Dumb Things Therapists Have Said To Me

At 18, I left my childhood home and moved away to college.

I quickly had a breakdown.

I began feeling inexplicable despair, guilt, and other yet-to-be-named feelings best described by rapper Rich Homie Quan as “some type of way.” (Later, I would learn this is a common time for a post-adolescent developmental crisis to emerge.) I had never spoken to anyone about emotional pain, having grown up in a family that preferred silence and denial to any expression of inner experience.

But I was feeling bad enough that I was willing to seek help. Knowing nothing about therapy, I went to the college’s counseling center and made an appointment to meet with a therapist.

The following week, I nervously met with the older, male therapist they had assigned me. He asked why I was there, and I spoke about my issues for a few minutes before he interrupted to give me my diagnosis. “Well, it’s clear,” he told me authoritatively, “You’re a classic perfectionist. Why don’t you have an eating disorder?

I was shocked, horrified, and totally put off by his quick and insensitive (mis)diagnosis. He didn’t even listen to me! If he’d really understood anything about me in those five minutes, he would know that I didn’t want to be put in a box or given a generic assessment that predetermines how my suffering should show up.

I left his office and never returned for a second session with him.

Still desperate enough to risk additional disappointment, I made an appointment to see another therapist in the counseling center. They assigned me to a younger, female therapist, which I thought was a good sign: She will understand me.

In our first session, with all my intellectual defenses firmly in place, I guardedly started telling her about my struggles. She noticed that I talked about myself as being superior to other people. Part of the reason I came to therapy is because I was having trouble connecting with my peers, who I decided were not even as smart as me— but surely this reflected a deeper crisis of self-doubt related to class and status anxiety, being a garbage man’s daughter now among liberal arts students from decidedly more professional families. But she did not ask about my childhood, my family’s place in society, or my thoughts on how my personal mental health was interwoven with complex systems of oppression.

Instead, she gave me homework: Ask my friends if it made them feel bad that I thought I was smarter than them.

I’m not sure if she was suggesting a CBT-type experiment in reality testing, or hoping that a dose of empathy would break down my defenses, but at that point it was the second dumbest thing someone had said to me in therapy.

And it was only the second time I’d been to therapy.

Now, over a decade later, I have gotten (better) therapy, gone to graduate school, and become a therapist. I remember these examples because: a. It helps me to externalize the badness (“Those are the therapists who say dumb things, not me!”), and b. Learn what I could have done differently.

As a psychodynamic therapist, I subscribe to a theory of therapy that believes that how you show up in the world will be reflected in how you show up in therapy. For example, it’s no coincidence that the therapist noticed I thought of myself as being smarter than other people, and that I subsequently thought I was smarter than her! This was a deep-seated pattern I would repeat until I finally found a therapist I could tolerate long enough to stay in the therapy and talk about it.

Lessons I Learned:

The point of this is not to debase the entire field of psychotherapy, or claim that psychotherapists are dumb (although some of my experiences certainly belie this). But, rather, to help potential clients see that no matter how smart the therapist, she will eventually say something you think is dumb, or unhelpful, or misattuned. Eventually your therapist will disappoint you.

What do you do when that inevitably happens?

What you should do when your therapist says something dumb:

  1. Talk about it.

Don’t give up on therapy yet! The therapeutic process works by you telling your therapist everything that’s on your mind, including talking about the relationship itself. You should be able to tell your therapist that you’re frustrated with him, or that he’s disappointing you, or that his advice is, well, dumb. This kind of candor probably isn’t what you’re used to, but it’s part of what makes therapy such a powerful experience. Your relationship with your therapist is a relationship unlike any other. It can be transformative to stay in therapy with a disappointing therapist, as long as you talk about it.

2. See #1.

The golden rule of therapy is to speak freely and say whatever is on your mind, even when it’s difficult (and especially when it’s difficult).

3. Find a therapist who is a better fit.

If you’ve tried talking about it, and it’s still not working, maybe this isn’t the right therapist for you. While there are nearly a hundred different clinical orientations, broadly speaking, there are two major distinctions in the field of psychotherapy: psychodynamic vs. CBT. Psychodynamic therapists believe that the power of listening is what is most transformative in therapy. These therapists are the ones who find it most fruitful for you to talk about your frustrations with them. On the other side, CBT therapists believe what is most helpful is giving you clear tools and/or solutions to reduce your symptoms. They are generally less interested in processing the relationship between you, and would probably prefer to give you a worksheet with some flowcharts to fill out and a homework assignment to reality-test the rationality of your thoughts.

In short, yes, therapists do say dumb things. But what matters is how you make use of it. Sometimes the best way to discover how you relate to the world is by seeing a dumb therapist.