Therapy: Those “AHA” moments just don’t happen without the chemistry!

As a therapist, I am always happy when one of my clients has a “aha” moment. This is that very moment when everything comes together and you just know, it is going to initiate some form of positive change in the client’s disposition. I may have realised it was going to happen some time before it does but key is the client realising it. This makes it far more memorable and is more likely to be sustainable. I am lucky enough to have been involved in a number of these moments over the years and some just recently which have made all the client’s hard work worthwhile. The weeks of questioning the ability to carry on, weighed down by the past and an imagined future all seem to be forgotten in this moment of realisation. It is one of the most rewarding experiences a client and therapist can go through together. However, it is not a given that this will occur, many things can go wrong before they go right and many variables can be brought to bear on the process.

One of the strongest indicators for success in therapy is the relationship between the therapist and client. This so-called “chemistry” is hugely important and cannot be over-estimated. Some clients will have been in circumstances where there has been virtually nobody they could trust, find reliable or could confide in. The therapist then plays a crucial role in modelling the way relationships really can be. This “chemistry” is also something that cannot be taken for granted. Therapists and clients are human and even the “doctor” title doesn’t shield one from first impressions. That said, it is also the case that if both are clear that the relationship will be difficult after a few sessions, it will probably not get any better, meaning it is perhaps better to look elsewhere. On the other end of the spectrum, many clients see their therapist as a friend, easy to talk to, share secrets with and easy to be around. They often mistake the therapeutic process for friendship and are often disappointed when that “friendship” doesn’t develop after therapy finishes. While it is always nice to have a friendly, open therapist, this is not seen as essential for the process to work. The relationship with a therapist is not the same as friendship. Can a friendship develop after therapy? While not common, it can happen. However, ethical guidelines frown on this for various reasons, including the idea that the transference aspects of the relationship, and the asymmetrical power differential established in therapy, never fully disappear. Above all, despite all the things that can affect the relationship between client and therapist, many studies agree that this relationship is crucial to the process. A recent article in Psychology Today stressed that transference and compatibility are the two biggest factors in the relationship and subsequently  how successful therapy can be. While the article specifically looks at clients with depression, the factors can be said to be true for most disorders. Read more here.

As a therapist who practices CBT as my main approach, I see it as essential to become involved (sometimes daily) with my clients. This does not mean that I go to dinner with them, socialize or become best friends with them but for me, the more traditional approach to therapy where someone sits there, seemingly totally unapproachable and maybe says three words throughout the session as one that does not work for me. I like to think that my relationship with my clients, that is one of honest, open positive regard and reliability is one that they can model and take away with them. I am not saying that the former approach doesn’t work in some circumstances and I have used it before when I felt that boundaries are close to being crossed., I just prefer another approach.

Those “aha” moments mentioned before do not come quickly, are not guaranteed and are usually the culmination of a lot of hard work on both sides. The therapeutic process is means to this end but as with all things in life, can be affected by many things.

Dr. Nicholas Jenner is a Counseling psychologist in private practice working with individuals, couples, groups and companies. Apart from seeing clients face-to-face, Dr Jenner also runs a thriving online therapy business bringing help to those who are housebound or located in rural locations where therapy is difficult to find.

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  24 comments for “Therapy: Those “AHA” moments just don’t happen without the chemistry!

  1. The Quiet Borderline
    May 6, 2012 at 12:36 pm

    Great post.

    Hoping that my ‘chemistry’ will be OK with my new psychologist. He doesn’t speak English so that’s a first big boundary between us. However, he seems clued up and experienced enough that sometimes I don’t even need to say anything and he just ‘gets it’. I feel like he understands very well.


  2. May 6, 2012 at 12:40 pm

    I take it that you are an English native speaker. I just hope the language issue is not a barrier to therapy. Ideally, a same-language therapist would be optimum. There are nuances in the language that can be missed by people who do not have an in-depth knowledge of the language they are working in.


  3. May 6, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    This is so great and so true. You completely caught what therapy is like for me since my first visit with my therapist 14 years ago. I completely agree with you; I often wished my therapist was a “friend” of mine, but I understand there is a difference there that needs to be maintained. So great to hear this from another professional because sometimes I think…”Let’s just be friends!!” when I am talking to her. Its so great to know that someone knows you so well, yet won’t judge you on what you say to her. I love my therapist for so many reasons. Thank you so much for sharing this essay. Loved it.


  4. May 6, 2012 at 5:10 pm

    You are right. Research shows time and again that the actual philosophical foundation of the therapist (CBT, psychoanalytic, Rogerian, etc.) matters less than the fundamental chemistry between patient and therapist. With such connection, you are, indeed, set up for an ‘aha!’ moment.


  5. May 6, 2012 at 7:04 pm

    Good morning Dr. Jenner, apparently you and I are thinking a lot alike as my post for tomorrow is on your “shift moment”. Thanks for the great post as always, enjoy your Sunday.


  6. May 6, 2012 at 10:41 pm

    Thanks for expressing this so well. Although I’ve never been formally trained as a therapist, I find myself very much in that position with my clients, as well. Being too friendly puts you in jeopardy of losing your objectivity, or of losing the client’s respect or trust.
    However, I’ve learned long ago that, if you don’t meet people at a level that makes them feel comfortable with you, you’re viewed as an automaton who’s not really interested in their well-being.
    There is a balance that needs to be met to reach that “Aha!” moment, and you’ve obviously cared enough to find it with your clients. ☺


    • May 7, 2012 at 11:14 am

      Hi Gloria…great insight and one that hits the nail on the head, so to say. Finding that balance can be difficult sometimes. We are all in the helping professions because of our desire to help people. Sometimes it seems alien to set boundaries on a person who is trully looking for closeness but it is essential for all the reasons you mentioned.


  7. May 7, 2012 at 12:34 am

    I love your blog because you are personal and professional all in one. I’ve been in a few relationships with therapists and I, as a person with intimacy issues, appreciate the “ethical boundaries” that therapists adhere to. Thank you for being up-front and honest with your posts.


    • May 7, 2012 at 11:11 am

      Thanks for the great comment. It is only human nature to become attached to someone who says and does all the right things. Many clients see this as a sign of friendship but as Jaylene said in one of the other comments, clients do not need more friends, they need a professional with a professional approach.


  8. May 7, 2012 at 5:23 am

    I relate to your thoughts, both as a therapist and as a client. There are times I wish it were possible to be friends with my own therapist, BUT I don’t need another friend. Not really. when things come up in my own life, friendships only go so far. I need a professional relationship myself to help me move beyond the spot where I’m stuck….to help me to another AHA moment myself. I’m enjoying your blog, BTW. Thanks for following mine also.


    • May 7, 2012 at 11:09 am

      Thanks for the nice comment. As therapists, we carry a major responsibility to get things right and guage the relationship correctly. It is not always easy but essential to client recovery.


  9. May 7, 2012 at 7:14 pm

    I found that my doctor and I had what I called a very good ‘rapport’. I trusted and knew that she truly did care and want me to get better and it was through CBT. But I also realized it was a doctor/patient relationship…I have completed therapy and finally after many many years of meds and some form of therapy..feel the depression has lifted and took my last anti-depression meds several months ago with the approval of course of my doctor. I must include that I am a Christian and my doctor was also and so realized the importance of my faith during my therapy…..Diane


  10. May 9, 2012 at 4:39 am

    Great post! I’ve had a lot of “aha” moments with my therapist of the last 5 years, and I definitely attribute it to the “chemistry” we have. There are many days that I wish we had met outside of therapy; we would have been great friends. I originally rejected having another therapist when I went to a new health center for the treatment of my depression. But somehow, my therapist “tricked” me into talking to her for 5 years!

    Okay, she didn’t trick me! Her therapy “style” worked for me. She says a lot more than three words during our sessions. After getting to know me better, she found that I was comfortable with her interjected her thoughts; sometimes it’s okay when your therapist says (sincerely) “that sucks” over what happened in your life. I needed to know that she was human and not some emotionless alien studying me.

    I also loved that she didn’t scribble notes during our sessions. That always made me feel much more relaxed. I don’t know how she does it, but she somehow remembers everything her patients discuss with her until she writes it down later. Her ability to flip back to her notes and accurately verify a detail from a discussion we had months or years ago tells me just how close she pays attention. And it tells me just how much she cares about the welfare of her clients.

    Those “aha” moments in therapy are precious, so much so, that sometimes I think you therapists know a little magic!


  11. May 16, 2012 at 2:50 pm

    Hi. I like what you say. Seems like you are doing good work over there!


  12. June 4, 2012 at 5:48 pm

    I enjoyed this post! Thanks for the follow on my blog as well!


  13. May 31, 2017 at 4:48 am

    I completely agree with what you wrote here. My relationship with my therapist is the most important relationship I’ve ever had. She’s my main attachment figure, and one of our goals (I have Borderline PD) is building security and trust between us. The therapeutic relationship is so unique, special and valuable. I credit her for saving a life a few times already. Through relationship with her, I’ve grown so much, and find building healthy relationships with others is starting to take hold. Thanks for sharing this.


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