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The Colluding Therapist

There are several reasons men are much less likely than women to seek out professional care for their mental and relational health, and among those is that many of them have had a bad previous experience with a therapist that wasn't even theirs.

You may know the experience of your wife or girlfriend coming home from their therapist, oddly enough having to obtained a diagnosis of you--or at least believing they have.

"My therapist says you're a narcissist."

A professional counselor (or any mental health practitioner) cannot assess and certainly can't diagnose a person who isn't their client. That doesn't always stop them.

Every therapist brings pieces of themselves into every session. This can be a boon to the therapeutic relationship when the professional is mindful and aware, choosing what is clinically helpful to the work that's happening. Other times, those pieces can be activated by the content the client is bringing into their meeting.

In an unmindful moment, a therapist's own relational trauma may sense an opportunity to conspire, to see their own personal nemesis in the phantom of the client's relationship. This is, of course, harmful to therapy and to the client's relationship. And it's abusive of the other person. Having your partner go to a professional, in a space where you have no presence and no defense, and have your character maligned is an awful experience of betrayal and powerlessness.

Unpacking the Story Mindfully

But clients do need to talk about their relationships in therapy. How does one do that without falling into the traps mentioned above?

A good counselor knows it's their job to model intentional awareness and transparency in the session. Often clients are actually hesitant to discuss issues with their loved ones; they don't want to give me a bad impression of them. When we're entering that space, I'm always deliberate about pointing out any elephants in the room.

I let clients know I'm very aware that I'm only looking at whoever they're talking about through their eyes. I'm interacting with their experience of that person, and not the person themselves. And I'm always keeping that in mind as I explore this relationship with them.

That doesn't mean there aren't times when it's apparent a relationship is harming the client. That's never a decision I make for them. Using a posture of curious exploration about what I notice in their narrative, I see what conclusions they come to.

And then there's outright abuse, which can't be ignored when the evidence is right there on the table.

Clients Still Own Something

Therapists take on a lot of responsibility in the counseling office. That doesn't mean they're in complete control. The client still is and always should be their own person. And that means they have their own perceptions, agendas, and story.

On a few rare occasions even I have received emails from parents or spouses of clients concerned about something they've received second-hand out of one of my sessions. I've been surprised by what I apparently said. Of course, I can't and won't do anything to try to fix their perception of me. The client's confidentiality is paramount and that's just what I've signed up for.

Not everything that is heard in therapy was necessarily said in therapy. Even a mindful therapist who's just making space for their client's feelings may be interpreted as validating their assessment of blame. If someone's determined to get something from a session, it's likely they'll walk out with it.

But collusion can and does sometimes happen, and it's hurtful. You should never have to own a label or diagnosis or judgment that was assigned in such a way. And though such experiences understandably sully our perception of mental health professionals, remember that they are as different as people can be. There is still a right fit for you, and competent, compassionate pros ready to assist you in your journey.


Mike Ensley is a licensed professional counselor and founder of Comeback Story Counseling in Colorado.


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