i think i’m in love with my therapist

Actually, I’m not, but I keep finding this search phrase in my stats, and I just have to comment on it. It comes up so often, that it surely must be a common theme in people’s lives.

Interestingly, in my research about pain and analgesic stress, I have come across some research and writing about brainwashing or mind control that may shed some light on this.

I am NOT saying that your therapist is trying to brainwash you or control your mind. But I may be able to shed some light on why this is such a common occurrence.

After all, someone falling in love with their therapist — or their therapist falling in love with them — is part of our cultural landscape. It is portrayed in movies, it’s discussed in books, and yes, people search the web about this issue — apparently, a lot.

Okay, at the risk of oversimplifying a pretty intricate, complex, and touchy subject, here’s how I understand the “love thing” happening in a psychotherapeutic context:

First off, as I understand it, regression is a process of “returning” to an earlier state of mind — kind of like accessing your inner child — so that you can tap into experiences and feelings at an earlier stage of your life and deal with previously traumatic or unsettling life events. There have been different views on regression over the generations — some conceive(d) of it as a defense mechanism that people use to avoid dealing with painful memories. Others see it as a necessary part of the psychotherapeutic process. Some therapists really pursue “getting in touch with the inner child” in order to heal old wounds. My own therapist is keen on me doing this — however, I’m largely resistant to it, for specific reasons, which will become evident below.

Now, regression has other “uses,” besides allowing someone to heal. It is also used in interrogation/torture circumstances, where a subject is resistant to “standard” interrogation techniques, and they need to be “broken down” in order to reveal the information sought. The CIA’s KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation manual states:

Obviously, many resistant subjects of counterintelligence interrogation cannot be brought to cooperation, or even to compliance, merely through pressures which they generate within themselves or through the unreinforced effect of the interrogation situation. Manipulative techniques – still keyed to the individual but brought to bear upon him from outside himself – then become necessary. It is a fundamental hypothesis of this handbook that these techniques, which can succeed even with highly resistant sources, are in essence methods of inducing regression of the personality to whatever earlier and weaker level is required for the dissolution of resistance and the inculcation of dependence. All of the techniques employed to break through an interrogation roadblock, the entire spectrum from simple isolation to hypnosis and narcosis, are essentially ways of speeding up the process of regression. As the interrogatee slips back from maturity toward a more infantile state, his learned or structured personality traits fall away in a reversed chronological order, so that the characteristics most recently acquired – which are also the characteristics drawn upon by the interrogatee in his own defense – are the first to go. As Gill and Brenman have pointed out, regression is basically a loss of autonomy. (13)

(bold emphasis added)

So, there are positive and not-so-positive uses of regression — both of them basically two sides of the same coin, as I understand it. The therapist and the interrogator are both urging the subject to return to an earlier point in their life, so that they can reveal the desired information. For the (principled and well-intentioned) therapist, it’s info about earlier events in life that are stopping the client from moving forward in life. For the interrogator, it’s info that’s politically or militarily privileged that they need to extract from the prisoner.

Now, one thing that happens in regression is that — after the “holdout” person has been on the hot seat (in therapy or in interrogation) for some time — they can form emotional attachments to the other person who’s questioning them. They can see them as a parental figure. Or they can form some other kind of emotional attachment to them… especially if that other person can offer (or at least seem to offer) relief or reassurance in the face of physical and psychic trauma.

A prisoner who has been beaten, waterboarded, threatened, put in solitary confinement, deprived of sensory input (like daylight or access to clocks) and separated from regular routine (like regular sleeping and eating times) may regress back to a semi-infantile state. And when an interrogator shows up (the good cop) and offers them an alternative to the bad cop torturers,
they can form a strong emotional bond with them — as a parental figure or some other emotionally significant personage.

From the KUBARK manual:

The skilled interrogator can save a great deal of time by understanding the emotional needs of the interrogates. Most people confronted by an official — and dimly powerful — representative of a foreign power will get down to cases much faster if made to feel, from the start, that they are being treated as individuals. So simple a matter as greeting an interrogatee by his name at the opening of the session establishes in his mind the comforting awareness that he is considered as a person, not a squeezable sponge. This is not to say that egotistic types should be allowed to bask at length in the warmth of individual recognition. But it is important to assuage the fear of denigration which afflicts many people when first interrogated by making it clear that the individuality of the interrogatee is recognized. With this common understanding established, the interrogation can move on to impersonal matters and will not later be thwarted or interrupted — or at least not as often — by irrelevant answers designed not to provide facts but to prove that the interrogatee is a respectable member of the human race.

Now, I’m not saying all therapists are like torturer interrogators, but on some level, they may employ interrogation-like techniques for the sake of getting to the bottom of deep-seated emotional issues. And just as their techniques may mirror those of interrogators in some ways, the response of a regressed client can mirror the response of a prisoner who has been subjected to torture — they may emotionally attach to someone who offers them relief from their physical and psychic pain (Note: physical and psychic pain are sometimes all but indistinguishable, but that discussion requires another extended post).

It’s not that the therapist is necessarily trying to take advantage of their client (though some do, and I’ve encountered therapists like that). It’s just that the human system responds in certain ways to certain stimuli and input, so falling in love with your therapist, especially when you’re in the midst of some very intense work and you’re ultra-vulnerable, may be the most natural thing in the world.

However, I have to say that depending on the therapist, this might not be such a healthy thing. It all depends on the person you’re working with. If you know they can be trusted — not “if you trust them” (which is an emotional and subjective approach), but if you know they can be trusted (which is more of a logical, objective consideration) — then you may be safe enough regressing with them. But if you have any concerns about the ethics of your therapist and their motives, you may want to avoid regressing back to a vulnerable state with them… and start looking for another therapist.

I’ve known people who fell in love with their therapists — plenty of people do — and trust me, it wasn’t always pretty.

Regression and its uses in interrogation… just something to keep in mind.

Have a happy day 😉

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