Whenever Emma Flint meets a new therapist, she craves their approval – even when she doesn’t like them. While she wants everyone to like her, the need is different with therapists.
“With a therapist, it feels more intense; it almost becomes all-consuming,” said Flint, a writer and freelance journalist. “I want them to like me so much that they consider me their ‘favourite’ patient, which is ridiculous because therapy doesn’t work like that.”
She changes her behaviour to seem more “likable.” For example, she tries to be funnier and feels pleased when they laugh. But this desire doesn’t sit right: it causes anxiety that raises her heart rate. “I feel completely wiped out emotionally,” she said.
Many people have this same ache. If you search “does my therapist like me?” on Google or Quora, you’ll find page after page of people asking the same thing.
So why do we care so much? A couple of therapists shared their ideas.
Being liked and seen as helpful feels good
Being well-liked is a good feeling. It’s OK to admit that!
“Some people want their therapist to like them for the same reason they would want anyone to like them – because it makes them feel good,” says Kristi Beroldi, a licensed professional counselor and assistant clinic director for Thriveworks in Reston, Virginia.
“It is a critical social need to be liked, as being disliked and the possibility of rejection generally causes significant distress, possibly even more so for individuals who may already be more vulnerable with the mental health need that encouraged them to seek therapy in the first place,” adds William Chum, a licensed psychotherapist in New York.
According to a study in The Journal of General Psychology, people like to be seen as “good” and “helpful” subjects in research – which applies to the therapy room too. “This phenomenon occurs in therapy in a similar way, when a patient believes their perceived progress would help the therapist and allow them to be seen as a good patient,” Chum adds.
We feel more confident in the care we’ll receive
It might also help us feel more confident about how well we’ll be treated as a “good patient.” “People may also be under the impression that they would receive better care if their therapist likes them,” Beroldi says.
That impression isn’t totally unfounded, either. According to a study in the journal Pain, people take the pain of patients they like more seriously than of those they don’t. But don’t worry: therapists weren’t the participants – “normal people” were.
We can’t read therapists’ emotions as easily
When you meet someone or talk to a friend, you probably get social signals about what they think and if they like you. But with therapists, those signs are less prominent.
“Therapists are generally trained to be a ‘blank slate’ in the therapy space and not bring their own feelings or biases into the room, and this atypical relationship dynamic can also cause patients to exhibit subconscious behaviours that help to validate the relationship, such as doing things that they believe will garner some approval,” Chum explains.
How to get over a need for validation in therapy
While getting their approval is tempting, your therapist wants you to know who you are and what you need.
“Therapists want clients to trust themselves and be confident and self-assured without external validation,” Beroldi says. “We are the experts in the field; they are the expert in their own life.”
So how do you fight off that intense urge to make your therapist like you?
Remember it’s going to feel weird at first
Remind yourself therapy feels awkward for most people just starting out. “They will need to understand that it will feel uncomfortable and even unnatural at first because they are doing something new and unfamiliar,” Beroldi says.
If you say something untruthful or don’t share certain details because you’re scared, it’s OK to go back and clarify. “Gaining self-awareness will help them increase understanding and reach their goals faster,” Beroldi adds.
Be mindful of your goals and intentions for therapy
In therapy, you’re trying to work on a stressor in your life. When you’re honest about your actions and feelings, you can work through that stressor more efficiently and effectively.
“Patients need to show up authentically in therapy in order for the process to be the most helpful,” Chum said. “A therapist can only operate with the information that is given.”
Plus, self-sabotaging and lying by omission or commission are behaviours that can secretly make you feel bad about yourself – so it’s best to avoid them.
Know the ethical codes therapists have to abide by
Therapists are supposed to be helpful, supportive and nonjudgmental. Keep that in mind when you feel anxious.
“Patients should understand that it is in the ethical codes for a therapist to ‘strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm,’” Chum says. “This is something that patients can count on for the integrity of the therapy process.”
Consider finding a new therapist if needed
But at the same time, finding a new therapist is also an option. Just like you don’t mesh well with every person, you won’t mesh well with every therapist. If you’re concerned about your lack of progress and think a different therapist could respond in a more compassionate way, for example, consider looking for someone new.
“If a patient does not feel safe enough in the therapy space to be honest, even if it meant the possibility of not being liked… it may be that the therapist is not a good fit,” Chum says.
Address your insecurities in the session
Therapy sessions are your time to get what you need – and if that’s talking about your craving for validation, that’s OK. It can help the rest of therapy be more beneficial.
“I encourage patients to confront [or] call out their anxieties in the therapy room and share with me what holds them back from being honest, and subsequently uncover patterns of anxiety in relationships,” Chum shares.
Try to avoid making your concerns a “doorknob comment,” too, which entails mentioning them in passing on your way out the door. Having plenty of time to talk things through is best.
And hey, for the record? Jeff, a hilarious TikTok therapist, says he wishes he could be friends with his clients or at least not have to give “some cringe bullshit reply” when a patient asks him how he’s doing. So there’s that!