The Truth About Disappointment in Psychotherapy (And Why You May Benefit From It.) Written by Dr Linda Berman.


“The most important things that each man must learn no one can teach him. Once he accepts this disappointment, he will be able to stop depending on the therapist, the guru who turns out to be just another struggling human being.”

-Sheldon Kopp.

Kopp was a very perceptive psychotherapist and writer; this memorable book, below, was written in the early 70’s.


Kopp’s message is about each person becoming aware of the disappointments they experience in psychotherapy and by implication, in their life.

The pain of this will likely lead, if worked through with the help of the therapist, to a sense of freedom, greater confidence, strength and self-actualisation.

However, Kopp warns that therapy is hard and is not to be undertaken lightly. Before this enlightenment happens, people often go through a difficult process in therapy. 

This process usually begins with the realisation that the therapist is not living up to all they had initially hoped for.

Most people come into therapy expecting the therapist to sort things for them, possessing magical ways of changing lives.

Understanding that the therapist does not have any solutions might feel really upsetting. Sometimes, at this juncture, people become despondent, feel lost, or angry with the therapist.

If the therapist doesn’t have the answers, then WHO DOES??


However, this phase in therapy can represent a crucial turning point. Negotiating such feelings with a sensitive therapist can mean that new learning will occur.

Expectations of the therapist being the longed-for parent or god-like figure (“Buddha”) need to be explored, perhaps in the light of the person’s unmet needs from the past.

When a young man, whom I shall call Peter, came into psychotherapy with me, depressed, self harming and suicidal, he had unconsciously hoped I would be a replacement for his absent mother.

Yet he was so angry that the therapy only lasted 50 minutes, that he spent most of the session watching (and hating) the clock, begging and manipulating me for longer.

The clock itself became a weapon that he perceived me as using against him, merely by having it in my therapy room.


Focussing on the clock meant he could not use the time we did have. I worked at helping him with this, empathising with his enormous pain, whilst staying firmly within the time boundaries.

At the end of each session, I was, in the transference, his unavailable mother. He was disappointed with me for a long time and furious that there were others in the waiting room for me to see.

They felt like rivalrous siblings for him.

Slowly, as the months passed, he began to see my limitations, that I was a fallible human being and I could not be his fantasy mother.

I could not make the session last for as long as he wanted it (endlessly) and see him exclusively for therapy. This was a huge disappointment.

However, he also realised that I was able to help him develop a kind of ‘parent inside’, a feeling that he could care for himself, so that he no longer felt like an abandoned child. He began to also find some answers of his own.

Despite my shortcomings,  I was not abandoning him. Far from it. Peter began to appreciate what I could offer and forgot the clock. He stayed in therapy twice weekly for several years and grew into a strong, confident person, having accepted some losses and disappointments.

Managing Disappointment in Couple Therapy.

There are many couples who come for therapy disillusioned with each other. Therapy will usually be aimed at exploring expectations, tracing where these have come from and refocussing on reality.

For example, it may be that one or both of the partners had an unhappy childhood and abusive or inadequate parenting. Then, people might search for an ‘ideal’ parental replacement in a partner.

The unconscious hope is that unmet needs from childhood will be totally satisfied. This is, of course, a vain hope, in that we can never fully make up for what has been lost. We cannot be that needy child again.

However, it is possible to work towards meeting one’s unmet needs in a relationship in the present, as long as these are realistic.

Sometimes people are expected to be knights on white chargers, coming to the rescue  after a traumatic past. This is, of course, a recipe for disappointment.

Others are expected to fit the ‘perfect’, stereotyped image of what a wife or husband ‘should’ be, whatever that is in the individual’s psyche.


Image: James Vaughan, Flickr.


Such stereotypes are based on past experience, or on fantasy.

How do psychotherapists help people overcome disappointment in relationships ?

In a relationship where expectations are high, people will feel constantly dissatisfied, resenting the fact that the other cannot live up to their exacting standards.

This is about needing to control others, to fit them into a view of how they ought to be. It is often extended outside the relationship, to children, friends and colleagues.

If we expect perfection in others and wish for control , we will be projecting onto them our own thoughts about having to be ideal. We are imposing impossible behavioural criteria that we ourselves could never live up to.

We must question where these high expectations originated. Often, patterns of behaviour experienced as children become repeated in adulthood.

As we saw in Part 1 of this post, expecting the other to be perfect usually involves criticism and accusations. Learning to negotiate, to be non-judgmental and open-minded, compromising and adapting, are ways someone with over-high expectations can address their problems.

Couples and individuals are helped in therapy to work through past disappointments. They are encouraged to explore how they project onto others and ultimately to take back their projections. Then, hopefully, they will be able to accept the other, warts and all.

“You come to love not by finding the perfect person, but by seeing an imperfect person perfectly.”
– Sam Keen

Expectation has brought me disappointment. Disappointment has brought me wisdom. Acceptance, gratitude and appreciation have brought me joy and fulfilment.

Rasheed Ogunlaru

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