The Controlling Client

Early in my personal therapy, my analyst used to tell me I was trying to control him. He’d talk about the way I left pointed openings for him to speak. He identified a pattern — how I’d relate events in order to elicit a particular response from him, the one that I wanted. He showed me how I would bring in material that repeated themes from prior sessions, hoping I could “predict” what he would have to say.

This kind of interpretation focuses on the role of unbearable need and dependency in the psychotherapy relationship. When we can’t tolerate needing someone else and having to wait for him to give us what we need, we feel helpless. One response to such a feeling of helplessness is attempting to control the person you need. This view holds that control is a defense mechanism developed during infancy, where the helpless baby strives to control the object of need — i.e., the mother. It assumes that, as an adult, he or she will have similar issues with dependency and control in other relationships. Clients who want to feel in control of their therapists would likely strive for control in any relationship that stirs up feelings of need, dependency or helplessness.

As a younger therapist, I used to make many such interpretations with my own clients, at least with the ones in intensive treatment where the transference had developed, and interpreting defenses against the awareness of need is still an important part of the work I do. But two recent sessions made me realize that I’d shifted my focus over the years without quite realizing it. While clients may try to exert control over a person, what they really want to control is the way they feel. It’s a small but important distinction.

One of my clients has a habit of responding to interpretations I make with a set of questions she’d like me to answer. The questions come so quickly and automatically, it often feels to me that she doesn’t take in what I’ve just said. I suppose I could point out to her that she’s trying to control me with her questions, but I think what she’s actually trying to do is control her own feelings. She doesn’t want to let what I’ve said penetrate inside and upset her. This is a woman whose entire life is organized around efforts to manage (usually kill off) her feelings. Her family background is full of trauma, abandonment and sexual abuse; with the virtual absence of a reliable mother, she never learned how to manage her own emotions, and killing off or getting rid of them is the only way she managed to survive.

Another client exerts control in a different manner. Again and again, he falls into familiar old stories that feel almost like tape loops. He returns to the past, to painful experiences from his childhood, high school and college. Even though I’ve been seeing him for only a few months, I’ve already heard many of these stories several times. In a similar vein, he’ll repeatedly voice what we refer to as his “familiar laments.” He returns to similar complaints and worries about other people, using almost identical language. When he talks this way, I often feel that he is shutting me out.

This client suffers from extreme anxiety of a debilitating nature. He constantly worries that something will happen to disturb his routine, upsetting him so much that he won’t be able to cope. From one point of view, you could say that his repetitive stories are attempts to control and render me ineffective, but it’s only because he’s afraid that what I say will provoke upsetting feelings and he won’t be able to manage them. For the most part these days, when I notice that clients behave in ways or say things that seem controlling, I assume it’s because they’re afraid — afraid of what they might feel.

Not only does this view seem more accurate to me, it also feels kinder and more empathic. Although I’m sure my analyst didn’t mean it that way, I always felt vaguely criticized by those interpretations about control. The implication seemed to be that I should stop trying to control him and accept that I was deeply dependent upon him for help. It was undoubtedly true — he saved my life and I never would have made it through those dark years without him — but shifting the focus from the act of control to the fear behind it would have helped. He talked about unbearable need and how much I hated it, rather than the fear of all those scary emotions that can come up when you truly depend upon someone. I did hate neediness, as many people do, but I think it also terrified me. When another person matters that much to you, you can never predict how he or she will make you feel.

Interpreting hatred and anger when present is still an important part of the work I do, but I try not to lose sight of the fear that often lies behind it.

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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58 Responses to The Controlling Client

  1. Liz says:

    Good post Joseph, thank you. I have had the realisation through therapy that my controlling ways are fear based. They are a learned behaviour from childhood which served me well at that time but don’t serve me as an adult now and especially when my desire is to have nourishing contact with others. Also, thank you for sharing your personal experiences – it makes you seem more ‘real’ to me. :)

  2. Trisha says:

    Absolutely brilliant post. It answers so many questions about my husband, who I have b been trying to understand for years. Now that we are separated, his anger, hatred, need to control, projection and rage are reflected in spades. And, of course, it’s all my fault. Thanks for the illumination.

  3. Dawn says:

    Your blog is first-rate. Thank you for the effort involved — it’s helping me a lot.

  4. J says:

    I like your posts for quite a few reasons, but mainly the one I can think of now is that they help me realize with much more ease how to relate to my therapist in my therapy. I see what you are saying in how you were being challenged to shift from the idea of controlling your analyst to the idea of accepting how much you needed that person. When I read things like this, it helps me along in my own therapy. Keep doing what you’re doing – it serves such a great purpose for so many trying to understand what they’re going through.

  5. Matthew says:

    The word “control” has a lot of subtext. I prefer “manage” – people are trying to manage their own response, and so yes, they try to influence the input they get because there are internal reactions they don’t know how to handle. But getting to the honesty to see that and admit it is the journey. It takes humility and trust, and that takes time to develop. Most of us were told in this society that anger is something you shouldn’t feel or express, which leads easily (often subconsciously) to “if I can’t feel it, then you have to avoid things that trigger it in me”. Establishing that it’s ok to feel anything, though not vent abusively, takes skill and care.

  6. TPG says:

    I’ve also heard of clients trying to control their therapists in an effort to shape the therapist into the best possible therapist for them. That is, they have an intuitive sense of what is most helpful to them, and try to get the therapist to work in that way. Ruptures occur when the therapist sticks to his or her guns and the client is unwilling to bend and trust the therapist. This often happens in cases where a client has had an earlier less-than-optimal experience in therapy. But even when it doesn’t, the client feels unconsciously that s/he knows what she needs and why s/he is in the room.

    Control of the room may have as much to do with this as it does to do with issues of need, vulnerability, and shame.

    Good post.

    • Fiona says:

      Yes this is very true.
      Real damage can occur when the therapist interprets the clients behaviour as an attempt to control.

  7. Francesca says:

    On the subject of therapy and controlling people.. I don’t suppose that very many therapists realize this, but, among the controlling people I have met in my life, the absolute number one rationale behind their control has been therapy itself. Telling people what they should be feeling, what they should be thinking and how they should behave, either overtly or through the kinds of silences you describe. There used to be religion, but I’m not aware of any other kind of social discourse nowadays that has the kind of authority and power that mainstream therapy has to penetrate and regulate people. I don’t know whether you are aware of this, Joseph; I would love to hear if any others have found this to be true, that there is nothing more controlling than a controlling person armed with some therapy-ideas. Maybe it’s just the fall-out for me with my narcissistic shrink mother? I don’t know.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I’ll be interested to hear what other readers have to say about this one!

      • Marie says:

        I was once telling a therapist about a conversation with my sister in which I referred to myself as nice, and my sister countered with, “You’re positively bitchy!” And I laughed at the realization that her words were actually more accurate than mine. Then the therapist told me I should stop blindly accepting people’s judgment of me. I argued that I wasn’t – I had considered it, and recognized she was more accurate than I had been. The therapist and I argued at length, she insisting that I always accept what other people say about me, and that I don’t know how to stand up for myself. Then I pointed out that right that minute, I was refusing to accept HER judgment of me. She didn’t like that at all.

        How do you tell a therapist that you disagree with her assessment without her calling it out as “contempt” for her work? The reality is that not all therapists are golden, and it might be wise to question their advise. But then the patient is seen as being controlling or fearful or something. The situation is set up so the therapist can’t be wrong – and that can be very dangerous.

        • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

          I thought you didn a pretty good job of telling your therapist what you thought. It bugs me when I hear of therapists who badger their clients into agreeing with them. Talk about controlling.

          • Jessica says:

            It seems like something is happening between you and your therapist. We are all humans and make mistakes, but when I find myself arguing or pressuring my clients, that is a sign to me that I need to take a “time out,” because something is going on. Usually when I am trying to convince a client of something it is because I am feeling helpless or want to pull them out of their pain. I try my hardest to revisit conversations like this and slow down to look at what is happening between us, what is getting triggered in me, and what it feels like for the client.

          • chloe s. (not the same chloe below) says:

            OK – I have a few thoughts about this. When you find that you’re going AT IT mano-mano with your therapist, you’re forgetting why you’re there. This is not an inquiry of your therapist – it’s to understand yourself deeply and beyond where you are able to know yourself. I’d suggest that your “narcissistic shrink mother” doesn’t have relevance here because she was your mother. If you feel BADGERED – geez, maybe consider an enactment may be at play vs. a legit argument. Also – a huge plug for trained psychoanalysts here is that psychotherapists most likely haven’t had the rigorous training that psychoanalysts do in identifying their own countertransference to the material, or how to utilize an enactment therapeutically in the event that occurs. While I AGREE that it is PAINFUL to be told you’re controlling….I’ve been there and continue to be there in my own sessions – there is nothing more potent than experientially GETTING IT about how I do that kind of controlling and WHY….THE WHY is concurrent in my discovery of the YES – I AM doing that (controlling)! If I can understand the latter (I am controlling)I can understand the former (avoidance of affect associated with accepting the interpretation)…and the softer approach might not reach me all that deeply….I’m not fond of pain for gain, but that kind of painful interpretation seems best for me to REALLY make deep insight after struggling with the pinch of hearing it (repeatedly). AS for RELIGION…the intention of religion is NOT about a mind of your OWN…it’s aim is for worshipping a god; different territory in my book. I enjoy this site and find that each time I visit I have grown in analysis and find a richer relationship to the things people share here. It will be fun to read this thread in 6 months and see where we all are emotionally/cognitively and experientially then.

        • Chloe says:

          Wow! I don’t think you need a therapist! Now don’t argue with me:) LOL Good job! xo

      • Gordon says:

        I think hypnosis is the paramount of controlling behavior. My last therapist was also a hypnotherapist. It created a feeling of mistrust because due to my lack of trust in this stranger I would be hypervigilant to any overly ambiguous words followed by suggestions, etc. I would even adopt an uncomfortably open body language in an effort to lure her and catch her in the act of hypnotizing me.
        I know this sounds extremely paranoid (I do have problems trusting people), but sadly I caught her more than once using hypnotic techniques on me without my consent.
        Now that I fired her I am worried that she might be too proud to admit her mistakes and project her feelings of disgust onto me while blaming me for not trying hard enough (she used to guilt trip me with this every time I told her I thought I wasn’t seeing or feeling any progress). I care about her opinion of me because my brother is also in therapy with her and worry that she may be trying to control his opinion of me in an effort to protect her pride. Is it a red flag that she would take on two siblings at the same time?

        • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

          I don’t know. I wouldn’t treat two members of the same nuclear family, and most of my colleagues wouldn’t either, but I’m not sure that it’s unquestionably unprofessional.

    • F.A. says:

      That’s interesting. In my work in the legal system and its interactions with social services, *everyone* who displayed undesirable behaviours was ordered or encouraged to go to counselling, not to deal with their own distress, but to learn why they should not do those undesirable things. It was the only tool of social control they had for behaviour that was bad without being illegal. I doubt it was effective, but the point is that they were trying to use it as a tool of social control.

      Certainly the language of therapy can be co-opted and used to coerce, and the pathologizing of noncompliant people has a long ugly history (drapetomania, hysteria…). I recall a horrendously abusive recovering addict who, whenever his wife “disobeyed” him (his word), would call her disgusting names and tell her she was suffering from “self-will run riot.” I learned later that the phrase comes from Alcoholics Anonymous, but this addict was applying it to his non-addict wife.

      • anonymouse says:

        Oh gosh. I really don’t like it but I can’t help but see the Freudian concept of using ‘projection’ as a defensive mechanism in that man you described.

        Going back to some of the fine work on shame I just read on this blog, I am speculating that he felt ashamed at his lack of control (probably reinforced by ‘giving himself to a higher power’ AA style) and was more or less telling her that he felt that of himself by accusing her of the things he saw in himself. Replace “you are” with “I am”.

    • J says:

      I find this to be the case as well. More disturbingly, I catch myself doing it all the time.

      Fwiw I also have a shrink mother, who while I’m not sure she was narcissistic, definitely has major self-esteem issues and uses the language of therapy for control. My father, who is not a shrink but is a narcissist, picked up this language from her for his own need to control. As far back as I can remember my parents would tell me I was being grandiose, passive aggressive, etc. They were probably right, but it still doesn’t strike me as something normal to tell a 10-year old.

    • M says:

      I have been in therapy for many years now and have had a completely different experience. Though I am aware of my therapist’s opinions and of ways she might choose to handle situations we discuss, I feel free to move in directions I choose. I have felt that the therapy’s primary goal is helping me find and accept who I am and who I choose to be. It’s my job to make choices that keep me congruent — even if they differ from the philosophies and approaches of my therapist.

  8. Evan says:

    Naughty client. Do what your therapist says (“Don’t censor!”?)

    Naughty feelings. Do what your thoughts tell you (“Be reasonable and rational!”?)

    Independence is a delusion. It’s use is as a step to interdependence. We are all dependent.

    And control is a good thing or at least neutral. I for one will what do what it is in my control to make my life more joyous. It can be misused and misdirected. This includes the relationship with my therapist if I have one.

    I do think this issue opens out into lots of themes in our culture about how we treat ourselves and others.

  9. KT says:

    Dear Dr. Burgo,
    Your whole post gives so much to think about but when I got to the end– “When another person matters that much to you, you can never predict how he or she will make you feel.” This provoked the biggest response within me. I suppose if a person had a predictably caring and loving person as their parent they may not have this problem about wondering and trying to predict how someone will make them feel. This is something that I very much recognize in my own therapy. I really wanted my therapist to matter to me, but it felt like to much, like the unbearable neediness you talk about. But then when I recognized that he did matter so much to me it was terrifying partly because of what you said in that sentence. From my past experience with my parents, I really had no idea what to expect when I became vulnerable with them and unfortunately it pretty much never turned out well. This plays out in the therapy relationship again and again. It does feel so repetitive. How much testing does it take to truly trust a therapist? I suppose it is different for everyone. I wonder if you could write something someday about when you feel that line has been crossed in your relationships with your clients…when you feel that they finally trust you. When you know they can feel your genuine caring and not be terrified. Is it a gradual experience when it happens, or sudden or both? It would be interesting to hear some of your experience around this because it must be a big deal when it happens. Anyway, thanks for the post. I have to think about how I tried to control my therapist. I’m sure I did. And I’m also sure it was out of fear.

    • Lolita says:

      ” I wonder if you could write something someday about when you feel that line has been crossed in your relationships with your clients…when you feel that they finally trust you. When you know they can feel your genuine caring and not be terrified. Is it a gradual experience when it happens, or sudden or both?”

      Yes! I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on this, too!

  10. Green Eyes says:

    Great post Joe. My therapist recently suggested that my ongoing obsessive rage and anger over the therapy boundaries was a defence and he wa right. It wa a defence against suffocating shame, guilt and humiliation which has been so extreme I can barely stay with myself a lot of the time. Control is about avoiding unbearable feelings and thoughts and I think can only be relinquished in a super safe environment esp if there is a history of abuse and abandonment. Our damaged child parts are fragile and need meticulous handling.

  11. Jared says:

    This post really spoke to me. I’ve been following these posts and they have helped me immensely. I went through a hard breakup last year and found your site then as I was digging in to my ex’s issues. Your female client you speak of in this post reminds me of my ex. As she walked out the door after 3+ years. She finally told me the extent of her childhood abuse. I now have a much better understanding that her constant drive to control her life and relationships is based upon her need to bury her own feelings. Thank you so much as your site has been what’s kept me sane through these hard times.

  12. hari says:

    great to read,

    a mentor of mine often says to me its not about learing to deal with other people, its learning to manage Ourselves, in relation to other people,

    and this i am finding soooo true, its about managing our own reactions when people do what they do,

    and your post here i feel recognises this too, which as you so is much more accurate, well i think that it is.

    im noticing with myself just lately, that when anger comes up im nudging myself into looking at myself rather than what im angry at, and asking the question with compassion love and empathy, what are you feeling inside that is making y ou feel so angry, and im starting to make massive headway in realising that its FEAR thats behind it, and some of the fears are quite difficult for me to face, and im still wobbly about that, but at least im getting to the real truth, that the anger is a cover up for fear,
    im goind to keep going with this,

    thanks for the post and others comments,

  13. Graceful Swallow says:

    To Francesca’ point – Even the notion of therapy as a “social discourse” seems to lead us astray from its psychological foundations and imbues its practice with a “political correctness.” I have been guilty of this. Popular culture has very strong ideas of what is “acceptable” behavior whether it is how men and women should behave, the rights of the individual, what consequences result from sexual abuse, or a sense of entitlement by many. As a current graduate student, I watch many fellow students and some of my professors fiercely embrace some of these popular behavioral expectations in their helping philosophy and counseling. It shows up as intolerance and advocates no compromise.

    • Francesca says:

      I’m glad you understand. There is very much such a thing as “psychological correctness”. I have had people try and regulate conversations with me by angrily yelling at me : “you have to be in the here and now!”. I have had people yell at me that it was time I started “thinking Francesca, think!!” (I’m an intuitive type). I had a friend throw a fit and drop me because I had problems and I wasn’t making an appointment with a therapist. I wasn’t particularly burdening her, but, it made her really mad I wasn’t following her idea of ‘life protocols’.(I was working on my problems in way she didn’t get….not that I should even have to defend myself) I have had people look at me with contempt and sneer at me “I don’t think you feel very good about yourself!’. I could go on….

      • Y says:

        I once had a good friend that was on a very high dose of anti-depressants, and insisted that I take them myself if I wanted our relationship to continue. Suffice it to say, we are no longer friends. So…I do agree that “psychological correctness” is probably an apt term.

        I would also like to add that I think the aim of therapy is to give the client/patient the ability to take back control of their own lives. I’ve been on a bumpy (yet getting smoother everyday) ride with my therapist, and it has always been more about exploration than regulation.

      • C.S. says:

        We often PULL others into treating us a particular way – something to consider when others are practically begging you to see that you need therapy….Or maybe your friends are …just…wrong.

  14. Fawn says:

    Trying to control others can lead to the opposite outcome; maybe a paradoxical effect?

    I grew up with a mother who was totally neglectful and who let my father abuse me, but who tried to control others’ view of her by only letting people see the ‘good’ side of her so that people would accept or admire her, and provide her with attention. She was also the martyr at holiday gatherings, letting others ‘see’ how she sacrificed everything for her family, while painting herself as a victim of her children who were bad and ungrateful. It’s horrible enough to be neglected and abused, but the feelings elicited when others are tricked into thinking the opposite are almost undescribable.

    I suppose this sort of conditioned me to be wary of others like my mother, with the ability to spot this sort of behavior in many venues. I always end up rejecting people who do this; so, it can backfire sometimes.

    I learned that because of my background, I used to feel hate around people who did this to a certain extent, and witnessing this behavior to a certain degree made me feel like vomiting. But since my therapist modeled acceptance, over and over, my feelings have changed, and now I feel much more accepting of people who try to control others in this way. Yes, I still see through it, or I’d like to think I do, but I have developed compassion for those who feel they have to control how others know them. And we all do that to some extent, don’t we? No one said, as a child, “when I grow up, I want to be fake”. I think framing it in terms of fear, as you did here, makes it even easier to emphasize with controlling people rather than feeling hatred. Feeling hatred for others is not a pleasant way to experience life.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post.

  15. Jfid says:

    Hi Dr. Burgo

    Do you think that 2nd patient that kept repeating stories from his past have post traumatic stress disorder?

    I have PTSD from horrible work place bullying, and even though i stopped working in that place over 4 years ago it never seems to leave my mind

  16. Suzanne says:

    I can’t believe the timeliness of this post. I am interested in the what people post in response to this…I think partly because maybe we all want to think we are not the only one that feels the way we do…I know it helps me to know other people have felt like I do and I’m not just really “abnormal”. I suspect after reading this, that I may be guilty of this (and I sure like the part about it being because of fear rather than a desire to control.)

    After a devastating loss last spring, I started therapy, but I didn’t realize what kind of a relationship this would develop into, and the effect it would have on me….a relationship where I have benefited from being understood and cared about. I definitely am doing better now regarding the loss that caused so much depression and anxiety last summer, but the thing I have noticed the last few months is the difficulty I’m having when I think of having to lose the relationship with the therapist. I have become so needy and dependent on her. I am normally a pretty competent person, so it is a bit embarrassing to find myself so needy…If I start to do well and think I may not need to see her, that causes me to become anxious again. It seems that over time I am becoming less resilient and I wonder if my progress in getting better is being slowed because I am so afraid that if I get better, I will lose this relationship. It has also been hard because of the fear of doing something that would be considered a boundary crossing that would cause her to either have to mention it to me or to lose her approval. I started therapy to get help for a big issue in my life, and it just seems like I unexpectedly got myself into a situation where I am now in another relationship and so fearful of losing it also.

  17. TPG says:

    To Francesca’s point, I think she’s right to an extent. Many therapists have a conscious or unconscious goal for their clients. Not just a broad “be more self-actualized,” but “get divorced” or “leave your job” or “stop having sex that I consider meaningless and start having sex that I consider meaningful, even though you don’t see it the same way that I do.”

    You see this especially in the addictionologists, who will inevitably blame the client if the therapy doesn’t work out, instead of looking in the mirror themselves. But it pops up with a lot of other therapists as well.

    The good ones, like you Dr. Burgo, don’t impose their values on their clients. But I would suspect that if a client comes in who, for instance, routinely spanks her pre-adolescent children, and sees nothing wrong with it as a corrective, it might be difficult to work with that patient if the patient refused to abide by the therapist’s point of view that e.g. spanking has no place in childrearing, ever.

    In a larger sense, I would think that if a therapist has a general stance on life of the import of personal autonomy, and the patient had a general stance on life of the import of community or holiness (and cared far less about autonomy), that could be tricky too.

    Lord Acton said that power corrupts. There’s a lot of power in the therapy room. Good therapists must always be on guard against its corrupting influences.

    GREAT and provocative post as always, Dr. Burgo.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I think it’s impossible NOT to bring your values into the room, and the example you give of spanking is a good one. There are so many other values I hold that influence my work but I try not to impose them on my clients. I think it’s best to listen for the (probably unconscious) awareness of the distress the behavior is causing, rather than try to convince someone that it’s a “wrong” thing to do.

      • TPG says:

        Great response. And maybe sometime in a future blog post you’ll write about that spanking dilemma. What if the behavior like spanking was causing no conscious or unconscious distress in the patient? What then?

  18. bobdick says:

    I agree J, It seems clear from the distance of my 7th decade, but only lately have I felt compassion for those repetitive stories of childhood pain that seem nearly addictions for some clients. When I am brave and describe what I feel about their hiding behind that wall, often they borrow some courage and dare to do /say/feel something fresh, instead of ever rehashing the ancient past. Dr B

  19. Natalie says:

    I recently read an interesting article suggesting that resistance may be an effort on the client’s part to maintain dignity and integrity. The article suggested that if the therapist is able to resist his or her own irritation at what he or she perceives as resistance, the client may no longer need to resist. There are times when my therapist is irritated and insistent upon movement towards the goal while I know I have other work to do but it is deep and painful and I am not ready to bring it out into the light of therapy. I have felt stuck somewhere in between the therapist’s goal or need for progress and my deeper issues. I am sure there are many things that I do in therapy at these times that the therapist may perceive or does perceive as controlling or resistant. The article somehow gave me the “permission” I needed to be in that place and not worry about the therapist’s interpretation. So yes, fear of disclosing what I am not ready to disclose and all of the feelings that entails as well as fear of disappointing the therapist.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I confess to being irritated by all these therapists out there who grow irritated by their clients’ resistance. Resistance is normal and understandable. I consider it my job to understand it, to help my clients understand what they’re doing, but not to push them to do anything. I don’t have the kind of goals your therapist seems to have.

      • J says:

        Isn’t the client behavior Natalie is describing practically the definition of reactance? Especially since it fades when the therapist just lets it be.

      • Jessica says:

        Joe, I am struck a little bit by the tone of your comment. As therapists, it is our job to understand our client’s resistance, but we often need to get pulled into the transference before we can step out and metabolize it. I also think that when I am irritated with a client, it often paints me a picture of how they interact with others. Where I do see a problem is when they therapist cant step outside of projection and instead engage in a countertransference enactment. If I was irritated with a client and they asked me about it, I tell them that in fact I was irritated, but probably not for the reason that they believe. I am irritated as a result of wanting to feel connected with them, and not being able to find a way to do that. Either because they need to protect themselves, or because they are scared of connecting with me ect. I often need to fall into the “irritation” before I metabolize and make sense of it. Also, as a new therapist, I am learning that this skill is not easy to learn, and I enact all sorts of things before my supervisor can help me metabolize it. I can then bring it back into the room, or start to make sense of it in the moment; however, it is tough to notice everything in the moment and interpret as you go.

  20. dbk says:

    Again, Dr. Burgo, thank you for another thought-provoking post. Control is key to many psychoanalytic-psychotherapeutic relationships, not least my own with my long-time therapist. Given that the struggle for contol is a no-win situation for the client (and a frustrating one for the therapist, I’m sure), your idea that it’s fear that underlies clients’ need for control certainly rang true with me. After many years of pondering why I am afraid to relinquish control, I have come to believe that in my own case it’s a fear of the other’s unconscious desire to control my desires in line with his own views of what’s “appropriate”. This really cannot be explicitly addressed, because what a client like me senses is not anything ever stated outright or probably even thought by the therapist. It is more a sense rather than intellectual realization. On the one hand is the client’s past, which involved rigid and terrifying (but unconsciously-exercised) control by a borderline parent; on the other hand are the therapist’s own unconscious processes, which inevitable influence his effort to understand the client’s thought processes and help them change. These don’t have to be harmful; I think my therapist’s unconscious processes towards me are relatively benign. But they are there nonetheless, and it’s that fear of the other’s unconscious exercising any form of control whatsoever – even “benign,” even perhaps beneficial – that causes me to react in what seems to the therapist an irrational and fearful way.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Do you think that could be said of any relationship involving trust and dependency? Whenever we let people matter to us, their unconscious process will have an effect on us, right? Maybe that’s just part of the deal.

  21. David says:

    Great post! Very interesting insight.

  22. Snowqueen says:

    Others have touched on having been treated by controlling therapists and in retrospect I realise that that was definitely a problem with my first therapist. I was psychotically depressed, self-harming and highly suicidal for many of the 5 years she treated me. She no doubt saved my life many times and I know I owe her a great deal. Still, I remember having to be careful not to anger/irritate her. If I did she was likely to suggest I had other, further psychiatric disorders. Once she called me ‘disturbed’ and then made it worse by asking me if it was ok if she used that term to describe me. What could I do other than nod?
    I had been infatuated and psychotically obsessed with an ex-teacher for several years. His behaviour had triggered my original major depressive episode and yet I could think of nothing but him. After some years he got a much better position in another country and left. I was devastated he was leaving – his departure was leading to yet another break-down. I bought him a rather expensive Ferrari pen to say goodbye but I never told my therapist. After giving it to him I told her about it and explained that if I had told her before she would have convinced me not to do it – and I wanted to give it.
    She then told me how uncomfortable receiving the gift would have made him (though he accepted it graciously). I started sobbing at the idea of causing him discomfort and asked what I could do. It didn’t make any sense to apologise for giving a gift. Her words to me were: ‘there is nothing you can do. It’s like staining fabric – the more you try get the mark out, the worse it becomes.’ I get really angry when I think about that.
    Once I tried to end therapy with her and talked about needing a different approach maybe with someone else. She looked really hurt and said: ‘am I not clever enough for you?’ She said that without any sarcasm and I was mortified at the idea that I had made her feel inadequate. I bought her a gift and brought it at the next session. She felt no need to ‘discuss’ or ‘explore’ why I felt like I needed to bring it. At the time it just seemed like I owed it to her.
    When every session finally became unbearably abrasive I finally sent a very long SMS explaining that I didn’t feel ‘up’ to defending my decision and that I hoped she would forgive me for terminating with an SMS. She did send a very kind and understanding SMS back.

    I think psychoanalytic techniques are very easily abused – if the patient disagrees with you it is easy to say he/she is ‘defending’. If he/she takes umbrage at unkind interpretations, the therapist can just say he/she is not ‘ready to hear it’. My current therapist does CBT; we engage each other on equal, rational, grounds. Though he has over 25 years of experience he NEVER comes across as having secret knowledge about the human mind – deeper insight than any untrained person could possibly have. Basically, he doesn’t assume a privileged position.

    Its ironic: just because he is so modest and respectful (while also being deeply intuitive and highly intelligent) I have completely idealised him and this has allowed for the very kind of transference that the earlier therapist always seemed to be angling for. Infatuation was my original problem, so now I am in the fortunate position of working it out with him on various levels.

    • Johannes says:

      My controlling therapist has abandoned me and has left me wondering if the experience of therapy is as hard on me as the experiences that led me into therapy. I too sent my therapist gifts. Thoughts of self-pity due to loneliness and love for her prompted me to search for simple things that might somehow make me feel accepted in her eyes like some jewelry, a scarf, and some other items. Instead of showing appreciation she treated me like the Unabomber. She even referred to me as a “patient who needed treatment”. I view myself more like a client, and was extremely hurt by her acting as though I belong on the psychiatric wing.

  23. Caroleanne says:

    My experience with my first psychoanalytic therapist was that after six months of therapy (which he repeatedly said I was using resistances), I fell madly in love with him. I was in erotic transference and I was obsessed with him. He was all I thought about – I didn’t care at all about the therapy itself. I was going twice a week and he was receiving about $80 per session from insurance and $50 from me. He told me that my love was real and that it was okay to love him. He encouraged my love for him and he said thirty years from now we will remember and love one another. I just fell deeper and deeper in love, and I was absolutely miserable – the pain of seeing him and not having him was horrible. I thought he loved me too because he said we couldn’t haves sex because he would lose his license. It ended when I found out he was gay and he was living with another man. He told me in an email that he could no longer treat me. I felt abandonment so intense I thought I would die.
    Second psychoanalytic therapist was cold, distant, detached and when I told him, he got irritated and said I was projecting my mother. After a year and a half of therapy I have made no progress. He is always right and when I try to get close to him, he pushes me away and won’t listen to me.
    I need to continue therapy, but I’m scared to death.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Oh boy, there are some bad therapists out there. I’m sorry. It sounds like you might need to keep looking.

  24. Annie says:

    I’m coming at this from another perspective. I have a tendency to bring in lists of things I want to talk about, or write things out. At first, I believed I was doing this because I wanted to use the session ‘well’ and not ‘waste time’.

    Gradually, it has come out that I have the most awful fear of not being heard or understood due to repeatedly not being ‘seen’ as a child, not being listened to and not making myself heard or understood (e.g. I saw a psychiatrist after attempting suicide aged 15 and was convinced I had told him why I was miserable but he wrote in my medical records that I had “no reason to be depressed”). I am terrified that I won’t be heard or understood.

    And it’s better that I bring a list in because that’s my anxiety, and if I don’t bring it to therapy, I won’t find a way to sort it out. But it’s not really about control, not for me.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I think there can be many different reasons why clients are “controlling.” Thanks for making that clear.

  25. Ann Cooper says:

    Please advise me as to the pornographic therapist who is on Flytube.videos/gangbang-sex-875 for all the world to see. I agree his private life is his own business, but this is not private. His clients are troubled children who need his guidence and seeing his image in these videos is absolutely harmful.

  26. T Bhattacharjee says:

    Hi Joseph,
    Great post. Explained a lot about my behaviour. Anxiety and shutting out feelings, as well as avoiding hurt by person whom I depend on…..your post explains all but for the fact about how to deal with it?
    How to fight 1. Anxiety 2. Possessiveness 3. Depression

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