Sometimes the off-the-cuff, messy remarks we make are some of the most illuminating.
I’d describe myself as something of a veteran when it comes to psychotherapy. I’ve been seeing a therapist for my entire adult life — the last 10 years now, to be exact.
And among the many benefits, it’s helped me to identify the areas I still need to grow in. One of which is being a relentless perfectionist.
Therapy is challenging regardless, but I think it’s especially hard for those of us who insist on doing it “perfectly” (spoiler alert: there’s no such thing).
This shows up for me as people-pleasing. Namely, my reluctance to be honest in certain situations, my fear of being criticized or judged by my therapist, and my desire to obscure when I’m struggling (ironic, considering the fact that I started to go to therapy because I was struggling).
Looking back, though, I can see that some of the most important growth I’ve had in therapy actually happened when I stopped trying so hard to please my therapist.
In fact, the most powerful moments we’ve shared together were when I had the courage to tell him things that I was absolutely convinced I shouldn’t say.
When I gave myself permission to be brutally honest, we were able to do much deeper, more authentic work together. So much so that I’ve started making it a practice to “speak the unspeakable” as often as I can in my sessions.
If you’ve found yourself biting your tongue in therapy (perhaps, like me, too concerned with being “likable” or a Good Client), I hope this list of my own blunt confessions will inspire you to lose your therapeutic filter for good.
Because chances are, you still won’t be nearly as awkward as I am.
I’ll be real with you… sometimes, no matter how reasonable and well-intentioned my therapist’s advice is, I just… can’t do it.
To be clear, I’d love to. Really, I would. I think he’s a very smart guy with lots of good ideas! And? Sometimes when you’re depressed, the bar needs to be lower, because just getting out of bed can feel next to impossible.
Sometimes when you’re down and out? Reasonable doesn’t always mean doable.
Worse yet, after a week of not managing to do a single thing my therapist told me to, I’d often find myself descending into a self-shame spiral, afraid to return to his office and tell him that I’d “failed.”
Fun fact, though: Therapy isn’t a class that you take pass/fail. It’s a safe space for experimentation… and even setbacks are an opportunity for a new kind of experiment.
Now, when my therapist makes recommendations that don’t feel doable? I let him know upfront. That way, we can brainstorm a plan that I’ll actually follow through on, which usually involves smaller steps and more achievable goals.
And even if I don’t manage to do it all? That gives us something to talk about, too.
I know now that therapy is less about pushing myself to get where I’d like to be, and more about meeting myself (compassionately) wherever I am.
And as long as I’m honest about where I am, my therapist is more than happy to show up and accommodate me.
My therapist, bless him, had a great response when I told him I was angry with him. “Tell me why,” he said. “I can take it.”
And he really could.
Many of us didn’t grow up in the kind of environment where we could safely express our anger. I sure didn’t. And ideally, therapy is a place where we can practice having that anger, articulating where it’s coming from, and doing repair work that truly feels safe and validating.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy to do this, however. Especially because it feels weird to be angry at someone who’s entire job is about, well, helping you.
But when I finally started telling my therapist when I felt angry or disappointed in him, it deepened our relationship and trust in one another. It helped me better understand what I needed from him, and it helped him better understand the kinds of support that worked best for me.
It also helped us identify some triggers that were still affecting my life and my relationships in ways we hadn’t noticed before.
If you’re angry at your therapist? Go ahead and tell them. Because even in the worst case scenario, if they don’t have a good response? That’s information that can help you decide if you should continue working together or not.
You deserve a therapist who can sit with your most difficult emotions.
Well, what I actually said was, “I kind of wish I could clone you. And then I could murder one of your clones, so that my dead friend would have a really great therapist in the afterlife.”
…Grief makes people say and do really weird things sometimes, okay?
He took it in stride, though. He told me that as a fan of the television show Orphan Black, he was definitely #TeamClone — and more seriously, that he was glad that our work together had that much of an impact on me.
When you have an awesome therapist, it can be hard to figure out how to convey to them how much you appreciate them. It’s not the sort of situation where you can just send an edible arrangement and call it a day.
What I’ve learned, though, is that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with letting your therapist know how grateful you are for their impact on your life.
They like being told they’re doing a good job, too, you know.
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the “I would murder your clone for my dead friend” route, of course (I’m really weird and frankly, so is my therapist, so it works). But if you feel moved to let your therapist know you appreciate them? Go ahead and say it.
Yes, this is a direct quote. And the closest thing to a tantrum that I’ve ever had in therapy.
It was at a time when even his gentlest suggestions felt like too much pressure. And after one too many statements leading with “have you tried…?” Well, I sort of lost it.
I’m still glad that I said it, though. Because up until that point, he had no idea how overwhelmed I was feeling. He didn’t know that his suggestions were making me feel more anxious — not less so.
And while it came out imperfectly, it’s actually good that it did, because it also helped him to identify that I was more than just upset.
As we delved deeper into it, I was able to finally say to him, “I just feel like I’m drowning.” And you know what that sounds like? Depression.
Sometimes the off-the-cuff, messy remarks we make are some of the most illuminating.
That “tantrum” I had? It led to my antidepressant dosage being increased and me getting the gentler support that I needed to come out of my depression.
So while I’m not thrilled about telling my therapist I wanted to walk into the ocean rather than have another session with him (again, my apologies if he’s reading this)… I’m glad that he could hold my despair and say, “What do you need from me? You seem like you’re really struggling right now.”
Clients aren’t the only ones who have bad days. Our therapists are human beings, and that means that they won’t always handle things perfectly, either.
In one session, I noticed my therapist was a little more gruff than usual. He was struggling to figure out how to support me; I was struggling to name what kind of support I needed in the first place.
Wires were getting crossed, and while it was subtle, I could feel that things were getting a little tense.
I finally mustered up the courage to name it. “Are you mad at me?” I abruptly asked. It was very difficult to say to him, but it opened up a much more vulnerable (and necessary) conversation.
He could name the fears that underpinned his frustration in our session — more specifically, how worried he was about my eating disorder relapse and self-isolation. And I could name how his emotions in our session made it difficult to feel safe enough to express my own, leading me to withdraw instead of opening up.
Was it an uncomfortable conversation? Absolutely.
But working through that discomfort meant that we were able to practice resolving conflict in a safe and open way. And with time, that helped us establish more trust and transparency with one another.
As someone who pens a mental health advice column, one question that I get frequently from readers is something along the lines of, “If I tell my therapist that I’m suicidal, will they get me locked up?”
The short answer is that unless you actively have a plan to harm yourself and the means to do so, theoretically your therapist shouldn’t disclose that to any kind of intervening authority.
And the more complex answer? Regardless of what the outcome is, you should always tell your therapist if you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts or urges. Always.
Not just because it’s a safety concern, though that’s as valid a reason as any. But also because you deserve support, especially when you’ve hit a crisis point.
More than likely, your therapist has a lot of experience helping clients navigate these dark, challenging moments. But in order to do that, they need to know you’re struggling in the first place.
I’ll be the first to admit that this wasn’t always my strong suit. I didn’t always feel brave enough to tell my therapist that I was reaching the end of my rope. But when I finally did? I was able to get the compassion and care I needed to find my way back.
I know that it’s scary to name when you’re losing hope. Sometimes saying it aloud can feel like making it real somehow — but the truth is, if it’s floating around in your head? It’s already real. And that means it’s time to ask for help.
This is actually how I learned that my therapist has celiac disease and, therefore, is not much of a cereal person.
By the way, did you know that it’s totally normal and okay to have questions about your therapist?
While every clinician will be different around how much they’re willing to self-disclose, there’s no rule that says you can’t ask about them. Some clinicians actually encourage it.
There are clients who don’t want to know anything about their therapists. That’s absolutely fine! Others, like me, feel more able to open up emotionally if they feel like they “know” their therapist in some way. That’s fine too!
And if you have a very smart therapist? They’ll know exactly where to draw the line to keep any self-disclosures in service of your healing and growth (for example, some forms of therapy — like psychoanalysis — work better if you know very little about your clinician!).
If you want to know more about your therapist, it’s okay to ask — whether it’s about cereal, their work philosophy, or their relevant life experience. You can trust that as a professional, they’ll know how to navigate this skillfully, without oversharing or shifting the therapeutic dynamic.
And if they don’t handle it well? That’s feedback that will be helpful for them to hear, too.
While it’s true that it can lead to some uncomfortable or difficult moments, I believe that’s where some of the most powerful work can happen.
And if nothing else, it sure makes your therapist’s job a lot more exciting. Just ask mine! I’m pretty sure that since we started working together, my therapist’s job became a lot more… well, interesting, to say the least.
At the end of the day, you get out of therapy what you put into it… and if you allow yourself to be vulnerable and invest more in the process? You might be surprised at how much more you’ll get out of it.
Sam Dylan Finch is an editor, writer, and digital media strategist in the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s the lead editor of mental health & chronic conditions at Healthline. Find him on Twitter and Instagram, and learn more at SamDylanFinch.com.