Counselling Ruptures: Crisis or Opportunity?

Maybe you’re just getting to know your counsellor or maybe you’ve been working together a while and then something happens: the counsellor says or does something that rubs you the wrong way. Maybe it’s a misunderstanding or maybe it’s just downright insulting or extremely hurtful. Maybe it’s something in-between where we’re not devastated, but ultimately leave the counselling session feeling judged.

Yes, such ruptures to the therapeutic relationship do happen. What’s a client to do?

I’d like to address this situation and some possible solutions in this article.

Facing the Fear of Judgement

One of the things that holds many people back from pursuing counselling is the fear of judgement. In fact for some, the fear that a professional–someone with apparent authority in the the realm of mental health—would look down on us or “confirm” something bad about us is just too much: we avoid counselling altogether.

But some folks are willing to give counselling a go and there may or may not be a fear of judgement that goes along with this decision. Many are nervous, some excited, but regardless a wonderful change process has started!

What is a Counselling Rupture?

As touched on above, a counselling rupture refers to a schism which occurs in the counselling relationship, or bond, between counsellor and client. Typically, being annoyed by something that is said in the counselling room is not enough to lead to a full-fledged schism although a series of annoyances might.

What are some scenarios that could lead to, or create a rupture? 

  • Misunderstandings – the counsellor intends to communicate something that is interpreted differently by the counselling client.
  • Personality – the counsellor has a personality that is perceived by the client as incompatible with her or his own personality or needs.
  • Delivery – the counsellor says things in a way that the client is uncomfortable with.
  • Values conflict – the counsellor expresses ideas that the client is philosophically opposed to.
  • Challenge – the therapist is perceived as too challenging or the client does not feel challenged enough. In the latter situation, the client might say, “This is no different than talking to a friend.”
  • Session structure – the client may want more session structure than what was provided or finds the session too structured or restrictive. Or, there is conflict around counselling homework.
  • Goals – clients may feel that their counselling goals are not being supported, understood or adequately addressed, or the therapist has goals for the client that the client does not agree with.
  • Balance of talking and listening – the client may feel that the therapist does not talk enough/provide sufficient feedback, or the client may feel that the counsellor talks too much and does not allow them enough space.
  • Respect – the client may not feel heard, understood or respected.
  • Life experience – the client perceives that the counsellor does not have necessary or sufficient life experience to assist them with the issues that brought them to counselling.
  • Counsellor qualifications – the counselling client may believe that the counsellor is not adequately qualified or that they belong to a counselling discipline with a professional approach that does not resonate for the client
  • Policies – particularly when the client perceives the counsellor’s terms of service or policies as unfair
  • Boundary issues: repeated lateness, not returning phone calls or emails, answering the phone in sessions…

Therapists Are Not Immune

Interestingly, a number of the above scenarios can also interfere with the the therapist’s experience of the counselling relationship. For example, if a client is repeatedly late for their counselling sessions, the therapist may feel frustrated or undervalued. Further, if a client reveals a life experience or set of values that conflict with the therapist’s, the therapist may feel worried, stressed or at odds with how to proceed with the client. This is an excellent time for the counsellor to seek professional supervision to determine a course of action.

Is Repair Possible?

As much as I want to blurt out “yes!”, the answer to this question depends very much on the willingness of both client and therapist to work things through and the current trust level in the counselling relationship to allow this working through to happen successfully.

Fortunately, research seems to show that repair attempts, when done well, actually strengthen the counselling relationship. This research points to the value in clients expressing unhappiness about particular aspect(s) of their counselling experience and counsellors being willing to create the space for this to happen and to listen non-defensively.

In fact, working things through with our counsellor may prove to be especially valuable if the counsellor creates the space to make this into a skills-generating experience: if we are able to become more effective in our conflict resolution in the process of bringing up our conflict with our therapist to her or him, we then have the potential to apply these skills to our relationships in the outside world and to other conflict resolution scenarios.

How to Repair?

If the counselling client is willing to bring up what has bothered them in counselling to their therapist, there are a few things that can help the repair process along:

  • Bring any disgruntlements up along the way rather than saving them up and letting them rip all at once. It is harder to come to a sense of resolution if there are multiple issues that need to be addressed at one time. Talking about things take time.
  • Be specific about what it was that bothered you. Describe the situation and resist the temptation to verbally attack, particularly if you’re very angry. A harsh start to the conversation rarely leads to a successful outcome.
  • Time it out. If you have a concern or concerns, raise it earlier in the session rather than later since a rush job at the end rarely leads to a satisfying resolution.
  • Partner for a solution. Once you have expressed your concern, indicate that you would like to move the conversation along productively and that you would like the counsellor to work collaboratively with you to remedy the situation.
  • Process It. If you’re stewing in between counselling sessions, take time to think things through or even better, write out your thoughts and feelings. This helps you be clear on what it is you want to say and re-empowers your change process.
  • Choose a counsellor who is open to your feedback, both positive and constructive. If you’re with someone already and you feel that your concerns aren’t being heard, mention it. If you still don’t feel heard or that your information wasn’t being received productively, find a new therapist.