Since the COVID-19 lockdown began, I have done only one tele-health appointment with my therapist of six years. The world has changed for us, and I feel deeply that I should not create more of a burden for my therapist while he is going through the exact same thing.
I’ve seen several TV interviews with therapists talking about how bogged down they are with their patients in crisis now. I just don’t want to do that to him. I think that giving him the gift of time may be what he needs right now.
He always talks to me about “the right of self-protection” and how I don’t have to “take care of him.” Still, most people may want to gravitate toward their therapists even more at this time of crisis, and I want to take the pressure off of him and give him some space to deal with his own feelings. He’s only human.
I’m wondering if my feelings are common.
New Baltimore, Mich.
Many people who go to therapy wonder, at some point in the process, what their therapist thinks of them. Some people wonder if their therapist finds them boring or annoying. Some wonder if their therapist believes that their problems are trivial or that their experiences are “abnormal.” Others are concerned with whether their therapist truly likes or cares about them. And still others worry that they’re “too much”—that their needs (for kindness, understanding, guidance, attention, or a phone call between sessions during a particularly challenging week) are a burden on their therapist.
It’s common for people to make assumptions about how their therapist feels about them, because part of what happens in therapy is a process called transference. In transference, a person unconsciously directs feelings about another person (generally from childhood) onto an entirely different person in the present. This happens outside the therapy room too. For instance, a husband may feel controlled by his wife when she asks if he’ll run a simple errand, because she reminds him of his demanding mother. Or a person whose boss laughs just like his abusive father may cower around that boss even if that boss is kind and gentle. The problem with transference is that instead of reacting to the person right in front of you, you’re reacting to a template from the past. In relationships, transference prevents us from connecting with people in a meaningful way.
In therapy, though, transference can be very useful because it reveals an important process that’s playing out in the patient’s life. And when transference is both observed in the therapeutic relationship and talked about in real time, the patient’s unhealed wounds become apparent and can receive the attention they need.
My guess is that your feeling of being a burden predates your relationship with your therapist. That’s because many people who worry about burdening their therapist grew up feeling like a burden in their family. A child with a sick parent or sibling might try to be “easy” and not bother anyone with his seemingly less important needs. Or a child with a parent who is constantly overwhelmed might get the message, tacitly or explicitly, that her needs are unwelcome. (“I’m exhausted,” the perennially beleaguered parent might say. “Please don’t bother with me with this right now.”) Or a child with a parent who finds the child’s feelings of sadness or anger distressing might feel guilty for upsetting that parent and become hypervigilant about not burdening anyone with her feelings. Or a child who is forced into an adult role (say, his father dies and the 12-year-old boy moves into the father’s role) feels responsible for taking care of everyone else and always puts his own needs last.
In adulthood, people who grew up in any of these ways often have trouble differentiating between the act of reaching out in a healthy way and being perceived as “dumping” their problems onto somebody else. Sometimes there’s even a fear that if they’re “too much” for someone else, that person will cut off the relationship. Perhaps this applies to you and how you feel about your therapist.
Of course, we’re in a unique situation right now—therapists and their patients are experiencing many of the same challenges due to the global pandemic. And while some patients wonder how their therapists are doing—all my patients have asked me that question—they need not view continuing their sessions as a zero-sum game: If I bring you my problems, I’ll exacerbate yours. If I minimize my needs, there will be more room for yours.
Since your therapist has talked with you about the fact that you don’t need to “take care of him,” this seems to be something you’re already working on. Maybe you’ve talked about how taking responsibility for other people’s feelings has affected your relationship not just with him, but with your friends and family members and co-workers too. And perhaps you’ve also talked about how your need to protect others is really a way of protecting yourself: Putting yourself last distracts you from looking at yourself at all.
In other words, you say you’re trying to protect your therapist, but I have a feeling that the person you’re trying to protect is yourself. If you stop having sessions, you don’t have to examine your feelings and patterns and behaviors at a time when you may, like many people right now, feel most vulnerable. But this doesn’t really protect you—it just makes it harder to feel the full range of your emotions, which is ultimately what helps us connect authentically with both ourselves and others.
Now would be a good time to make an appointment with your therapist, and to open that session by telling him what you told me. Instead of guessing how your therapist feels, you can ask him directly. It will reassure you to hear that it is our professional duty as therapists to assess whether we’re able to work with our patients even when we might be going through a challenging time in our own lives; if your therapist needed time away from his patients, he would make arrangements for them while he took care of himself.
One day, this pandemic will end, and if you dig in and use this time to more deeply understand how this pattern of protecting others gives you a false feeling of safety, you’ll start to see yourself the way your therapist actually does: not as a burden, but as someone who has finally let herself be seen.
Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.