27 Warning Signs You Chose The Wrong Therapist

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You’ve been seeing your therapist for what seems like a long time and it’s not because you just love seeing them. 

Maybe it’s because you feel stuck with what you’ve got, or don’t want to go through the process of finding another one. Or maybe you’re not getting anywhere because you think (or your therapist thinks) it’s because you can’t change, won’t change, or like feeling miserable.

Just know that you're not trapped. In fact, there might come a time when you absolutely should move to a new therapist — and there are plenty of signs to guide your decision.

RELATED: 15 Common Types Of Therapy And How To Know Which You Need

Maybe it's not you — maybe it's your therapist

Some psycho-emotional-behavioral problems are particularly challenging. Trauma and significant mental illness require specialized care and treatment and usually take a long time to “resolve and integrate” or “cure." 

It’s also true that some therapists aren’t very good at their profession or are just downright bad. Why?

It might be that they weren’t trained very well, they’re burned out, it’s only about billable hours, or they’re practicing outside of their scope of ability. Those are all possibilities.

In 40 years as a successful therapist, I’ve heard hundreds of stories from new-to-me clients about unhelpful, disrespectful, unpleasant therapists.

What follows is a summary of the things I've heard that indicate a patient might have chosen poorly.

Everybody does things wrong or makes mistakes but a “bad therapist” is doing one or more of these examples frequently, repetitively, or consistently. If you’re experiencing or noticing these things often, it’s time to evaluate your therapist’s performance.

RELATED: 16 Questions For You (Yes, You!) To Ask Your Therapist To See If They're A Match For You

Your therapist is your 'employee'

You searched for and evaluated the prospects, vetted them, got references or reviews, interviewed them and now you’ve hired one. You are therefore the employer.

It’s generally not wise to consider yourself the “boss," but you have expectations even if your new employee has never asked you nor have you ever spelled them out specifically. 

Your employee has given you a statement of professional services which tells you what they will and will not do, what the cost of their service is and who is expected to pay it and when, what their working and availability hours are, and the best way to reach them.

The important thing here is that you are paying them yourself or through your insurance. That makes them your employee.

And, as any employee, they might be subject to dismissal if their performance is not satisfactory over time.

RELATED: Why It's So Important To Find A Therapist Who Understands You & Your Unique Identity

27 warning signs you have a bad therapist (or at least the wrong one for you)

1. They talk about themselves and their problems

This can come in the form of sharing a problem like yours without relevance or expansion in a way that might be useful to you. 

2. They don't really listen

They lose track of the conversation or wander off on tangents.

3. They don't really engage

He or she says “uh huh” a lot or leaves uncomfortable silences (unless you’re in psychoanalysis).

4. They forget details

It's a bad sign if they aren't taking notes during your sessions.

5. They frequently miss or reschedule an appointment

Personal lives can intrude on treatment, but it shouldn't become a pattern.

6. They blame you for missing an appointment they had missed or canceled

This is a sign they are not reliable and likely to shift blame.

7. They don't take responsibility for errors

It might be errors of timing, tone of voice or mixed messages.

RELATED: 3 Options For Breaking Up With Your Therapist When Things Just Aren't Working Out

8. They touch you without permission

This is an absolute violation of ethics and possibly the law.

9. They track time to the minute

They show a level of inflexibility that shows they aren't about your needs.

10. They fall asleep in session

Needless to say, this is a major red flag. 

11. They don't give homework

If applicable, you should be provided ways to consolidate the message of the session once you leave the office or sign off from the counseling service website.

RELATED: The Most Important Question To Ask To Find The Right Therapist

12. They give homework but don't follow up on it

If they do give you an assignment, they should absolutely ask you about it next time.

13. They don't set or revisit treatment goals with you

This should occur early in the patient-therapist relationship.

14. They don't seem to have a plan

This could be manifested by them always asking, “What do you want to talk about today?"

15. They tell you you should get divorced in the first or second session

How could they possibly know so quickly? This means they don't see you as an individual with an individual set of challenges.

16. They diagnose your spouse without ever meeting them

They have no idea about your spouse's state of mind or medical history. 

17. They excuse your spouse without ever meeting them

Again, they don't know your spouse. They only have your point of view.

18. In couples therapy, they're always neutral

In my opinion, there’s no place for neutrality in couples counseling.

19. In couples therapy, they don't intercede in fights

A gentle reminder that yelling is inappropriate behavior should suffice.

RELATED: How To Find The Kind Of Therapist You Truly Need

20. They take on the role of referee

They aren't here to be a judge or a moderator. They're here to listen and offer advice to both of you.

21. In family therapy, they can’t control sessions

If unruly or overly playful kids are a problem for them, they might not be for you.

22. Repeatedly asks the same question

Sometimes it's a therapy cliche, such as “How did you feel about that?"

23. They are boring

This is not the same as low-key or understated. This means you can't stop yawning when they talk.

24. They are judgemental or hyper-critical

You shouldn't be made to feel inferior, ever.

25. They are not culturally sensitive

Signs of bigotry or using insensitive language are major red flags. 

26. They violate confidentiality

Yours or another client they know you know.

27. They press you to reveal more than you’re comfortable with

You should never be made to feel as if they are prying unnecessarily into subjects that aren't relevant.

RELATED: 5 Things I Would Never Do As A Couples Therapist

Remember: You always have a choice

You have hired your counselor to evaluate (diagnose) you, help you to eliminate or minimize “bad” habits, consider new approaches, show you your strengths, collaborate with you on solutions, and give you recommendations. That’s what you pay them for. So do their other clients.

You asked lots of questions before you hired them. Now your counselor has asked you lots of questions in order to illuminate and clarify your goals. They are calling you into or from their office, so you can’t control that work environment, but you must be willing to make requests to co-create a collaborative workspace. 

Seating, positioning of tissues, lighting, temperature, and ambiance are all aspects you can and should participate in.

RELATED: The Secret Healing Technique Most Therapists Won’t Tell You About

Collaboration is key

Above all else, valuable and successful therapy depends on collaboration. So don’t be bossy and do be respectful of the space and the person and expect the same in return.

It is never appropriate for you to adjust to your therapist’s unprofessional or disregardful manner. If you have brought concerns to the attention of your therapist and given them enough time to make changes, then be patient but attentive.

If, on the other hand, your therapists’ anti-relational stance persists, it’s time to say goodbye to them and start the project of finding another one or evaluating yourself to determine if you are “better enough” to step back.

If you don’t feel comfortable with any aspect of the relationship, speak up.

RELATED: Instead Of Helping, My Psychiatrist Made My Mental Health So Much Worse

Taking a break is not giving up

Taking a break from therapy can be healthy. “Episodes” of treatment allow for more reading, thinking and living away from expectations — yours or your therapist's. 

During a “break” I make infrequent contact for several months. Brief email check-ins reinforce relationships without expectations.

But if the problems of living that brought you or your relationship to therapy persist or intensify, get active in hiring a new therapist

Consider how you might have had poor advice or preconceived ideas about what would make the right therapist for you. Make adjustments in your search.

Just don't throw up your hands in despair. You're worth the effort it takes to find the right therapist for you.

RELATED: 10 Signs Of A Good Therapist To Ensure You Get The Most Out Of Your Therapy Sessions

William "Bill" Meleney is a Washington state-licensed mental health counselor and a licensed marriage and family therapist.

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