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Therapy: A Customer Service Profession?

psychologistIn graduate school, I was told that in therapy, the relationship is a primary source of healing.  There were studies that said interns got as good (or better) results than more experienced therapists, because their clients felt so cared for.

I like that idea.  It rings true with a lot of my professional experiences.

But I’m wondering if it’s less and less true.  Is the healing relationship an antiquated notion, out of touch with where our culture is going? Take the experience I had last week, for example.

There’s a client I’ve seen three times.  She has been exceedingly late for every meeting (20-30 minutes late, for a 45-minute session.  Did I mention that sessions are now 45 minutes instead of 50, perhaps another sign of the impatient times in which we live?)

Anyway, I told this client that if she was more than 15 minutes late for sessions in the future, it would count as a No Show.  There would not be a session, and she would be charged the No Show fee.  I explained that this is because we haven’t yet had a chance to actually do any therapy.

What I didn’t say is that I also felt that in showing up so late, she was degrading the work that I wanted to do with her, that she was disregarding the relationship I wanted to build.

In what has turned out to be our last session, she was 22 minutes late.  I held the line I had set, she told me she would look for another therapist.  In telling my husband about it, he had this take: “You were viewing it as a relationship that she was not participating in; she viewed you as a service she had paid for, and it was her right to use as much or as little of it as she wanted.”

Am I a latte, and she can consume as much as she’d like?  Is that what therapy has become?

When I look around, I feel like the answer is, sort of.  Therapy, for me, is about building a relationship that is safe enough to be able to explore our deepest selves.  But maybe people don’t want to explore their deepest selves.

You’ve probably heard that therapists are losing a lot of clients to life coaches, consultants, etc.  I can only assume that feels less stigmatizing, and less intimidating, than engaging in a therapy process that many fear might be prolonged and/or painful.  Self-reflection can hurt, it’s true.  Call it growing pains.

And maybe people don’t want the intimacy of the therapy relationship; they want brief connections focused on concrete problems and generating specific solutions.

That’s not all people, of course.  But it seems like a fair number of people.  And I wonder how much of that relates to the larger culture in which we live–where phone calls are replaced with texts, e-mails with instant messaging, etc.  Immediacy may trump depth.

Do I sound like an old curmudgeon?  (I’ve always liked the word curmudgeon.  Can a woman be one?)  I don’t think I actually am one.  I’m all for progress and technology and efficiency.

I’m all for a level playing field–I need to compete with life coaches on my own merits.  I’m sure many of them are doing good work (and some are doing poor work–same as therapists, same as any profession.)

And I’m not suggesting we return to the past.  But I am suggesting we consider what is sacrificed when we turn our relationships into surface exchanges, when therapy becomes mere customer service, when we no longer have the time or the energy or the will for introspection.

Psychologist and patient image available from Shutterstock.

Therapy: A Customer Service Profession?

Holly Brown, LMFT

Holly Brown is a marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco Bay area. She has a private practice in Alameda ( ). She is also a novelist ( Her latest is HOW FAR SHE'S COME, a workplace thriller which received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly: "This provocative tale will resonate with many in the era of the #MeToo movement."

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APA Reference
Brown, H. (2013). Therapy: A Customer Service Profession?. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 30 Apr 2013
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