Sometimes clients have to change therapists. They might be receiving free or reduced-price mental health care at a university or training site, and when the student or trainee therapist they work with graduates or moves on to private practice, they are assigned a new therapist.
I was in this situation once with a client who was disappointed with having to make this change. As he put it, he didn’t look forward to having to recount “the story of his life” to his new therapist. He didn’t want to have to catch them up about who he is, what brought him to therapy, the work he and I had done together, etc. He wanted to be able to just yadda yadda yadda his way past all that. We spent a good portion of our last session talking about the reaction he was having. Why was he feeling this resistance to telling his story to a new person? Why was he so sick of telling it? We both agreed that these feelings of negativity were not the ideal way to start off with his new therapist, so we decided to try to find something positive about the transition.
I encouraged this client to look at the first session with his new therapist not as an annoying task in having to retell his story, but as an exciting opportunity to pitch himself as he wanted to be seen. This was a chance to experience how he could shape the narrative of his own story. He had been telling himself pretty much the same “story of his life” for as long as he could remember, but based on the work we had done together up until that point, he had changed, and so we needed to examine how his story had changed and if we were being true to it as we imagined retelling it.
This client was a fan of Marvel comics and movies, so we thought about his situation as if she were the main character in a comic series written decades ago, and how many things about it we would change to bring it up to date. We might see that the setting of the story needs to change. Our hero’s goals and desires might have changed. The put-upon sad-sack lead character might end up becoming more of an admirable heroic type. The villain who was a barrier to future happiness might have turned out to be an ally. The situation might have gone from “no end in sight” to “light at the end of the tunnel.” In this new version of the story, there were more reasons for our hero to be happy than sad. And the idea here is that it’s hard to appreciate if any of these things about you have changed if you’re just flipping through the pages, skimming the story of your life mindlessly, repeating how it’s always been, instead of really considering how your life has changed and how you now reflect all this personal growth you’ve experienced. Sometimes our stories change but we don’t notice as we continue on with the same words we’ve always told ourselves.
The transition between therapists is a great way for a client to reassess their own emotional journey in this way, but once you’re aware of this concept, anytime is a good time to review your story. This is especially true when you meet new people. Oftentimes the people closest to us, the ones we spend the most time with, have been familiar with our story since the beginning and can’t see us as anything beyond the character we were introduced to them as. This in turn is reflected in our attitudes about ourselves. If other people expect us to continue with the same story, why shouldn’t we expect ourselves to have a different one?
The client ended up excited by the end of our session. Instead of feeling like it was a drag to catch the new therapist up on his situation, he saw it as a chance to share how much he’d learned about himself, and say out loud to a new person what he’d been through and what he’d overcome. It made him proud, like he had changed for the better, and it turned out to be a great way to end our clinical relationship.
So think about your story. Be conscious of how you present yourself. Listen to how you describe yourself, both in conversation with others and in your own mind. Be curious about noticing the things about you that have changed. When you’re around the same people all the time, you might not feel like anything about you is changing. Sometimes in telling your story to someone new, you will discover things about yourself that have changed for the better, and you’ll be proud of them, and this experience will reinforce your desire to continue working on yourself to make more positive changes.