Is it common to be infatuated with your therapist?
I am seriously infatuated with my therapist, which is really embarrassing. How do I keep this from influencing our sessions, which have been very helpful to me? Should I tell him? Is this common?
—Embarrassed Grad Student
Dear Embarrassed Grad Student,
It's quite common for people to have strong, often romantic, feelings towards their therapist. Whether you work with a social worker, psychologist, psychiatrist, or another type of mental health professional, a big part of the relationship involves you, the client, sharing intimate details of your life. A good therapist listens objectively but is empathetic, caring, encouraging, thoughtful, and reliable. These are all qualities that help people to feel safe and connected. These are also qualities that many look for in potential romantic partners. That said, it can be common to misconstrue these feelings of support for romantic feelings toward someone you’re meeting with frequently for mental health support.
In fact, the experience you're describing is a common phenomenon in therapy known as transference. It refers to the tendency of a client to unintentionally project their feelings towards someone else in their life onto their therapist. These are feelings that can be connected to a variety of current or previous relationships–parents, siblings, friends, or even romantic partners. Depending on the circumstances of the relationship, the type of transference that occurs may be positive, negative, or romantic. Projecting non-romantic positive or negative feelings onto a therapist can help improve the client-therapist relationship or better understand your own emotional responses to others. However, romantic transference, similar to what you may be describing, is best handled with more caution.
Dealing with the infatuation you're experiencing will depend on several factors, including your comfort level in communicating your concerns to your therapist and remaining as their client. Most therapists are trained to handle instances of client transference and should be open to having conversations about it while not making you feel embarrassed or dismissing your feelings. If you choose to, exploring these complicated emotions may be helpful when done ethically.
All therapists, counselors, and the like operate under ethical codes that guide how they perform their jobs and interact with their clients. The American Counseling Association's Code of Ethics, for example, has a section dedicated to 'The Counseling Relationship' and emphasizes that counselors promote the client welfare and avoid causing harm. All codes of ethics prohibit sexual and romantic relationships with current clients. However, therapists are people too, and are prone to making not-so-ethical choices. While it's the job of your therapist to maintain ethical boundaries while working with you, it's within your rights to protect yourself and walk away from a therapy relationship should your therapist overstep these boundaries and return romantic feelings or gestures in any way.
While deciding your next steps, you may wish to consider the following:
- Do you still feel comfortable working with your therapist? How comfortable would you be talking to them about your feelings towards them?
- Do you continue to make progress in your therapy sessions? Or are the feelings getting in the way?
You have the autonomy to choose a new therapist if you feel your current therapist or therapy sessions are no longer helpful. Depending on your comfort, this may be a conversation you have with your current therapist; they may be able to offer an appropriate referral to someone new. You may also find a new therapist on your own to identify someone that better suits your needs.
The relationship between a therapist and a client is a complicated one; however, therapy sessions are meant to be helpful and never harmful. Having a mental health professional, you enjoy talking to and who understands and values you as a person is both comforting and beneficial for making progress. Knowing when to step away is also necessary to protect your emotions, safety, and ability to continue progressing. Hope this information was helpful in guiding you to navigate these newfound feelings.
Originally published Jul 09, 1999
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