Client's Unrealistic Expectations of Therapists
By Shirley Davis

There are many aspects to undergoing psychotherapy that most people do not understand. There are also many misconceptions as to what to expect from this unusual and very special relationship. In this unfamiliar association between two strangers, a special bond is formed. As a therapist attempts to help their client overcome emotional difficulties, using their training as their guide, often they find their client full of unrealistic expectations which can be a hindrance to this working relationship. In this article, I will attempt to address a few of these beliefs from the point of view of a client.

Some Unrealistic Beliefs Held By Clients

The Therapist is Wise and All Knowing

Clients often enter therapy with the idea that because a therapist is trained in helping people to navigate the maze of emotion, that therapists are a reservoir of information. They think their therapist can understand their problems without any explanation on their part.

The expectation is that the therapist should know what the client is thinking.

As a client, I had to learn that therapists are people with human flaws, emotions and biases. My expecting my therapist to know what I was thinking and how to help me regardless of the complexities of my thought processes was unjustified. This belief caused a great deal of distress for both she and I. It was only after she helped me to a more realistic understanding that she was only a human, that we were able to connect and move forward in my treatment.

Therapists Aren’t Always Available

Therapists Should Always Be Available

Healthy boundaries as to what a therapist will and will not accept in the way of communication between themselves and their emotionally charged clients are important. This is something that should be spoken of at the very first appointment and reiterated throughout treatment. Such boundaries are significant to the therapist maintaining their own mental health, and to keeping the client from crossing the line from needing help to dependency.

When I entered treatment, my therapist made sure I knew where she stood on personal phone calls and her privacy. She explained, that while I could call her home, she would prefer that I call the clinic. The idea was for the clinic to relay my need to speak with her. In this way, there would be fewer chances of a mishap. She had small children, and the chance of a missed call was great. She didn’t want me to call in a crisis and be hung up on by one of her children.

I had to learn that my therapist’s time away from her duties was vital to her emotional health and her ability to help others. Without her private time, she would have become greatly limited in her capacity as a therapist. This time included her need for vacations, which at first I viewed with stress-filled apprehension. With her help, I began to understand that those weeks were vital to my overall recovery.

Therapists Can’t Fix Everything

My Therapist Will Fix Everything for Me

This is perhaps the most pervasive error many clients make in their beliefs about a therapist. The misunderstanding  that therapists will know all there is to know about their client’s condition, and fix it is wrong. This myth that a therapist will give their clients step by step instructions on how to heal sets up a therapist to be an all-seeing, all-knowing person. Because of this misconception, many clients drop out of therapy, feeling their therapist has let them down.

I have spoken to many clients, other than myself, and have heard many of them complain about how their therapists would not give them the answers to the problems they have brought into their office. It is hard for many to understand that this expectation is unreasonable. Therapists, while well-trained and well-prepared, will not hand out advice to their clients. It takes time for clients to understand that the role of a therapist is not to give their opinions on how their clients should run their lives. The role they fill instead is to help their patients to seek their own answers.

I can remember, in my own early experience in therapy. I thought my therapist would tell me how to heal, and the disappointment I felt when she did not. She explained to me that the way she lived her life might not be the way I needed to live mine. Afterward, I was better prepared to allow her to help me find my own answers within myself.

Therapists Don’t Live Perfect Lives

Therapists are Perfect People with Story Book Lives

Clients often live under the illusion that because their therapist has a successful career, they have quiet lives with no distractions or problems. This is a common misconception which can lead to clients not empathizing when their therapist must call in sick or has a personal crisis. This lack of understanding causes the client to feel resentful and may even cause them to leave treatment.

I can remember feeling upset when my therapist suddenly was unavailable for my appointments for a month. Lacking the understanding and empathy that she was a human being who had a life and family, I felt upset. I discovered, sometime later, that her mother had died and that was why she had been absent for so long. Looking back, I was able to see that my reaction was unfounded. My therapist and I discussed my behavior in depth. Then I could put into perspective the fact that she had needs too.

My Therapist Will Never Leave Me

This expectation is perhaps, the most unrealistic of them all. Therapists are first and foremost people. They sometimes need to move to a different state, retire, and sometimes they die. These are the facts of life that many clients forget. My therapist decided to retire after we had worked together for many years. I took the news hard, but I realized that she needed to move on with her life. She gave me a year to adjust, and we spent many hours preparing for her departure. At the end of our last hour together, we parted company with a hug and with mutual respect and admiration.

Some Important Points for Therapists to Remember

  • Although highly trained, many therapists have not sat in the client’s chair. So in conclusion I would like to add some important information that therapists can use to dispel the above unrealistic anticipations.
  • Speak freely with the client about what they can and cannot expect to receive from their visits, from the beginning and often.
  • Set firm boundaries with explanations as to why they are important.
  • A therapist should never assume that their client understands the rules of therapy, even after dealing with the same client for months or even years. Repeating to the client their expectations of their client’s conduct should be repeated as often as possible to avoid misunderstandings.
  • Therapists should allow the client to see their humanity. They need to understand that you have a life outside of the office, and real problems to solve daily, just like all other humans. This does not include self-disclosure that is inappropriate or unethical.
  • Give clients plenty of preparation for upcoming events such as vacations or retirement.

With open and honest discussions about these faulty yet common expectations, many of the pitfalls that clients fall into can be avoided.


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