Hand Back the Handouts

E makes handouts that summarize skills or strategies she teaches her clients or that illustrate a process or a choice (like continuing down a familiar path, even if it leads to a bad place, rather than making the effort to take a different path). I’ve seen many of these over the many years we’ve worked together. A few I’ve found useful, particularly a list of feelings and a list of needs; this has prompted me to think more deeply about emotional needs at times when I’ve said, “Ugh, I don’t know what I’m feeling, just BAD!”

Last week, she gave me a number of handouts. At first, on Monday, I kind of accepted them, but then they started to bother me. On Wednesday, I left them on the floor in her office when I left. And today, when she emailed me a new one, I felt MAD. Or, to draw from her feelings list, I felt irritated, frustrated, resentful, aggravated, unseen, alienated and misunderstood.

At first I wasn’t even sure why.

But I think there are, in fact, multiple reasons why I find them so off-putting.

  1. They target the head (thinking, talking) rather than the heart (feeling, connecting). Did I mention that this is in the context of me having gone out on a limb and told her I need to work on trust and attachment? I can’t think myself into secure attachment.
  2. The handouts don’t tend to offer me any new knowledge. On the contrary, since it’s something summarized in 1-2 pages, it tends to be a simplified explanation or something that is complex and nuanced, or just a fairly simple idea.
  3. If something is in a handout, it means it is something she makes a lot of copies of and shares with many people. For me, this takes away from the personalized and individualized nature of what we are working on together.
  4. Some of the handouts feel like instructions (“what to do what you are angry” or “how to handle xyz.” I feel like she is handing me the instruction sheet and telling me to go home and fix myself. What I need is practice applying these concepts or skills in my real life, or in the context of the attachment work, in relationship to her.
  5. The new one that she emailed me today summarizes a lot of information I brought to her, from things I have been reading about complex trauma. Why does that irritate me? I guess because I feel like she is not putting in the effort to learn about complex trauma to help me but instead just takes what I bring her and tries to create a cheat sheet: “how to handle emotional flashbacks in five easy steps.”

I’m being grumpy, I can see that. I am feeling cut off from her anyway. We had an unsatisfying session last Wednesday (even apart from the handouts), and the session ended abruptly, awkwardly. I left feeling upset. And I’m trying not to email her, since she doesn’t like it anymore, but that leaves me no way to resolve that upset with her for a week. So it kind of lurks there and even grows, my own anxiety providing food for the rumbling of distrust.

Don’t give me a handout, E. Give me a sense of connection. That is literally all I want from you.


  1. Connection involves two people, so I think attachment work is different than other therapeutic work. She has to see you, which means you have to show yourself. But you also have to see her.

    She likes handouts obviously, or she wouldn’t make them. When she gives you handouts, she’s showing herself. Something about them appeals to her. It may be the cleanness and the order, so that complex ideas are broken into very clear pieces. What does she like about them?

    You’ve laid out what you don’t like about them, but do you also feel condescend to? As though your problems should be much easier to solve than they are?


    • Yes, I think I do feel condescended to–it’s part of feeling that the issue is oversimplified. But I think it also accentuates the power imbalance. “Oh here, I completely understand the three steps you need to take to feel better, while you are the student who needs to follow the directions.” Also maybe a piece is that there is no emotion, no empathy, in a handout.


      • I don’t know how this sounds, but what you describe is the motives a narcissist would have:to use the power imbalance to feel all-knowing. Your sense of being a thinking adult with responsibility for your own choices. My feeling for myself is that I have to be able to consider how painfully to this has been to experience in order to be able to recognize when it is or is not repeating. The pain can’t overwhelm my ability to think carefully.

        There may be an emotion in the handouts that subtle. It could be, “Look at my cool handout!: So a feeling of pride that makes you the admirer. Or it could be concern. When kids come to me with their little problems, I usually start with a bunch of factual questions, so that I understand the situation. It might seem dry, but I do it because I feel concern and a desire to help. Otherwise, I wouldn’t take the time to do it. Her emotion may be concern, even though it seems restrained.


  2. I can see why the handouts would grate, being given at this point in therapy. I know there have been points in therapy where I’ve found them helpful, such as early on in learning about particular concepts or when I’ve specifically asked for “homework” as a means of staying connected on a break. Other times, I think I’d feel the same irritation you do – I’d struggle especially with what you’re describing in #5, where it would feel rather like they’re claiming credit for my work, something that my mother often did.

    It sounds as if what you need, if E were to give you something concrete, is less “instructional dvd” and more “mix tape” – something that enhances connection by revealing part of herself, is unique to you and shows that she understands the things that you would appreciate and might make you feel good. I don’t mean literally that she should give you a mix tape, but if you take that thought and run with it a bit further ā€¦ what could you do with her in therapy that works more with heart than head, and puts you on a more even footing? Would it be possible for you to come up with any suggestions to take to her in your next session? Body work is only one example of heart-not-head. Things like working on the collage together that you were describing a couple of posts back would be another example. Even something completely untherapy-ish like playing a game together (eg snakes and ladders, or Jenga) or singing along to YouTube music videos together. Or something where the power balance is shifted the other way, eg demonstrating a skill that you have and E doesn’t – the example that springs to my mind of this is the time I showed Dr L how to alter one of the email settings on his computer that he didn’t even know existed.

    I sympathise with the difficulty of holding all that in until next week though rather than being able to get it all out there now with an email.

    Liked by 1 person

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