It’s Wellness Vibes Week! We’re taking some time at the start of this brand new year to explore wellness culture/wElLnEsS cUlTuRe through a queer lens, specifically the kind of queer lens that you can only find at your local Autostraddle. No celery juice or vagina steaming, just some chill tips for making your spiritual, physical and mental health a little better in 2020.
I realize that many of you will feel #attacked by this, but the truth is, by attacking you I am at once attacking myself, and isn’t that brave?
The relationship between therapist and patient is an incredibly intimate one. What could be more attractive than having a woman look you dead in your eyes and say things like
I hear you and I see you, your feelings are valid, you deserve, I’m sorry for the pain you’ve endured.
Is this post for NSFW Sunday because that was straight-up porn.
We live in a space where we are constantly bombarded with claims that our feelings make us silly and irrational, or that the things we’ve endured are “not that bad.” This diminishing of the self cloisters our ability to be vulnerable with ourselves and others. Therapy can be an antithesis to those patriarchal views on emotional health; it becomes a place where we realize ourselves and what we deserve. So, having an hour or more of our week devoted to being listened to can lend itself to a misdirection of feelings. It’s easy to dismiss this as a harmless crush, but it can easily spiral out into an obsession that takes away from the real work that needs to be done.
For me, this phenomenon is only amplified when my therapist is also a woman. Lesbians and queer women are stereotyped for our huge emotions and grandiose love stories where we move in together at two months and get engaged at eight. This, I think, can occur organically or be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe you as an individual are not overly committal, but you think you have to be if you are a woman that loves other women. So when we are met with the intense emotions that come during a session, we may feel encouraged to devote ourselves entirely to whoever is evoking them. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for us to seek out a therapist that identifies the same way that we do. Of course, we want them to know the issues we face on a day to day basis, and sharing that commonality further deepens the relationship. A few more tear-stained sessions that end in her telling you she’s so proud of the woman you’ve become and you’re in the group chat asking if it’s inappropriate to make her banana bread.
What makes it so easy to fall for our therapists? Let’s talk about transference.
Transference is more common than we think. It can be as simple as being annoyed by a colleague or fellow student who looks slightly like one of your exes or attaching maternal feelings onto an older woman in your circle. The kind I’m referring to here is sexualized transference; when a person develops romantic or sexual feelings toward their therapist. It is also referred to as erotic transference, which I like better because transference doesn’t always come with sexual desire. Think Helena Peabody except without all the predatory rich white bitch energy.
As earlier stated, the relationship between therapist and patient is extremely intimate, especially between two women or nonbinary people. It can be vulnerable to transference because therapists often appear as ideal partners: they listen, they affirm, they often boost your self-esteem by telling you how worthy and capable you are. Maybe your therapist is also just a total babe which can make resisting those feelings even harder. Something about emotional intelligence makes a person really attractive. They also seem imbued with a vision of the perfect, mentally well person you could be one day, and you begin to believe having them by your side is the only way to become that person. We all want to try on the suit of our realized selves and be who we needed to see as children, but filling a notebook with small love notes to Katherine isn’t gonna get you there.
The big trouble with transference (or just having a small crush on your therapist) is that it displaces the purpose of the relationship. To put it plainly, you no longer want to go to therapy to get well but instead to go on a “date” with a person you have feelings for. You start to take those earlier statements, not as a sign that you are indeed growing as a person, but that your therapist has an interest in you and possibly thinks you are more special than their other patients. You begin to build fantasies in your mind of developing a mutual friendship or more with them which takes away from the real work that you set out with the intent to do.
So what do you do when you find yourself awake and on her Instagram reserved for friends at 3 AM, or on her defunct facebook page where you can only see her profile picture and city (told you I’m attacking myself too)? If you’re not too embarrassed by the prospect, talk to your therapist about it. They are probably already aware it is happening or at the very least know what transference is and how to deal with it. Broach the topic by saying:
Hey, so I’ve noticed that I’ve been looking forward to our sessions a little more than usual these days. I’m a little worried that I might be mixing some feelings up here. What do you think we should do?
If you’d rather dwell in silence with your shame and lust, try journaling! Writing down your innermost thoughts is a great way to keep track of them in real-time, especially if you’re worried that some transference might be going on, especially if you’re not an inscrutably rich heiress who can afford to be sued by more than one therapist. Writing about your feelings will make you confront them in a way that can be more objective than a spiral of thoughts stuck in your head. There is also a form of transference focused therapy that you can approach with your therapist if need be.
If writing a five-part play about resolving your issues with your therapist doesn’t work, then maybe getting a new therapist will help you. This is probably the most painful option, seeing as you have begun to look forward to staring into her forest green eyes every Sunday and making her laugh with that famous self-deprecating humor, but sometimes you and a therapist have to break up. You will likely be referred to a different therapist in your network that your current one knows and trusts.
An easier step is to ask your therapist to focus treatment on tangible exercises and not such heavy emphasis on talk therapy (if this is in their repertoire). My therapists have given me a ton of workbooks and worksheets. I’ve found that these little homework assignments allow me to focus on getting well and not how fluttery my stomach would get when thinking about her. I leave with an accomplishable goal and then return with something strict to talk about.
It may seem like I’m doing a lot here. After all, you’re just innocently looking at her Instagram, innocently googling her to figure out if her published articles are behind a paywall, INNOCENTLY surveying how the year 2016 was for her on facebook. You’re constantly gushing over how cute she is but it’s all so innocent, right? The thing is this is a conversation we have to have because I want you to be happy and get better, and having affairs with our therapists is not the way forward. There are a million people you could kiss that don’t have a vital role in your life. For instance, the mail person! A waitress at your favorite diner (when she is not at work)! That tinder match that has been sitting in your inbox for months and months! By the end of all that hoeing, you won’t even want to lie under her like she’s the weighted blanket folded neatly on her bookshelf.
Love this. My unhelpful contribution is that I was mildly in love with my former therapist for like.. a week and a half, in the latter part of maybe 2.5 years of working together? and it was delightful, for I knew it to be fantasy, was not in the heavy lifting portion of the therapeutic relationship, and so could just enjoy the feelings. A+ would do again.
Hi there! Queer therapist here! Love love love that you’re acknowledging this. A few things I think about with transference:
– Is it impacting your ability to be honest with your therapist? If yes, then it is *definitely* something to bring up. I’ve talked with folks who have told me their therapist crushes have caused them to exaggerate how well they are doing, lie about maladaptive coping skills, or even try to “make their therapists jealous”. If any of those things are happening, it is time to either bring it up or find someone else.
-We know this happens and it isn’t weird! We have our own issues with this (called countertransference, that’s fun!) and we process it with our colleagues or supervisors. It’s nothing to be ashamed about but the session should be focused on *you*, you are paying to go to therapy for a reason and hopefully you are getting your money’s worth and not spending the whole time wondering if your therapist likes you (although again, that’s totally normal and if it crosses your mind sometimes that isn’t grounds to immediately find a new therapist!)
-I’m definitely biased about this because I’m a queer person who works with a lot of queer people, but I think we are particularly prone to transference when we find dope queer providers because it can feel like they just *get us* in a way so few people do. If your provider is queer competent, they should be able to handle an open conversation about your feelings for them in a professional boundaried way.
-On the note of boundaries: PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD I HOPE YOUR THERAPISTS CAN SET THEM WELL. If your crush turns into unethical shit with your therapist I am so sorry and hope that nobody ever hurts you in that context ever. (or any context, but the idea of a therapist mishandling a client crush makes me sick).
this is fascinating
thank you so much!
Yes! Another queer therapist here. To add on–it is inappropriate and unethical for your therapist to EVER go on a date with you, kiss you, etc. If you are in a situation where a therapist ever is inappropriate with you, please please please get out of that therapeutic relationship, and consider reporting them to their licensing board.
And yes, seconding all of the above, it’s super normal to have feelings for your therapist, and if you’re concerned or it is getting in the way of your therapy (not wanting to be honest is a flag), talk to them about it! We’re used to it :) We might recommend that you get a new therapist, or we might work through it with you–sometimes that results in really interesting and useful discoveries about yourself!
All of this has been very helpful. Thank you very much. This is an old article I know, but this last year I fully came out as Bi and I was also diagnosed with ADHD. I have been in therapy since my diagnosis but the therapist I am currently seeing is newish to me. It was important I find someone who specializes in neurodivergence and also queer issues. The therapist I am seeing is nonbinary and I have found our sessions to be quite helpful. I am talking to them about my mucho closeted past and they see me for who I am. I feel validated in a way that has been rare to me. I did not start feeling this attraction till this last session. Or maybe feeling isn’t the right word but realized. Its early and I don’t want to say anything as of right now. I have journaled which has helped tremendously. I do want to see how I react to our next couple of sessions before I bring it up. Confrontation is very difficult for me, but I do not want to hide anything, and I want to continue being honest. This has been very unexpected, and I am lowkey irritated my thoughts have gone to crush mode.
This was such a fun read on a really serious topic – thank you Dani Janae!
AH wow thanks what a timely and true piece of writing! Soooo question for the world: I find myself thinking about my therapist constantly and having imaginary conversations in my head and also imagining seeing them in public or outside of therapy. but like it’s not exactly romantic or sexual (although i do find them extremely attractive). Is that the same as transference? Anyways thanks for this article, I feel so sheepish about the topic so it’s nice to hear from others about it.
Hm, IANA therapist but what you’re describing sounds a lot to me like the way I used to feel around attractive girls before I let myself acknowledge that I was queer – kind of like there was a gatekeeper part of my brain that had set up boundaries and wouldn’t let me fully dive into romantic/sexual feelings, but also didn’t prevent me from thinking about them constantly in “platonic” ways. I can’t say if that’s similar to what’s happening for you (i.e. you know that a relationship would be inappropriate so you don’t let yourself go there in your head), but if that seems plausible then maybe it is some level of transference?
Could be transference! I am a therapist, but this is not therapeutic advice bc I don’t know you or your situation. Transference can be any kind of putting feelings around one person onto a different person. If you’re up for it, it might be helpful to talk to your therapist about it!
I wish this article had addressed what I think is a key issue with crushing on therapists: How do you know it’s transference at work and not simply in love with your therapist herself?
Because your relationship with your therapist is completely one-sided; they listen and take in all of your shit, but you, in turn, hardly know a thing about them, besides what you can glean from hidden sources. You don’t know their bad habits or pet peeves or how they act on a bad day or what they REALLY think about what you just said behind that non-judgmental facade. They are an entire messy person behind their professional persona which may or may not – and let’s be real, just statistically speaking, probably not – compatible with your messy person. What you’re crushing on is actually a fantasy persona of your own creation that you’re projecting onto them in substitution of not having very much real information about them to go by.
It was designed that way. Because this isn’t a friendship; you’re paying them to be there. They’re playing a role. Their attention and focus and validation are, at least to some degree, always going to be fake.
The accumulation of all of that knowledge they have about you makes the relationship really one-sided; codes of ethics preventing them from engaging in a relationship with you are for your own protection, because it would be extremely easy for someone with that level of intimate, one-sided knowledge to one day use it against you, the way exes in messy break-ups inevitably do.
I’m not a therapist, so I’ve never had the experience of sitting in the therapist’s chair and “countertransfering” onto a client. I actually think countertransference must be a much greater temptation; to listen to every intimate detail of clients’ lives for hours and get to know them wholly and deeply…perhaps you even find ones with whom you admire and respect so much that you think, “Wow, what would it be like to be loved by this person?” only to be bound by conscience and a Code of Ethics to never have the satisfaction of being acknowledged and known in return.
I think that must be much worse.
I feel like there’s potentially overlap with attachment styles, esp those with anxious/avoidant attachment from past trauma.
Like, anyone that is nice to me and shares emotional intimacy in a trustworthy way = crush, even if I have zero interest in dating them. It’s weird, all of the awkwardness and none of the romantic feelings. Help me stop doing this lol.
please do not encourage vulnerable people who need human connection to invest their limited emotional energy into hypercompartmentalized transactional relationships
that is, actually, not good
Sorry, I was extremely sleep-deprived when I wrote that and got kind of flippant/incomprehensible as a result – I was struggling to explain something that felt nearly impossible to explain, and then I just kind of vomited at the keyboard, and then it made zero sense to anyone who couldn’t see inside my head.
I feel like the concept of therapy as a helpful thing for your wellbeing and the concept of therapy as a vitally important medical treatment are intersecting in some really uncomfortable ways here, to me – both of those are real relationships to mental health care that a person might have, but the assumption that you really, really need to be prioritizing therapy or your recovery will be all fucked up is being generalized to people who aren’t in that situation at all. It seems like what’s supposed to matter about the crush on the therapist isn’t that being in unrequited love is painful, or that obsessing over someone who’s never going to return your feelings can prevent you from catching feelings for someone more attainable, it’s that having the crush gets in the way of therapy and it needs to be resolved so you can get back to what’s really important, or you won’t get better. The whole thing is also written like… I guess it’s back to therapy-as-wellness vs therapy-as-medicine again, where people in therapy are sick enough that they really need to be taking this seriously, but well enough that they have a ton of other relationships and coping with unrequited feelings would be trivial? I mean, I don’t think people should actually try to date their therapists, but I guess I feel like this attitude is a little dismissive. It sounds nightmarish and humiliating to tell someone that you love them and then have them tell you not only that they aren’t interested, but that your feelings aren’t real, and then to continue to have a relationship with that person where they have power over you. I’m sure I’m failing to understand experiences different from my own, but I have a hard time believing that anyone who says they’re okay with that is giving themself and their feelings the dignity that they deserve (which is a problem that a lot of people have, and that spaces that prioritize healthiness are kinda uniquely bad at addressing).
And to take it a step further, I think that “wellness culture” or whatever thing you want to call it is really good at recognizing that personal relationships can’t always substitute for therapeutic ones, but really really bad at the reverse. It’s generally known that you’ll mess up your friendships if you try to make your friendships fulfill the function of a therapist/client relationship, and if you’re treating people like your therapist, you probably need an actual therapist. I feel like it’s also true that if someone’s engaging with their therapist as someone they have a non-transactional relationship with, like a friend or partner, and trying to get things out of that relationship that are never going to happen, then maybe they need to get a little more serious about looking for those things somewhere else – and sometimes that’s going to come at the cost of some of their investment in therapy, because that was coming from somewhere else in the budget in the first place. And I think when the only real concern is whether someone stays focused enough on therapy, you miss out on noticing problems caused by putting energy into therapy that should be going elsewhere. Which is not to say that the therapy shouldn’t matter, but like, your therapist shouldn’t be your primary or only source of emotional intimacy, especially not long-term. Long-term fixations on someone who has to be nice to you but doesn’t see you that way are just a hole you throw your love down, and that kind of problem can still exist once you’re Healthily Processing your crush on your therapist… with your therapist, and I think that matters as much if not more than whether people who aren’t in recovery fuck up the recovery they’re not in.
just wanted to thank you for those. i’ve had a trusting partner for years, but of course that did not prevent me from falling for my therapist. i brought it up during our last session. she actually said that it was real, and made an enormous effort to try and convince me that she is the most unbearable person in real life. guess i need to go do other stuff and connect to people in the real world.
Crush is too strong, but with my previous therapist I had regular fantasies of bumping into them at LGBT+ events in my area. Like it could happen, right?
When I did some Google searches about transferance this popped up. The specificity here is what makes me know I’m seen! Psy*ho*logyTo*a* could NEVER! Thank you for this gift.