Perfectionism or That Time I Thought I Failed Therapy

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I read quite a bit about finding a good therapist, different approaches to therapy, the client’s rights in a therapeutic relationship, and how to get the most out of therapy. I’m a nerd for this shit, so it’s kind of how I spend my spare time.

So I’ve definitely run across the idea that some people feel like they need to give the “right” answers during therapy, or feel like they have to be a model client.

I’ve always felt that this wasn’t me. For the first five years or so of therapy I was the absolute opposite of that. I argued with everything my therapist said. I lied. I nodded and smiled in session, then left and promptly ignored everything she had told me. I never followed through on things she asked me to do. I was there because I had to be, and showing up was the maximum I was about to do.

So it took me quite by surprise last week when my therapist asked me if I wanted to talk about a particular topic and I said that today wasn’t a good day because I had to work after therapy. And then I felt guilty. I wondered if I was being a bad client. Was I avoiding the topic? Should I have been willing to open up on that topic? She had asked after all, I should be willing to talk about trauma in therapy. That’s why I’m there.

We had a moment of pause. Was she judging me? Should I tell her “no, it’s totally fine, let’s go ahead and dig into it, I’ll be fine!”? Was I failing at therapy????

And there it was. This conviction that setting a very reasonable boundary was failing.

There’s a tension here. At this point I’ve known both of my therapists for years. I’ve shared a lot with them, some of my most vulnerable points. I trust them, and generally if I’ve stuck with a therapist for this long I overall like them. So of course I would want them to think well of me. I don’t want someone that I trust to simply tolerate me for professional reasons. I don’t want them to think I’m a bad person. That all makes sense.

But in contrast to that, it’s also not actually important to my therapy and well-being that my therapist thinks I’m “good at therapy” or “being a good client” or “very fun” or even someone they’d be friends with outside of therapy (although I do think at least one of my therapists and I would be besties if we weren’t client/therapist).

And I don’t think that this concern was really about wanting my therapist to think well of me. I think it was wanting to make sure that I was doing this therapy thing right. Making sure I wasn’t being non-compliant (oh that phrase). Making sure that I wasn’t avoiding topics or refusing to discuss them when I needed to. And at heart that’s a good impulse: what’s the point of therapy if I’m not going to make an effort to do it in good faith and make it effective?

But the idea that having boundaries is being non-compliant is…well it’s a lot.

First of all it’s incredibly deep-seated. Being socialized as a woman it’s the kind of message that weasels its way into your life from every direction. As someone who has been mentally ill for most of their adult life, most of my boundaries have been thoroughly destroyed in therapy (sometimes in positive ways, often in negative ways). As an autistic, my boundaries are often seen as bizarre, nonsensical, and thus just temper tantrums. Non-compliance.

But it’s also fucking wild.

I suppose on a strictly tautological level, saying no to something is not complying with that thing. But the fact that the entire mental health field has a term that is basically used to mean “very bad”, and which literally means “says no” is HORRIFYING.

EVERYONE has the right to say no. At any time. For any reason.

In fact a huge part of therapy is often learning how to say no and set boundaries. So why is it that even within the discipline it’s seen negatively?

Therapy isn’t a place where you have to be open to any discussion at any time. You get to choose your own pace and your own comfort level. Maybe you never feel comfortable discussion a particular topic and that’s ok. Because therapy should be 100% driven by the client: if you want to keep feeling shitty and not discuss the thing that’s making you feel shitty, that’s up to you! Go for it!

I don’t need to live up to some ethical goal of “good therapy client”. This isn’t some kind of test that a harsh and judgmental God is giving me. It’s a tool. How I use it is up to me.

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