Why a cold, detached therapist wouldn’t work for me.

Broken Open Heart by Cari Pier

I have a therapist who is highly ethical and vigilant of boundaries. He has shared next to nothing about his personal life with me, unless it was somehow necessary to divulge something for therapeutic purposes. An example of this was telling me the reason why he has to reschedule some of our upcoming visits. He knew I felt jerked around (I told him so last session) and he was empathetic enough that he felt he needed to tell me it was due to his mother’s recent death, in which some financial matters need to be resolved, which require him to leave town to take care of these matters with other family members.

I was grateful to him for being sensitive enough to consider my feelings, and empathetic enough to know I needed to “have a reason” for the sudden schedule changes. In the months I’ve been seeing him, it’s been almost uncanny the way he seems to know how I am feeling about something, even sometimes before I’m aware of it. This shows me he has a high level of empathy, and I think high empathy is a requirement for the type of therapy we’re doing to be really effective, because it requires emotional attunement.

A few people have told me they’ve been concerned because of a recent post where I said my therapist has told me he likes me and looks forward to our sessions. Of course, I like it and find it highly validating that he said those things, but popular thought has it that to be “professional,” a therapist must be cold and detached and that any admission of personal feelings for a client, no matter how benign, must be somehow suspect.

That’s the stereotypical view of what a therapist must be like. A cold, detached, Cyborg in a white coat, writing everything down in a notebook and remaining stony faced no matter how emotional the patient gets. Maybe he rubs his beard and murmurs “very interesting!” while writing down everything.

I would do terribly with such a therapist. I would never get any better. Because I suffer from bad early attachment and a lifetime of trauma beginning in infancy, I have trouble trusting anyone or allowing myself to get close to anyone. I entered therapy for many reasons, not least of which is my difficulty in feeling my emotions fully and my near inability to connect with anyone in a meaningful way. Being so emotionally detached from others and myself has turned my life into a sterile, joyless desert. It’s sapped all the color out of my life, to the point where every day seemed much like the last, without anything to look forward to, or anything really even worth remembering. I wanted to change that. I wanted to be able to feel again, only tempered by the wisdom of my years so I wouldn’t have to shut myself off again. Only someone who could serve as a kind of surrogate parent and renurture me to a point where I could begin to trust again and share my deepest feelings, using the therapeutic relationship as a kind of template, would be able to help me achieve this.

Can you imagine a baby being “nurtured” by a cold, detached parent, who never mirrored them and stayed six feet away from them at all times? Who never cried with them, laughed with them, or picked them up and held them? That child would probably grow up to have PTSD or a personality disorder. Well, if my therapist is acting as my surrogate parent (and I am VERY much a small child and even a baby in my sessions), being cold and detached would just re-traumatize me! Of course he isn’t going to pick me up and hold me against him (as much as I sometimes might desire that), because there are certain boundaries it would be unethical for him to cross. But he is sensitive and empathic, and doesn’t hesitate to use these qualities to facilitate my healing.

During our sessions, he has done the following things (besides the compliments described in an earlier post) that some might think are “unprofessional”:

He moved about three feet closer to me at a point where he correctly perceived that I needed to feel closer (he sits about three feet in front of me now instead of the six feet at first, and leans forward when he thinks I need more closeness. He has never physically touched me.

Once or twice when I described a very upsetting incident from my past, he got teary eyed. In one recent session, he rubbed his eyes (discreetly) and I noticed they were damp. This was barely noticeable, not over the top so it didn’t make me uncomfortable or make me feel I had to “take care of my therapist.” (crying openly or sobbing would NOT have been appropriate and would have weirded me out in a big way). But it was noticeable enough that I felt mirrored and empathized with–and cared about. This was immensely helpful because it was only one session after this happened that I was finally able to let go and cry in front of him (which is necessary to my healing). I haven’t been able to cry in front of another person, even a family member, in years. I almost wonder if he did this on purpose, to “model” that sort of emotional expression for me so I could do it myself. But even if it was, I know it was based in actual empathy and not just an act.

He’s said things like, “I feel angry at him right now for hurting you that way” (referring to my narcissistic abusive ex) when I was describing the ways he’s abused me. He said this in an angry way too, and I felt enormously grateful to him for being so empathetic and feeling angry WITH me instead of letting me feel it all alone. Again, I doubt this was “acting.”

He laughs with me all the time, which I find beautiful and validating.

He may have an emotional, sensitive temperament, but if that is the case, I don’t find anything wrong with him using that to facilitate therapy. Almost all of the things I described are just him mirroring my own feelings, sometimes anticipating them before I can feel them consciously, and that gives me the courage to explore them further and let myself experience them. Not once has he violated my boundaries because he’s also empathetic enough to know how far he can go with this without going too far. It’s a delicate balance. This fine-tuning to my emotional needs makes me feel safe. I’m a young child in session and I’ve noticed my voice even takes on a childlike cadence. As my surrogate parent, he is simply doing what should have been done by my own birth parents: mirror me, validate me, and empathize with me. He’s teaching me that exploring my feelings is not only okay, but it’s beautiful.

We have a strong connection, but I realize it’s only a template. Just as a child growing up will eventually leave home and find others to connect with as an adult, eventually I’ll (hopefully) be able to transfer my new, healthy attachment feelings (it’s been theorized that even in adults, such mirroring by the therapist actually helps the client build new neural pathways) onto others and finally achieve genuine and mature emotional closeness with other human beings. I’m still just a little kid who’s trying to grow up. I need a detached, chilly therapist like I need a hole in the head.

So there are two possibilities  for what’s really going on here: (a) I found a nearly perfect therapist who suits my needs; or (b) my therapist is a raging narcissist who’s also an actor worthy of an Academy Award and is just doing these things to gain my trust before he proceeds to turn it all against me.   I think I’ve become good enough at noticing red flags that I’d suspect something fishy or feel uncomfortable if that were the case.


15 thoughts on “Why a cold, detached therapist wouldn’t work for me.

  1. He sounds like a human fully engaged in being truly human which is a good thing! My daughter is dating a nice fully engaged human being with a conscience after a narcissist really exploited her previously. She said the same thing “he is either a really brilliant narc actor or the kindest men I’ve ever met” I told her that was precisely what I was thinking which illustrated how narcs cost us our innocence. We keep waiting for the shoe to drop and the monster to appear. Enjoy the pleasure of a human connection, it is a gift I don’t believe therapist should be cyborgs either, I was raised by one, I don’t want therapy from one..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How lovely that your daughter has met such a kind, compassionate man! I think it’s natural for us who have been burned by narcs to be hypervigilnt and half-expect anyone who shows us kindness to eventually show their true colors. It’s always good to be cautious, but trust is always a huge issue for us.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I didn’t see the comments disparaging your therapist, but, reading this, I think he sounds great. He has obviously been able to get you to drop your emotional wall, at least while you are with him. And it sounds like you are growing in your therapy. I would be concerned if he was touching you, but he’s not, and you have the experience to recognize a narcissist should things turn that way. He sounds unconventional, but awesome.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. When I pointed out what I thought MIGHT be a red flag I wasn’t saying simultaneously that he should be cold. It wasn’t meant to rile you up and I meant no harm. I’m happy for you that you are getting the therapy that suits you. Perhaps I’m a bit jealous.

    That being said, I in no way meant anything I said to mean that your therapist needs to be cold to be ethical, nor was I trying to sabotage anything. It was just something that stood out to me and I questioned it. In fact I also included in my comment that I could be wrong… that I’m not there, that I don’t know everything about the situation.

    Sorry that I got you upset. 😦

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Reading this post, Lucky’s therapist sounds like he may be the best therapist ever. I am happy for you, Lucky. And, like Tiger, I may also be a little jealous. 🙂

      Years ago, I had a therapist who got teary eyed when I told her about my mom trying to gas us all to death when I was twelve. She said she had a son who was twelve at that time, and she was tearful because the thought of him going through something so horrific at such a tender age broke her heart. Her reaction felt so healing and validating to me.

      In my case though, I believe I would have felt uncomfortable if the therapist who became teary eyed had been a man. Because of the evil narc psychiatrist who raped me when I was fifteen, I always go to women professionals when I possibly can. My family physician is a woman. Even my awesome dentist is a woman, retired from the military.

      Of course, I also have issues with women, because of my abusive momster. But at least she never raped me.

      Since my husband and I were married in 2004, he has gone with me when I was seeing a male therapist, actually sitting in the sessions with me, at my request. A couple of times my husband could not make the appointment. I felt VERY uncomfortable, sitting alone in a room with a male therapist on those occasions. I sat with my legs wrapped around each other, double crossed, and I was hugging myself. I didn’t even notice what my body language was saying until the therapist pointed it out. Then I was like, “SO?” I was not about to change my posture just to make him feel better!

      Based on my experiences, my thinking is this: those of us who have ever been violated in any way by a male in authority — especially if he was our therapist — we are going to be ultra wary of potential red flags when it comes to similar situations, to the point where we may see red flags that are not there.

      I think it’s wonderful that we have the blog world to connect with other survivors, where we can share our stories and grow to care about each other, enough to warn them when we think we may be seeing something potentially dangerous.

      But in my opinion, just going by everything Lucky has said about her new therapist, he really sounds genuinely good and caring.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Linda, I never could connect with female therapists, no matter how compassionate and kind, because due to my mother I have more problems relating to and trusting women then I do men. Maybe that’s sexist, but it was because of the associations I have with women, which have been mostly negative. I prefer to work with men too (sucks for me that there are no men in my current job at all). For some reason it’s easier for me to trust and/or open to a man. I always felt that, depsite my father’s serious issues (he has BPD and/or covert narcissism but is nothing compared to the NPD women he always falls in love with) I always felt love from my father, even if he could be scary and punishing and not always know how to express it right. I could feel the love there. SO I always trusted him more. As a result, it’s easier for me to open up to men (which of course has not always been the best thing–look who I married! )

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I don’t think that is sexist, Lucky, I think your feelings about women therapists are perfectly natural after what your mother put you through.

          As for me, because I was badly abused by both sexes, I have problems with both men and women. Since cats and dogs don’t practice medicine and talking mynah birds don’t do therapy, I handle my issues like this: anyone who has to touch my body, such as doctors and even dentists, need to be female whenever possible. I even had a female doctor do my colonoscopy. She was super sweet, warm, the kind of person I wish my momster was. She said MANY of her female patients have told her they were abused by a male professional and for that reason prefer women physicians.

          But when it comes to non-physical professionals, therapists, etc, I prefer male. But only if my husband is with me.

          Yup I am a great big ball of issues, aren’t I?

          Liked by 1 person

        2. No more so than the rest of us. By the way, cats and dogs make AWESOME therapists. They listen, never judge you, and give you love and affection even when you’re at your worst.

          Liked by 1 person

    2. Tiger, I’m sorry if I gave the impression you had offended me. You didn’t. I think those reactions are normal ones and meant to be helpful. ANd it wasn’t targeted at you anyway so please don’t take offense. I was not upset! Really! I’m open to different opinions too. I just thought it was something I better point out since severalpeople seemed to be getting “pink flags” lol.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thanks. I guess I didn’t pick up on the tone, or rather I read into it wrong. I didn’t really see another comment saying the same as I had so I thought this was directed toward me. That’s me jumping to conclusions…I have been feeling a bit on edge this weekend, being the 3rd anniversary of my father’s death yesterday (April Fool’s day of all days) and dealing with all the emotions that still come along with it. So that could explain my reaction and misinterpretation. Sorry about that.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. No problem. I have hypervigilant days almost every day. :/ I’m like you, always reading things into what people say. Also, it’s really hard online, because there are no other cues like facial expressions or body language. Maybe I should have used a 🙂 so people would know I meant no offense and was not offended.
          BTW, I just sent you an email about your guest post. Go read it and get back to me!

          Liked by 1 person

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