Trying Therapy Again after a Difficult or Harmful Experience
Sometimes, people go to therapy hoping for help and understanding, but instead find themselves feeling let down by the process, misunderstood or harmed. A negative experience of therapy can feel jarring, painful and in some cases, even traumatising.
Returning to therapy after a harmful experience may be a very difficult decision; it is likely that you will feel cautious about forming another therapeutic alliance or putting trust in the therapeutic process. If you are thinking about trying therapy again after a harmful experience, here are a few things to consider:
It's good to shop around
If you have a choice of therapists available to you, it might be helpful to contact more than one for initial conversations to see who you 'click' with. Many counsellors will offer free or low-cost initial sessions, or a free telephone conversation. Take advantage of this, and trust your instincts - if the relationship doesn't feel right, you don't have to go back.
With this in mind, meeting new therapists might be a difficult or stressful process. Listen to your feelings, and only do what feels okay to do.
Remember: You are likely to be feeling very vulnerable in therapy after a harmful experience. You don't have to tell any therapist everything right away. Take your time and only disclose what you want to.
You can talk to your therapist about your fears
You are likely to go into the new therapeutic relationship concerned that the same thing will happen again here. Talking to the therapist explicitly about what you need from them may help you to feel more comfortable in the relationship. If boundaries are a particular concern, it is okay to ask your new therapist about their boundaries. Do they answer email between sessions? Do they offer hugs? It is also fine to tell them about things you found unhelpful in the previous therapeutic relationship and have a discussion about whether your needs are compatible with the new therapist's way of working.
Starting therapy again
Returning to therapy after a harmful experience can be particularly difficult because often, whatever brought you to therapy in the first place will be unresolved, so harmful therapy is unlikely to be the only issue bringing you to seek further therapy. I think it's important to be aware of how complex and multi-layered this set of feelings can be, and to offer yourself patience, particularly in the early stages where the feelings around your previous therapy are likely to feel very raw.
As therapy progresses, you are likely to experience a natural movement between wishing to talk about your previous therapy and the other issues in your life; it is important to trust in what you feel you need to bring and to talk about what feels right for you. My experience is that, as time progresses, therapeutic needs shift, and harmful previous therapy may become a less central part of the work. This takes time, and there is no right or wrong timescale for this type of movement to take place.
People often describe the loss of a therapeutic relationship as feeling like a bereavement, and however your last therapeutic relationship ended, it is important to acknowledge that any feelings of grief towards a former therapist are a natural part of dealing with a painful loss. If the harm you have experienced in therapy relates to a sudden, unexpected termination, these feelings of loss may be particularly acute.
If you are thinking about returning to therapy after a difficult experience, remember that all of the the feelings you are experiencing are valid, and a good therapist will provide a non-judgemental space to express them.
Other sources of support
Therapy can be one means of support for dealing with a difficult experience of therapy. There are other resources that clients might find useful if they do not feel that further therapy is appropriate, or that some clients may wish to draw on in addition to therapy.
TELL (Therapy Exploitation Link Line) offer support via email to people who have experienced harm in therapy. In addition, many clients seek support from online forums or in-person support groups, as well as family and friends.
If you have concerns about a current therapeutic relationship
If you are currently in therapy and you have concerns about any aspect of what is happening, you can contact the BACP's Ask Kathleen Service who can offer confidential guidance and information to help you. TELL (see link above) also offer support to those currently experiencing problematic therapy.