to do when renting from someone else.

Of course, one consideration with designing my own space was realizing that not everyone who came into my space (such as people coming to therapy) would feel the way I did about it. Some of them didn’t like my lamp, others had issues with my bookcase, and some even disliked the pillows I chose.

There were also some things about the office that weren’t in my control. For example, it wasn’t on the top floor of a building in the financial district, and it didn’t have a gorgeous view. In fact, it was windowless and had a rickety elevator.

Some of the people I worked with expressed their disagreement with the style choices for my office and even the location. They told me my choice in furniture was off, that they resented that my space wasn’t, well, different than it was.

My inner responses?

  • First, I was angry and annoyed. “This is my space!”
  • Second,  I felt like I had screwed up. “I have a horrible office. I have no taste. I shouldn’t have gotten this chair.”
  • Third, I realized,“I’m so glad they’re sharing this with me.”

Now while my job is to get to that third response, I need to go through the first two responses to get there. The third response, of course, is the one I would share with the people I work with.

Part of my job is being fully present with you, and I want you to also be fully present with me. In order to be fully present with me, you will first have to be fully present with yourself and then share that presence with me. I encourage you to share those thoughts and those feelings you are having, even—especially—those feelings you may be editing out for my benefit.

The first two responses are what most of us deal with in our daily lives. They’re what tend to lead to friends and family members having arguments: “How dare you say that? Couldn’t you have said it in a nicer way?” But the third response isn’t always gotten to in life, even though it’s an important layer.

I’m not just glad you share your feelings with me for masochistic reasons. I’m not even glad because venting is good for the soul. I’m glad when you share because then we get to unpack the response and see how it lets us know more about you.

Maybe you feel you don’t deserve a therapist with a beautiful office. Sure, the initial response is to put my space down, but then this unlocks the door to talk about your sense that you never get top-shelf treatment in life. This may correspond with how you were treated as a child. Where else might you be bringing this resentment? And if I can hear your disappointment, if I can withstand it without striking back, maybe you’ll come closer to it not having such a strong emotional hold on you.

Or maybe you need to find fault because you’re disappointed you’re not making as much progress as you feel you should be making. Putting down my space allows you to, less directly, put down my work with you. In a way, you may be indirectly expressing anger that you’re still dealing with depression or anxiety. And once you express these emotions and feelings, we can, together, decide to go deeper into them.

If I can get to my third response above, then I can push for this conversation. I can assist you with a more direct expression of your feelings. And your disappointment can be just the tool you need to move forward and unblock your therapy.

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Justin Lioi, LCSW, therapist in Brooklyn, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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