Signs Your Therapist Isn't Working Out: When To Move On
If you've been in therapy for a while and don't see much progress in your goals for treatment, you might feel like therapy doesn't work for you. If that's the case, you might have a mental health professional who is not a good fit. Understanding potential signs of a bad therapist, such as unethical behaviors or lack of insight, may allow you to make informed decisions about when to move on.
A therapeutic alliance with your therapist can be essential. If you don't find that your mental health issues are improving, or believe that your sessions worsen your mood, it could signify a need to find the right match in a new provider. While it is relevant to note that some things can definitely seem worse in the beginning of effective counseling, as you are challenging cognitive skills, behaviors, attitudes, etc.; such intensification should be relatively short-lived, so you should quickly move on to experiencing positive progress.
Therapist Red Flags And Inappropriate Behavior
Many individuals might seek to give mental health professionals the benefit of the doubt and assume they are experienced and professional. However, identifying conflicts with your therapist might be challenging if you've never been in therapy or feel unsure about your treatment plan. Below are several bad therapist signs you might notice from an unprofessional or inappropriate provider.
They Aren't Listening
In therapy, active listening from a counselor can be beneficial in helping a client feel heard. Clients may struggle to progress if their therapist ignores them or changes the subject when they're speaking. Good therapists should work to hear you, respond to what you say, and repeat your concerns back to ensure they heard you correctly. They may listen to what you say and also consider any underlying meanings. You shouldn't generally have to worry about what not to say to your therapist because their job is to provide a safe space of nonjudgmental listening where you can share openly. You can tell your therapist about a lot of things, but still be aware of what not to say to your therapist. When they don't understand, they may ask clarifying questions to help gain a more complete understanding of your point. Overall, a healthy therapist should address your concerns with interest and offer relevant advice.
- Talking about their own life for the majority of the session or when you bring something up about yourself
- Appearing disengaged by looking out a window, focusing on items in their office, or sighing
- Ignoring what you said and bringing up a new topic
- Telling you that your feelings are "weird" or "don't make sense"
- Engaging in phone calls, attending to other patients, or leaving the room during your session
If you feel judged by your therapist, it may be a red flag and signify a need to find a new provider. Therapists are held to a code of ethics by the American Psychological Association, and judgmental and shameful behavior can be an ethical violation. A healthy therapist may aim to understand your words, perspective, and goals without criticism or judgement.
A healthy therapist may accept your identities and reward your accomplishments during therapy sessions. It could be a red flag if they "punish" or judge you for behaviors about which you feel ashamed. Therapists are trained to provide validating, empathetic, and professional care while respecting confidentiality. A trained therapist may focus on helping you make the positive behavioral changes you deserve.
Below are a few examples of harmful statements from a professional:
- "You're not a good parent if you do that."
- "You need more self-sufficiency; you're too lazy."
- "Your self-destructive behaviors are for attention."
- "I can't help you if you don't open up to me immediately."
- "Your mental illness is just an excuse for your behavior."
If a therapist pressures you, expresses a bias toward your gender or minority identity, makes you feel judged, or doesn't accept your boundaries, it may be a sign that they are unhealthy for you.
When you work with a therapist, you can be putting yourself in a vulnerable position. If there is any indication that your therapist is starting to take advantage of that position, cut ties immediately. You should be able to work with your therapist without worrying that they may use their position to steer the relationship in an inappropriate direction. Any physical contact, like your therapist initiating hugs or inappropriate touching should be addressed and not tolerated. If you sense this is happening, there are steps you can take to remove yourself from the situation and report the therapist to the state board:
- Let the therapist know you are going to leave early. Do not tell them why.
- When in a safe location, report your concerns to the state board of psychology for your state.
- After reporting them, look for a new therapist in a new location away from the previous counselor.
According to the APA, romantic or sexual dual relationships with clients are not allowed unless two years have passed since treatment, and the client is no longer a client. Even if you consent to a relationship, dual relationships are unethical, and a therapist can lose their license for engaging in one. If you believe your therapist is steering the session in subtle ways, showing interest in you as a romantic partner, or making sexual advances, report them to their state licensing board.
Lack Of Progress
It can be typical, and understandable, to leave the first therapy session with the impression that no progress has been made; because intake sessions tend to require gathering information about you as a patient, your goals, and other relevant background details, to help your therapist get to know you better. However, if you've been in therapy for a while and still don't perceive that you've made any progress from that first day, it could indicate that your therapist is not a proper fit.
That said, therapy is often not a linear journey, and there may be times when you feel you're making progress and times when you feel stagnant. Even if a therapist gives advice and follows a treatment plan, some patients may struggle to engage in treatment or practice the skills offered. For example, if a therapist gives their patient relaxation techniques, but the patient does not try them, they are not likely to see results.
In some cases, a lack of progress may be due to the wrong type of treatment for a particular concern, such as bipolar disorder or other disorders. For example, some patients experiencing symptoms related to trauma may not benefit from therapist based behavioral advice when they seek validation of their experiences. They may interpret that a suggestion to change a behavior does not consider their entire experience, which feels like blaming or disregarding their feelings. Therapists who tailor their sessions to a client based on what is most helpful and yields the most results may see more benefits.
When you attend a therapy session, you are paying money for professional support. If a therapist spends most of the session talking about themselves, it can take time away from the focus on the client and reduce the investment made. However, boundaries can be essential. If you feel that your therapist is hindering your progress because they talk about themselves frequently without any benefit to you, consider a new provider.
In supportive therapy, countertransference occurs when a therapist treats a patient positively or negatively due to a personal association that reminds them of that person. For example, you may remind them of their child, and they take on a "parenting" role with you. In some cases, a therapist might be reminded of a friend and treat their client as a friend. You might also remind them of other clients or themselves, and they may start making comparisons.
The warning signs of countertransference in therapy depend on what your therapist is experiencing. Pay attention to whether the therapist gives information outside the scope of what's relevant to your session. If this occurs, remind your therapist that you are unique outside of those they know and are attending sessions to improve your mental health. A therapeutic alliance is not supposed to be a friendship but a professional, supportive connection.
It can be frustrating if your therapist doesn't promptly respond after you've reached out to them. Supportive therapy sessions can involve healthy communication, and your therapist may do their best to respond as long as your communication is healthy and respects their time and boundaries. However, if you find it impossible to reach out to your provider, consider letting them know you'd appreciate more responsiveness.
A Lack Of Challenges
Some clients may benefit from positive challenges in psychotherapy. If you don't believe that you're being challenged or gently nudged forward, you may not experience the progress that is possible for you. A healthy therapist may offer constructive feedback to help you benefit from the work you've done together. An experienced therapist should know how to challenge you without pushing you too far. If relevant, they may understand your adaptive capacities and help you through graded exposure to your fears.
If you are using an online therapy chat or texting your therapist and find that your therapist is sending you messages that are full of typos or grammatically incorrect, it may indicate a lack of professionalism. Additionally, if the background noise on your therapist's end is too loud or distracting, it could affect the quality of your therapy session.
All healthy relationships require trust. This certainly applies to your relationship with a professional clinician. A lack of trust may hinder your therapeutic progress. If your therapist reaches out to your past providers, families, or friends, without your permission, this can indicate a break in trust and may be illegal, depending on state laws. Therapists should not reach out to someone without prior signed approval from you unless you are a minor in some states.
When To End A Therapist Relationship
If you recognize any of the above signs in your therapist, it might be time to break off your relationship. An appropriate therapeutic relationship is professional and appropriately compensated by you. If your therapist isn't upholding their end of the professional arrangement, consider finding someone who will.
If you aren't comfortable confronting them about this in person, you might do it over the phone or through email. Consider explaining the reason you are interested in looking for a new therapist. The therapist might use this information to make better choices in the future; but regardless, that is not your responsibility. However, you do not need to reach out to the therapist if you feel unsafe, scared, or violated. Your therapist is there to serve your needs, and work in your best therapeutic interests, not vice versa.
If you're worried about how to break the news, try roleplaying what you'll say with a friend. This exercise may help you avoid reacting defensively in the case of unplanned circumstances. Those who practice supportive psychotherapy can rely on honesty and communication to understand your perspective, so try to be candid and transparent.
Finding The Proper Fit
There are many strategies you can use to find a new therapist. The first technique you might try is asking for a referral. You can also ask your doctor if they have a mental health professional to whom they refer patients.
If you are involved with a church or religious group, consider asking if anyone can make a counseling recommendation. There might be a person within the group, such as a priest or minister, who offers advice sessions. If you have health insurance, you can check with your provider to see if they cover mental health services and if there are counselors to whom they refer their clients.
If you are a college student, your college or university may include a department for mental health support or a counselor on staff that students can talk to. An online search can also be an effective way to find a therapist. Check the credentials of anyone you work with and compare and contrast therapists to see which is most likely to be a complimentary fit for you. You can read previous reviews of providers to see if other clients have found them helpful.
If you've had a poor experience with a counselor, don't hesitate to end your therapeutic relationship. Even if therapy with one person doesn't work, it may not signify a problem with you. At times, counselors and clients are not a proper fit, which may not indicate any flaws with either person.
You may have several options if you're ready to sign up for counseling with a new therapist. Some people may feel hesitant to end a professional relationship with their therapist if they don't have many options in their area or can't find any other therapists in their price range. In these cases, online therapy may offer greater affordability and variety.
Research shows that electronically delivered therapy from online therapists can be as effective as traditional face-to-face counseling, which makes it a convenient option. One study by Brigham Young University researchers found that technology-based therapy provides other added benefits, including lower cost, no travel time, no waitlists, and clear progress.
If you are searching for the right therapist, consider choosing an online support therapy solution such as BetterHelp. The professional, licensed counselors at BetterHelp can provide ongoing daily support, and various specialists are available to offer therapy.
Therapist Liany Pacheco
“Liany is the best therapist I have ever had. She makes me feel heard and gives me tangible ways to manage my anxiety, even though we only have 30 minutes together each week. She is so accommodating of my schedule and understanding, not to mention incredibly knowledgeable. Whether it's a book recommendation, a coping mechanism to try, or just affirmation that I am enough and am doing enough, Liany always meets me where I am at. She is a wonderful human who cares about her clients.”
Therapist Cindy Rounds
“Cindy is hands down the best therapist I have had out of my 8 years of trying different therapists. I was very fortunate to find someone during the pandemic who was well versed in the issues I was facing. She inspires me and pushes me to do better for myself.”
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