When I refer a person who is new to psychotherapy to a colleague, I always say that if for any reason he isn’t comfortable with the therapist, he should call me back and I will give him another name. My clear message is, never work with a therapist you don’t like.
But what about the other way around? Should a therapist work with a patient she doesn’t like? And what does it really mean to not like a patient? Is the dislike immediate or does it grow over time? Or does it lessen as the person becomes better known and, hopefully, more engaged in the process? Is the “not liking” about the patient? The therapist? Both?
In my 35+ plus years of doing therapy, there have been very few patients I have disliked and almost none I felt an immediate antipathy for or felt that I couldn’t work with. The exceptions have invariably been angry, paranoid men. One such man, in the middle of his second session, went on a tirade about the manipulative evils of women and demanded that I prove to him I was an exception. I felt instantly frightened and said that I wasn’t the best therapist for him and that perhaps he would work better with a man. Would any female therapist have felt the way I did? I suspect not. This patient immediately brought forth memories of my paranoid, explosive father and I was back to being a frightened child rather than a competent adult therapist.
Less dramatic, as detailed in my book, Love and Loss, when I first moved to Boca Raton, Florida from Ann Arbor, Michigan, my experience of many of my early patients was not so much that I disliked them, but rather that I often didn’t like them. They seemed foreign to me; so much more superficial, concrete, narcissistic than my Ann Arbor patients. I didn’t know how to help them, almost as though I had forgotten how to be a therapist. They often didn’t remain in treatment for very long. I wondered at the time if they sensed my own feelings of ineptness or my too great need to build a practice and have them as patients. Years later, when I was writing my book, I realized that my difficulty had been more related to the fact that I hadn’t yet disconnected from my life in Ann Arbor - my friends, my home, my patients – making it impossible for me to really connect to my life in Boca Raton, including my patients.
There are also patients I like as patients, but doubt I’d like as a friend and, vice versa, patients I like as people, but don’t much enjoy as patients. In the first category there are patients like Pat who I discussed in last week’s blog – an angry, vengeful person who fought against mourning the loss of her unfaithful husband and her own sad, loving feelings. I like working with her. I can see a way to be helpful to her. In time I hope that she will be able to mourn and will become a more likeable person both in and out of the treatment room.
In the second category there is Betty, a bright, articulate, cultured woman who has an interesting job as a museum curator. I think we could have been friends if we had met before she became my patient. But as my patient I find her extremely frustrating. Despite her obvious intelligence, she is very concrete, not at all psychologically-minded and despite years of treatment, is unable to think about herself in a more introspective, psychological manner. She cannot wonder why she thinks or feels or behaves in a particular manner, she just does. I do understand that her concreteness stems from an overly rigid and strict background, but this does not help me experience her sessions more positively. I also understand that I am replaying the role of her parents in wanting her to be the way I want her to be, rather than accepting who she is. I hope I can come to accept Betty as she is, for she might then feel freer to explore and find her own mind.
So who dislikes whom and why? The answer, as always, is complex, determined by both people in the consulting room, by their experience of each other, by their past histories and by their present life circumstances.