Want to Sabotage Psychotherapy?

DoodleThere are many ways to sabotage, blow up, completely ruin your psychotherapy before even giving it a chance to start properly. One of the best and most popular ways to do so is viewing your therapist (even before you’ve actually met him or her) as someone threatening you, threatening the status quo, threatening to destruct the core of your personality.

    In other words, you tend to see your therapist as someone to be afraid of. So consciously or subconsciously, you prepare for a therapy session as for a defensive fight:

Training For Psychotherapy

Last week, psychologist Ryan Howes wrote a nice satirical post at Psychology Today: Seven Mistakes Therapy Clients Make – How to sabotage your therapy. He suggested not just one, but seven common ways to make sure your therapy will fail:

    1. Rush to Choose;
    2. Don’t Ask;
    3. Lie/Withhold/Downplay/Avoid/Obfuscate;
    4. Communicate through hints, riddles, gestures, or tokens;
    5. Triangulate;
    6. Compartmentalize;
    7. Vanish.

What exactly does he mean with all this? Well, I’m not going to rewrite or rephrase Howes’ thoughts here. Please do read his full post to learn more about these seven brilliant strategies to achieve total therapeutic failure!

    Just let me add that the same Ryan Howes also has a post at Psychology Today that is not satirical but serious: 21 Tips for Clients in Psychotherapy – What should you talk about in therapy? I suggest you read this post by him as well. Maybe you’ll find some points there worth considering.

    One important thing that Howes didn’t go into, was the obvious (but also potentially painful) question of exactly why we would sometimes want to sabotage our own therapy. There are several different answers possible here. To highlight just three of them:

    One reason may be just plain conservatism or lack of energy: you’re afraid of any kind of change, or you feel not up to trying something new.

    Another reason may be an irrational fear to lose your identity: if you got used to define yourself primarily as “a person suffering from depression” and a therapist would take away that depression, then what would you be left with? An empty shell?

But How?

Yet another reason, often suggested by so-called evolutionary psychologists, may be a subconscious fear that with a successful therapy you might lose not just the nasty effects of your depression, but also some perceived perks of depression (like not having to work, or having a valid excuse to withdraw from company).

    I’ll get back to this in a future post about those “perks” of depression: for this is a subject that deserves a honest discussion in its own right. Anyway I feel that much of this is based on misunderstanding. Those “perks” are misunderstood by others (who sometimes may wrongly think we simulate depression as a kind of excuse, while in fact we are really and involuntarily suffering from it). But they are also often misunderstood by ourselves (when we tend to accept such “perks” while in fact we should reject them as negative, destructive temptations inherent to depression).

    To get back to the question why we might feel inclined to sabotage psychotherapy: what is the best general answer? I guess the basic cause is fear: any kind of fear that successful therapy might take away something we cannot afford to lose. And if you try to think rationally about this, you’ll come to the conclusion that such fear is nonsense.


The well-known folk singer Melanie (Melanie Safka, do take a look at her official Melanie website) once sarcastically criticized old-fashioned Freudian therapy in her song Psychotherapy. Not coincidentally she borrowed her tune from the Battle Hymn of the Republic: this is indeed a battle song, fighting psychotherapy.

    Sure, there is truth in some of Melanie’s biting comments. But frankly, I myself cannot help wondering: was she perhaps also singing about her own irrational fear of psychotherapy? Judge for yourself.


Melanie – Psychotherapy

For a full StayOnTop playlist, see the Music page

 tip: It really makes no sense to sabotage your own therapy. Ask yourself if you see your therapist as someone to be afraid of, as some kind of adversary. Does your therapy feel like a fight instead of the joint effort it should be?
    If the answer is yes, then something is wrong. Now ask yourself: why? Of course you may simply have chosen the wrong therapist. But maybe it’s just your own attitude? Try to see your therapist not as a threat, but as someone who’s trying to help you.

• footnote 1 : The “Training For Psychotherapy” image showing Rorona Zoro: with credits to Nemesis X at the Killermovies.com Forum.
• footnote 2 : The “Sure I want to fight” image: adapted from a 1950s Cold War poster, original text was “Sure I want to fight Communism – but how?”

12 Responses to “Want to Sabotage Psychotherapy?”

  1. 1 Kirsty Newman Aug 28, 2012 at 19:02

    sometimes for some people the therapist is the “first” person who is in their life that has not threatened them and does want to help them. this can be a very scary concept for a lot of people, myself included. I would have loved to have gone to therapy and had trust in him and myself immediately. it would have been so much easier, however i would have missed an important learning situation with my therapist and myself if this had occurred.

  2. 2 Henk Aug 30, 2012 at 14:13

    Agreed. And of course we also should not forget that sadly, it still can happen (though not very often anymore, I hope) that people run into a “bad” therapist who tries to misuse the patient’s trust. Given the vulnerability of some of us, that is horrible.
    One of the things that can help to quickly develop the necessary trust (instead of fear) at the start of a therapy, is doing some kind of background check when you choose a therapist.
    What you are describing is of course a different matter. When your therapy is also about developing a little more trust and self-assurance on a general level, then naturally, learning to trust your therapist needs to be an integral and important part of the therapy itself!

  3. 3 Michelle Jul 3, 2013 at 15:00

    Also, I think some people have a fear of being successfully discharged–after all, who would want to end a relationship that has been caring and supportive? As long as symptoms continue, treatment will continue and the relationship will go on. My thought–bring yourself to recount the positive relationships that you do have in your life. Remember that as much as you wish it, your therapist can never be your friend and hang out with you.

  4. 5 disequilibrium1 Aug 12, 2013 at 18:16

    Wow. You advise consumers not to fear therapists, then launch into high-handed carping about their piteous errors. Then when the therapist fails, that’s because the patient is afraid to change. It’s easy to see the genesis of counselor-client power struggles with that condescension.

    • 6 Henk van Setten Aug 12, 2013 at 20:04

      Thank you for your reaction! I think that somehow you may have read things here that I didn’t mean to say. Maybe my writing style is a little unclear, but I honestly don’t see myself criticizing patients here. After all, I’m one of them myself ;-) As for patients’ fear for change, I think in many cases that’s a given, a complicating factor that both client and therapist need to recognize and deal with. I think facing that factor will not lead to power struggles, but rather will help to simplify the communication between client and therapist – in both directions.

  5. 7 disequilibrium1 Aug 13, 2013 at 21:17

    “They’re afraid to change” is a convenient way for the therapist to avoid considering his errors and the speciousness of his theories. Please consider that the consulting room is a bell-jar. The client can leave it with the best intentions in her mind, but the obstacles and limitations of real life always await.

    As a therapist you’re immediately putting clients in a one-down, powerless position by drilling into their inadequacies, while performing as the wise guru. The contrived atmosphere, your authority and white coat is a set-up to intimidate everyone walking through your door. As you know, fear-based pedagogy, feeling subordinate, stymies growth and creativity.

    Perhaps relinquishing theoretical paradigms and looking at therapy as relationship between two peers–which I assume some of your clients are– you might appreciate the rigged game of social dominance embedded in the vary foundation of therapy.

    • 8 Henk van Setten Aug 13, 2013 at 22:51

      Again, thanks for your thoughts here. I always like a good discussion. First let me correct a misunderstanding: I’m not a therapist. I’ve been the client of many therapists over the past 20 years, and what I write, is primarily based on my own experience as a client. From the neo-Freudians to the behaviorist conditioners to the whitecoats applying electroshocks, my depressions have been bad enough – including two serious suicide attempts – to try them all. So I know from my life history that there are many, many different kinds of therapists, with different backgrounds, different approaches, different methods, not to mention different characters. And by the way, me being not the average kind of client but rather a smartass (and formerly high-profile) academic, I’ve also seen a few situations where it looked like the therapist got afraid of me…
      Whatever, I fully share your view that ideally, client-therapist relations should be based not on fear or authority but on mutual equality. In real life this is not always easy because we all are different, and (depending from their clients, too) therapists sometimes have a knowledge and status advantage whether they want it or not.
      If your point is that some therapists wrongly use their natural advantage to instill and manipulate fear, I can agree with you. This surely is not the right kind of therapy, and it also will prove to be a counterproductive therapy. Therapists should be empathic humans in the first, second and third place. Their being an expert or specialist should come in the fourth place.
      Apart from all this, I still maintain my opinion (based on real life again, for example chatting with fellow patients in psychiatric wards, in the past I’ve seen at least four different places from the inside) that in psychiatry there is a fairly large group of patients who are afraid of change, or even worse, who in fact don’t want to change. These are the people who, in the course of many years, have come to identify themselves with their illness to such an extent, that in fact they’re afraid that getting better might mean losing their “patient identity” – which they’ve somehow come to see as a part their own personality.
      For a daily-life example of such an I-won’t-change mentality (and therapeutic workers wrongly tolerating it) see my post from two years ago.
      Well, I hope I’ve made myself a bit more clear now!

      • 9 Henk van Setten Aug 13, 2013 at 23:02

        Note: somehow the link to another post that I gave in my last lines didn’t make it to print here – some filter at work? Well, for my example, the URL is http://stayontop.org/2011/07/14/a-room-with-no-view/
        If this gets dropped from my reply again, then go to the Contents page (in top bar), scroll halfway down to the category “Institutions & Electroshocks & Other Therapies”, and click “A Room With No View”. That’s the post I meant.

        • 10 disequilibrium1 Aug 24, 2013 at 02:59

          Henk, you definitely have and it certainly changes the context of your original criticism.

          I experienced, though, the cure creating the disease. I found that therapy instructed and reinforced depression-inducing habits rather than helping.

          PS. Enjoyed your Facebook post. I think our media culture is the same hyped unreal too-beautiful world.

        • 11 Henk van Setten Aug 25, 2013 at 00:29

          What you say about therapy making depression worse instead of curing it, this certainly is something that can happen. Sometimes. In my own experience, this will happen especially with therapies that get you to concentrate more (instead of less) on yourself. An almost narcissistic concentration of thoughts on your own habits, personality, character, problems can lock you in your own depression instead of setting you free. With many kinds of depression, it works much better to concentrate on your environment, the outside world, activities &c. Maybe this was also the case with you?
          As for Facebook, I’m happy you could share my opinion. For my take on modern media, see my post “Unbearable Lightness Online” (http://stayontop.org/2012/03/14/unbearable-lightness-online/). I adhere to Daniel Boorstin’s old (1960s) analysis that most modern media events are just pseudo-events (artificial events that in fact are relevant only within their own media context).

  6. 12 disequilibrium1 Aug 31, 2013 at 20:44

    Henk, you summarized my experience with therapy beautifully. It feels like therapy planted a self-obsession/inertia I don’t recall prior. I found the categories and labels, how therapy organizes the world, were only impediments to living. I also experienced having an “authority figure” who probed me to account self-doubts, weaknesses and irrationality was a return to powerless childhood rather than an adult emergence.

    I can’t conjecture how unusual my response. I do think one’s internalized relationship to authority an important component in maturation. I also think our place in various social hierarchies, pecking order, can have a huge bearing on contentment. Therapy left me feeling ever-inferior to the therapist’s perpetual authority.

    I remember Boorstin’s book from reading it in college. Of course the pseudo-event phenomenon has exploded since he wrote it. I often side-step mainstream cultural events and still think of Boorstin.

    Re: Facebook. I do post good news, not to enhance an image of fabulousness so much as not wanting to burden friends to respond sympathetically to my trivial setbacks. I much prefer to share hard-fought victories, my testimony of persistence.

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