Family Services of the North Shore is committed to providing the community with a variety of free resources and information.  Read our current issue or archives of On the Couch, or take advantage of the many educational resources FSNS has to offer. 

Questions? Write onthecouch@familyservices.bc.ca or call 604-988-5281.

Question: I have been in therapy for about 6 months and over the last few weeks my therapist has been bringing a Starbucks Latte into session and sipping it while we talk. I realize that this shouldn’t bother me, but it does. I feel like she should spend her time focused on me and not having a relaxing time drinking her coffee. She has really helped me a lot and I want to keep seeing her but is it normal for therapists to be this casual in their work?

Answer: I don’t want to frustrate you by saying this, but I don’t think your question is really about whether your therapist is casual or not. I think it is quite a bit deeper than that, and one that deserves to be discussed directly with your therapist. If she is a solid therapist, she will be able to explore what you are feeling and what her bringing Starbucks into session means to you. She will also help you explore how these feelings you are having towards her possibly relate to any of the original reasons you came in to counselling. Let me give an example to further explain what I am talking about.

Many years ago I saw a client, let’s call her Kim, who came to therapy to deal with a great deal of shame and a feeling that she was “bad.” Kim had grown up in a large family with 5 siblings, a mother who was emotionally distant, and a father who she felt was very conditional in his love for her (she felt his love only when she did well in school, etc.) We had seen each other for about 9 months when I strained my back (she did not know this had happened), and I began to noticeably shift in my chair to stay comfortable during sessions.

While I did not yet know what was happening for Kim, over the next few weeks I did notice that she seemed distant from me, a little angry, and that the content of our sessions had gone to a more surface level. I waited for a few sessions to see what would unfold, but then finally decided to ask her directly about what I was noticing with her, and between us. She trusted me enough to tell me that she felt that I was bored with her and maybe even a little impatient, and that my shifting in my chair was how I was communicating this to her.

Kim’s experience of me was mirroring her experience in her childhood. When I began shifting in my chair, she began to unconsciously experience me as she had her mother and father (distant and judgmental) when she was a child and living with them. The fact that I had “power” in our sessions (she needed my help, came to my office, and paid me)heightened the parallel experience and caused her to withdraw (content of sessions lightened) and express her anger indirectly (she never told me she was angry but I felt it). In order to keep me as a “good parent”, she unconsciously reframed her experience of me during that time as me being “bored or a little impatient”, instead of me judging, withdrawing, and failing her.

I could have gone into a lengthy explanation about my back, but I knew that what was important in our work was that she be able to consciously experience her feelings of anger directly with me, explore what all this meant in the larger context of her life, and understand with her how these early experiences had led to her feelings of shame and being “bad.” We spent the next few sessions really looking closely at how when her father was judgmental and her mother was emotionally absent that she had no choice but to blame herself and feel that there is something wrong with her (shame). In counselling we call this accommodating, which simply means how we as children choose to make ourselves the “bad” one, so that in our minds our parents can stay “good.” Kim was also accommodating with me, keeping me “good” and her “bad”, because she framed the issues (if I turn it around a bit), that she was “boring” and not getting “better” fast enough (she thought I was impatient with her).

I have gone into great detail about my work with Kim in order to illustrate an unconscious process in therapy and how it can be resolved and worked through. I am purposely not hypothesizing what might be occurring between you and your therapist because it is important that you discover that together. And even though I have chosen to direct this response to your question on a client’s unconscious processes in therapy, I do believe that it is the responsibility of a therapist to self-reflect and be honest when a client picks up on something she does not know, or is not conscious of, in sessions. If your therapist is being too casual with you (maybe she unconsciously needs to keep the sessions lighter for her own personal reasons), it is her responsibility to own what she is doing and discuss it with you. If a therapist is confident enough in her work to do this, then it allows the client to know that their “radar” is accurate and that what they perceive is true. It is the safe processing all of these aspects of the client/therapist relationship, and its larger meaning, that can make therapy such an incredible experience.