Research finds that the therapeutic relationship is the most essential part of someone’s progress in counseling, so finding the right mental health practitioner is paramount.
Signs a therapist is just not working out
With the right therapist, you’ll hopefully have a good rapport and feel safe, challenged at times, and engaged in the process. Mollie Spiesman, LCSW, a psychotherapist in private practice says that if you feel uneasy, judged, or reluctant to disclose personal information, you may want to ask yourself whether you would feel this way with any therapist or it’s specific to the one you’re seeing.
If you’re new to therapy, give yourself an adjustment period of a few sessions as a trial before assessing the situation. “Starting therapy can feel vulnerable and intimidating, and the therapist is a literal stranger,” explains Lou Ursa, LMFT, a therapist in California. “You may need more time with them in order to feel comfortable.”
When weighing your feelings about a new therapist, a helpful distinction is to identify the kind of discomfort you’re experiencing. Therapy often involves facing discomfort, explains Morgan Pommells MSW, a trauma therapist in Toronto, Ontario. “There's a difference between productive discomfort, which leads to growth and insight, and unproductive discomfort, which feels perpetually unsettling or misaligned with your needs,” Pommells says.
Your engagement in session could also be a sign of whether or not the relationship or approach is a fit. “If you find yourself disinterested in the sessions, consistently struggling to participate, or frequently feeling detached or dissociated, it could indicate that the style of therapy isn't resonating with you,” Pommels says.
Like dating, not everyone is going to be right for you. This doesn’t necessarily mean someone has red flags, but you deserve someone you feel like you can be your full self with. Pommels says nuances like a therapist not understanding your humor can get in the way of feeling seen and heard in the therapy room.
Therapists have different communication styles, and you may do better with someone who is blunt, gentle, mostly listens, or provides an equal amount of feedback for how often you share. These needs are highly based on personal preferences.
Further, a therapist’s modality, or therapeutic approach, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may not be best for you. Modalities are not one size fits all and can vary in efficacy based on someone’s symptoms or behaviors. If you’re not making progress or your symptoms are worsening, these could be signs that the approach is not a good fit.
Even if a therapist has exceptional education and credentials, it might not be suitable if you feel like the therapist pushes an agenda that doesn’t align with what you’re hoping to get out of therapy, Ursa points out. While it’s generally a good idea to be open to new perspectives, you should feel like the therapist treats you like you know yourself best (because you do!)
If you don’t have a direct reason why a therapist isn’t aligning, that’s also okay. “Sometimes it's just a gut feeling that it's not the right fit,” Spiesman says.
Therapist red flags
Sometimes, therapists can exhibit behavior that’s inappropriate for sessions. Unlike a mismatch in communication style or therapeutic approach, which could be appropriate for other clients, some actions are unsuitable for clinician etiquette.
While a therapist sharing a relevant personal anecdote from time to time can be appropriate and even helpful to normalize shared experiences, self-disclosure all the time, especially when it’s not relevant, is a red flag. Therapy should be about the client, not the therapist, Pommells says.
Invalidating your feelings
One beautiful takeaway for many who go to therapy is that your emotional experience is valid. If a therapist invalidates or dismisses your feelings, it’s anti-therapeutic. Especially because a therapist is in a position of power, this action can do a significant amount of damage.
Frequent cancellations or ghosting
Therapists encounter human experiences like family emergencies or a car breaking down, Pommells says. But when cancellations become frequent, or there is unreliable communication such as a lack of response to emails, it weakens the ability to depend on that person. Trust in therapy is key.
Taking up too much emotional space
When a therapist takes up too much emotional space, they may be showing emotion that’s inappropriate for the session, or making the content about themself. Sometimes, when a therapist shows emotion or even cries with you during a session, it can be incredibly healing. But if a therapist is exuding all the tears in a session, it’s likely a red flag. It’s a therapist’s job to manage their feelings, Pommells says.
It’s critical not to self-gaslight, by telling yourself a red flag is not important or you’re too sensitive, Ursa says. If you notice a red flag from a therapist, the first line of action is to address it with them in person or by email. Depending on their response, you may be able to continue seeing them if they address the issues; otherwise, they can potentially refer to another therapist if you’d like.
When therapist red flags cross the line to unethical behavior
Unethical behavior includes having sexual or romantic relationships with clients, breaking confidentiality, or intentionally defrauding clients or their insurance companies, Pommells explains. A judgemental attitude toward someone’s identity or lack of cultural sensitivity also counts as unethical.
“These situations will cause therapists to have their license revoked or suspended long-term,” Pommels says. Should you experience unethical behavior from a therapist, you can choose to terminate sessions and report them to their licensing board, Pommels says. “Licensing boards are state-dependent and can be found with a quick Google search,” Ursa explains.
Aside from red flags and unethical behavior, sometimes the interpersonal dynamic with a therapist just doesn't gel, Pommells says.
“This doesn't necessarily reflect poorly on the therapist or on you, it's just a part of human relationships. And when it happens, it's okay to acknowledge it and seek a therapist who feels like a better fit,” Pommels says.
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