A good therapist is going to be wise, honest, capable of both pushing you and putting you at ease — but even the best therapist is still human. The person sitting across from you, unfortunately, is not infallible. They’re not all-knowing. And sometimes, they’re going to get things wrong.
It’s a little bit of a disconcerting experience when you disagree with what your therapist is saying; after all, you’re seeing them because you trust where they’re leading you. But no one knows you better than yourself. You know what’s important to you, and you know when your disagreement is a reaction to a boundary being crossed, as opposed to just the prospect of getting out of your comfort zone.
And while it can be tempting to try and squash the discomfort you’re feeling, or play along with them while silently deciding to ignore whatever they’re saying, neither is a productive use of your mental and emotional energy. Here, according to therapists, is what to do instead.
Ask them to explain themselves.
Hearing the thought process that led to a piece of advice can help you clarify whether it fits in with your life and your values — or better articulate why it doesn’t. “Ask the therapist to be explicit in making their thinking transparent,” says Hilary Jacobs Hendel, a psychotherapist based in New York and the author of It’s Not Always Depression.
For example, Hendel recalls one patient who said a previous therapist suggested she get a cat. Having a pet may help ease feelings of loneliness, she says, “but in the long term, it’s going to keep a person tethered to their home” — problematic if the patient’s goal is, say, to work on building a more robust social life. If your therapist outlines how they arrived at their conclusion that a certain action would be beneficial, you can see whether they prioritized certain outcomes over others and what they may have left out of the equation.
Talk about why you’re uncomfortable.
Maybe you really, really don’t feel like you have it in you to directly contradict what your therapist is saying. Guess what? That’s a great thing to talk about with your therapist.
“[Part of] mental health is learning to be direct with someone,” Hendel says. A therapy session may even be the best place to practice that particular skill — it’s a safe setting for you to voice disagreement and clearly state your needs, leaving you better prepared to do so in the world outside your therapist’s office.
Having that conversation can also help you and your therapist get back on the same page. “Bringing up a conflict offers an opportunity to work through differences, which can be therapeutic,” says Juli Fraga, a psychologist based in San Francisco. “Therapy works when the therapist and client form a sturdy relationship, sharing their thoughts and impressions with each other in order to help evoke change.” If you feel weird about disagreeing with them, it’s a sign that something in the relationship isn’t as it should be, and voicing that discomfort can help bring you back to an open, trusting dynamic.
Be suspicious of too much pushback.
“There’s a phrase among therapists called ‘rolling with resistance,’” says clinical psychologist Ellen Hendriksen, author of How to Be Yourself. “If you get resistance — ‘I’m just not ready, that is just not my cup of tea’ — you don’t argue with them.” A more constructive approach, she says, would be for client and therapist to talk through the advice and make tweaks until it feels right, or table it altogether and tackle the issue from a new angle.
Refusal to do so, in fact, might be a red flag that the two of you aren’t on the right track. “Therapists who insist that their advice is on point and that they know what’s best for you may be a warning sign,” Fraga says. A good therapist will help you work toward positive change, but they won’t try to drag you there kicking and screaming. Stubbornly clinging to one particular point, she adds, is akin to dismissing your feelings about what they’re saying — and one thing a therapist should never do is tell you how to feel. If that’s their M.O., it may be time to consider finding someone new.
Remember that you’re in charge.
“I would challenge clients to remember that the therapist works for them. You’ve hired your therapist,” Hendriksen says. “So perhaps that could help empower you, that you have a say in this relationship.”
It’s also empowering to remember that your therapist isn’t the only one in the room with relevant knowledge. “I tell my patients explicitly that they are the experts on them, and I am the expert on helping guide them to feel better,” Hendel agrees. Yes, you’re presumably in therapy to change something about yourself, and change can’t happen without a little discomfort. But it also can’t happen in a vacuum — and any work you put in has to fit with your personality, your values, and the circumstances of your life. Anything else is just a waste of time.