It happens. You're in therapy, and you share your most vulnerable thoughts with a caring listener who offers words of kindness and unconditional support. You walk away from each session feeling nurtured, valued, and heard. And then one day, you realize that something surprising has happened: you have a crush on your therapist.
Believe it or not, it's not a rare phenomenon. People can develop a crush on anyone in any situation, but especially in those relationships that make them feel accepted, cared for, and understood. This is why people can have feelings for, or even fall in love with, their therapist. And why therapists can sometimes even fall in love with their clients.
Psychologists often explain this phenomenon using the terms transference and countertransference. Understanding these concepts can help you to understand how the client-therapist relationship can (sometimes) make boundaries difficult to set and maintain. You can use this information to guide you through whatever you are experiencing with your therapist to learn how to navigate the situation.
Why Do I Have a Crush on My Therapist?
Therapists make people feel comfortable and safe. They create an environment where people feel like they can share their deepest, darkest, and unfiltered thoughts. They don't judge people for the memories and experiences that they bring into session and instead offer a sense of support.
The combination of these elements can make you feel like you've finally met someone who actually gets you. In addition, the trust, open communication, acceptance, and support - qualities provided by the client-therapist relationship - are probably qualities that you've looked for in a life partner. So if you've experienced romantic feelings for your therapist, it's okay. Know that many people develop these feelings while they are going through the therapy process.
But it might not just be the warm connection you feel during therapy that sends your heart racing. Some research suggests that there are also unconscious feelings that may be at play. It can be helpful to understand the concept of transference to fully understand the phenomenon.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), transference is when a person projects or displaces their unconscious feelings for others onto their therapist. Typically, the strong feelings originate from impactful people in a person's childhood, such as their parents, and are then placed on relationships in their present.
It's believed that certain settings and relationships can bring repressed thoughts, emotions, and memories to the surface. In therapy, people are often asked to reflect on aspects of their past in order to address their current concerns, which is why transference can be a common occurrence in treatment.
However, transference does not only occur in therapeutic settings. In fact, it can also happen in any type of relationship or interaction between two people. Positive transference is when a person projects feelings of attachment, love, and other positive emotions, while negative transference refers to the displacement of negative emotions, such as anger or hostility.
In addition to positive and negative transference, there is a third category known as sexualized transference. This is when a person forms deeper feelings of love and attraction toward their therapist, and it comes in two forms.
Erotic transference occurs when a person experiences positive transference and intimate fantasies toward their therapist. However, they recognize these thoughts as being unrealistic. Typically, this type of transference does not interfere with a person's goals in therapy.
On the other hand, eroticized transference is when a person experiences an intense, erotic, and overt obsession with their therapist that does negatively impact their therapeutic experience. During this transference, people often attend sessions in order to spend time with their therapist in the hopes that their love will be reciprocated.
Why Does My Therapist Have a Crush on Me?
Considering how therapy can make you feel, having a crush on your therapist may seem understandable. But what about when the tables are turned? Perhaps you feel like the support you get from your therapist goes beyond professional boundaries. Is it possible that your therapist has a crush on you?
If these thoughts have crossed your mind, they might not just be in your head. Clients aren't the only ones who can develop strong feelings through the therapeutic process. Providers themselves can also experience attraction.
Some studies show that as many as 95% of male therapists and 76% of female therapists have admitted to experiencing sexual feelings toward their patients. Sigmund Freud addressed this topic of sexualized transference as early as 1915 in his paper titled "Observation on Transference Love," which outlined some of the earliest ideas about these situations. The concept has become known as countertransference.
The APA defines countertransference as a therapist's conscious or unconscious thoughts and feelings towards both a client and the client's transference. These reactions are believed to be based on a therapist's own personal needs and conflicts.
Therapists can project feelings from their past onto someone in their present, just as their clients do. However, countertransference has an additional layer because it's believed to occur in response to a client's transference rather than developing independently.
During therapy sessions, providers get to see people behave in ways that are honest and vulnerable. They help them celebrate their successes and work towards growth. In some ways, they get to know their client better than anyone else. This can cause the two to feel extremely close to one another and occasionally lead to the development of deeper feelings.
How Transference and Countertransference Affect Therapy
If you end up having feelings for your therapist or get the sense that they might have feelings for you, you might wonder how these dynamics will affect your therapeutic experience. Research shows that there can be both positive and negative effects depending on how people react to the transference that is occurring.
Pros of Transference and Countertransference
According to a 2019 study from the Journal of Research in Psychotherapy, transference can have certain benefits for the therapeutic process. The study notes that it can positively predict a patient's levels of insight and positive emotions, which can aid people through the healing process.
The study also found that transference created a greater opportunity for people to explore their negative emotions in therapy. For example, it can help reduce a person's avoidance of negative topics and feelings, which can increase their insight into negative behavior patterns. Together, these aspects can help people form more balanced representations of themselves.
In addition, a 2022 study from the Journal of Psychology Research and Behavior Management notes that therapists can analyze transference and countertransference to aid in the therapeutic process. These elements can help providers better understand how a client behaves and affects other people around them.
Cons of Transference and Countertransference
When a therapist begins to have romantic feelings for their patient, it can negatively impact the client-therapist relationship. Therapists might find themselves inappropriately involved with their clients or become cold towards them in order to maintain boundaries, according to the 2022 study mentioned above.
The journal also notes that one factor that determines whether this dynamic will create a setback is whether a provider is able to recognize that transference or countertransference is occurring. In order to achieve this, a therapist needs to engage in self-reflection to monitor their feelings and determine how to move forward appropriately.
It can be challenging for a therapist to identify and manage their own intense emotions, just like it is for everyone else. And, many believe that transference and countertransference are even greater challenges for therapists that are new to the practice. These providers may have less training and experience in these areas, which can increase the likelihood of negative outcomes.
What to Do if You Have a Crush on Your Therapist
It can be hard to know what to do if you develop feelings for your mental health care provider. You might be worried that the feelings will detract from your sessions or hinder your overall growth. Or, you might be worried that if you say something, it might bring a stop to your therapy sessions altogether.
What's important is that you're honest with yourself. If you aren't sure whether you are developing romantic feelings for your therapist, or whether you just feel close to them, take some time to check in with yourself. How does your therapist make you feel? What do you really want out of the relationship?
If you determine that you do have a crush, you can use the steps below to guide you through the process of having a conversation with your provider.
Be Honest With Your Therapist
You might think that your therapist has no idea that you have developed a crush on them. However, that might not be true. Therapists are trained to pick up body language, tone of voice, and a variety of other social cues to help uncover how a person is feeling. The truth is, they might already have an idea that a crush has developed.
You might feel embarrassed or nervous to tell your therapist about how you're feeling, and that's completely understandable. However, it's important to be honest in order to protect the quality of your therapy sessions.
You don't have to use the words "crush," "romantic," or any language that might make you feel uncomfortable or embarrassed when you talk to your therapist. Just do your best to tell them how you're feeling. The only way they can help with the situation is if they know what's really going on.
Ask How It May Affect Your Sessions
After you share your feelings with your provider, you should ask any questions you have and share any thoughts that you may have been bottling up.
For example, you can ask them how these feelings may affect sessions in the future, if your past sessions may have been influenced, and if they have ever experienced this situation before with a client. Maybe you would prefer to switch from in-person to virtual sessions , switch to a different type of therapy, or make a different adjustment.
There's no question that is too big or too small. Your therapist will be able to validate your feelings and address your concerns.
Make a Plan to Move Forward
At the end of your conversation, it's important to make a plan for the future. Do you want to continue sessions with your current therapist, or do you think finding a new provider is best? Your therapist will be able to share their insight and professional opinion about how to move forward to the end of your therapeutic process.
Your provider might be able to help you navigate your feelings and gain insight through self-reflection if you choose to continue sessions together. Or, you both might decide that continuing sessions isn't in your best interest. Either way, it's important to remember that you need to do what's best for you and your own mental health.
Life is full of unexpected surprises, and falling for your therapist might just be one of them. Be gentle with yourself. After all, you're only human. At the end of the day, your feelings might help you gain more insight into yourself and your relationships with others.