By: Rabbi Azriel Hauptman
Psychotherapy is an incredible tool for dealing with many kinds of challenges that we face. Countless people can tell you how therapy has changed their life or even saved their life. However, therapy is delivered by human beings who are far from flawless. Sometimes, therapists can cause real psychological harm. This can be due to having a lack of empathy for their client, making their client feel powerless, or in general being ineffective. Another way that therapy can be damaging is if the therapist encourages overdependence. Before we discuss this particular issue, we first need to digress into an extremely fundamental principle of therapy. We are referring to transference.
Transference describes a situation where the client takes his or her feelings, desires, and expectations of one person are then redirects them to another person. For example, a client who lacked a wholesome relationship with a parent and is craving such a relationship might develop those feelings for their therapist who in their subconscious mind is stepping in and taking over the role of a parent. Transference can be therapeutic gold as it helps the client develop a deeper understanding of the basis of their distress. This can help the client process their experiences and learn how to develop and maintain healthy and fulfilling relationships outside of therapy.
There is a catch to transference. Transference can only help us resolve our unmet emotional needs. It cannot fulfill them. It is true that during the initial phases of therapy, it might feel like the therapist is fulfilling those needs. However, this should be a means to an end and not an end unto itself.
This is where overdependence come in. When your therapist is not focused on helping you move past your feelings of dependence on the therapist, you are at risk of developing an unhealthy overdependence on your therapist. The harm that this can cause to you is incalculable. Your therapist’s job is to provide you a therapeutic experience. When your therapist fosters an overdependence, you are not receiving what you came for. Rather, you are potentially opening yourself up to a very traumatic experience.
How do you know if you are overly dependent on your therapist? If you really need therapy, then why is it so bad if you are dependent on therapy? Just like if you had physical ailments you would be dependent on physical therapy, similarly if you have psychological ailments you would be dependent on psychotherapy.
The answer is that there is a tremendous difference between needing therapy and needing your therapist. As long as you are suffering, you need therapy. Needing your therapist is something entirely different. That might be a sign of an unhealthy relationship with your therapist.
Another question you can ask yourself is if your relationship with your therapist is enhancing your other relationships, or are your other relationships suffering because all of your emotional energy is being channeled towards your therapist.
Ultimately, it is your therapist’s job as a trained professional to monitor the health of the therapeutic alliance. If you have any concerns about the relationship, then you should feel free to have a discussion with your therapist. However, you must maintain your own vigilance and make sure that your therapy is leading you in the right direction. Although, there are phases of therapy that might involve dependence on your therapist, that is not the overarching goal of therapy.