Memo to Therapist Its not me its you


CreditMatt Huynh

How should I tell my therapist, on Day 2 of our relationship, that we aren’t a good fit? Of all of therapy’s potential etiquette minefields — the client who unleashes his searing revelations three minutes before the end of sessions; the therapist who nods off, or whose picture keeps popping up on clients’ People You May Know feature on Facebook — termination seems like one of the more challenging ones. How do you skitter without scratching the parquet?

That I’d never met my therapist, and would never meet her, made it no less difficult. We’d been paired up on a new app called Talkspace. Here, for $25 a week, you can text an assigned therapist whenever you want, and then she’ll get back to you when she can. First, I was asked by a facilitator whether I had a gender preference for the person I would text with (no) and what my most pressing issue was (responding appropriately to others’ bad manners). The facilitator introduced me to my licensed therapist, whom I’ll call Donna.

I unbosomed to Donna that “I frequently need to stifle myself in the presence of people who say ‘No problem’ a lot. Like a waiter will ask me if I want more water and I’ll say ‘No, thanks’ and he’ll respond ‘No problem.’ How could my not wanting water possibly be construed as a problem? People who use this phrase are trafficking in false heroism.”

Donna wrote back: “Oh my. Well, this is definitely new to me.” She suggested that I ask the next No Problem-sayer what he meant by the phrase. I reported 19 hours later that I had followed her suggestion with a rental car agent at the Seattle airport: “We talked a little bit and it was AWKWARD, and I felt like a pedant.” Donna: “Yes, it might have been strange for him. Have you always used the word ‘pedant’ so much? Lol, just asking.”

Henry: “Ha! I see what you did there: you’re giving me a taste of my own medicine by asking me about ‘pedant’, yes?” Donna: “Hmmm, well I actually had to look the word up because I’ve never heard it before and you do use it a lot so I was curious where you got it from.”

Suddenly, the metaphorical winds of cultural dissonance swirled around my keyboard. I wondered: If you’re a pedant about someone not knowing the word pedant, does that make you a meta-pedant?

You’d like to think that the relationship established between a therapist and her client would be impervious to the comparatively small concerns of vocabulary and politesse: After all, here are two sensitive and vulnerable souls, embarked on a mission of mutual interest, bound by ethical standards and a commitment to mental hygiene.

But, as it turns out, the therapist/client relationship can be a tap dance performed in shadowy light, even in the best of circumstances. “I’ve been in therapy for two years now, and I love my therapist,” the comedian Esther Ku said. “But sometimes I wonder about her. Like I regret not asking her more about herself when I first started seeing her. For example, is she married? Is she divorced? Is she in a successful relationship? What’s her religion? How conservative is she? But at this point, I feel like it’s too late to ask her. Is it too late to ask her? I know it’s not too late to ask her, but we’ve gotten into the pattern of me being the one talking, so it would almost be weird if I started asking her about herself.”

Particularly nettlesome to clients are those therapists who seem to have a personal agenda. The actress and comedian Keisha Zollar said that her former therapist, though otherwise “very lovely,” used to push books on her. “Occasionally she’d send me home with her own books, but most of the time the expectation was to purchase books,” she said. “By the end of our time together, I lied! I would lie about buying the books, and not so skillfully lie about reading the books. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings by saying, ‘This book sounds great if I didn’t have a more exciting personal reading list.’ ” Ms. Zollar added, “I still think she’s a little rude for not including Amazon Prime membership in my bill.”

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