A good therapist is to be treasured like that one item of clothing in your closet that always makes you feel good, but unfortunately, finding the therapist who is a perfect fit for you can be a little bit of a process. Sometimes you might find yourself in a situation with your therapist where you begin to wonder whether the relationship is working as well as it should be.
This article will walk you through some red flags to look out for when it comes to your therapist’s behavior and your own reactions which indicate it might be time to cut them loose, as well as a couple of green flags which might indicate that it’s worth sticking it out. If you do conclude that you’re better off finding a new therapist, then we’ve also suggested best practices on how you can let your current therapist know that you’ll be moving on from them.
First the red flags:
Your therapist seems too overwhelmed to help you
It’s of utmost importance that you experience your therapist as a “safe container” for your thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Your therapist should be able to sit with and engage with everything you share with them in a way that is calm, collected, and non-judgmental. If you notice that your therapist appears to be flustered, upset or out of their depth when you bring up topics that are important to you (and seems unwilling to dig into these things!), then this is a definite cause for concern, couples’ and sex therapist Kyle Zrenchik, Ph.D., ACS, LMFT said.
Your therapist is overly personal or too detached
A big warning sign is a therapist who shares too much of their life with you. A therapist is a mental health professional, not a friend. Self-disclosure should be selective and limited and a therapist shouldn’t be interjecting their own experiences into your sessions or telling you at length about their life outside of the office, marriage, and family therapist Oumou Sylla, LMFT, said.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that any and all mentions of the therapist’s private life are a red flag, but you should never feel like the therapist spends time talking about themself when they should be focused on you. Normal things for your therapist to offhandedly mention are things like whether they have kids or not, or whether they like to golf at the weekends. Things that should ring alarm bells are phrases like, “X thing you did really reminds me of the time I did a similar thing, and I felt this way about it.” Conversely, a therapist who you experience as a blank slate or as a slightly robotic professional can also be a red flag if you feel that you need a warmer disposition to feel comfortable opening up. This is often a matter of taste.
Is your therapist listening or dismissing?
“Inevitably, a therapist will do or say something that bothers you or you don’t like. That’s OK, as long as it is not extreme and as long as the therapist is willing to sincerely listen and repair,” Zrenchik said.
However, if you raise a point of contention with your therapist and they respond with denial or defensive blustering instead of openness, curiosity, and regret, it might be time to start investigating a new provider. The relationship between client and therapist is a place of vulnerability, you need to feel safe in the knowledge that you can raise issues with your therapist without being shot down or dismissed. Your therapist should welcome the opportunity to understand your point of view, not take it as a personal attack.
Your therapist should prioritize consistent sessions
It’s important for the therapeutic process that you can access therapy on a regular basis without long stretches of time between sessions. A therapist who agrees to take you on as a client but then can only offer one appointment every month or two is someone to be suspicious of. Ideally, you’ll have at least one session a week, especially in the beginning of starting to work with someone. It takes time to build a rapport, and it’s also important to keep the momentum going. Your therapist should also respond promptly to your emails or messages if you need to book new sessions or cancel upcoming ones. Of course, you need to respect their right to a healthy work/life balance, and have reasonable expectations, but you shouldn’t be left with a continual feeling that it’s hard to establish contact with your therapist.
Your therapist should encourage openness and honesty
Purposefully obscuring the truth from your therapist because you’re afraid of how they will react is a big red flag, Zrenchik said. It can be hard to be 100 percent honest in therapy because we’re often not used to having a space where we can truly say how we feel without worrying about repercussions. But there’s a difference between feeling an innate sense of unease with speaking your mind and hiding things from your therapist because you’re specifically worried that they won’t take it well. Your therapist should never respond to the things you tell them in ways that shame you or make you feel guilty for what you’ve revealed. The golden rule of being a therapist is to operate from a place of non-judgmental curiosity, and if you find yourself lying to your therapist, it’s worth asking yourself if you feel that they are good at sticking to that rule.
Your therapist should help empower your experience
While you might not necessarily look forward with gusto and glee to therapy, as it can be emotionally taxing and difficult, you shouldn’t feel an active sense of dread or antipathy when your sessions are coming up. If you find that you’re repeatedly canceling your sessions or finding excuses not to go, it’s worth sitting with that feeling and trying to interrogate what exactly it is that’s putting you off. Are you just not ready to go to therapy? Or has the therapist done something to inspire a lack of trust in you?
These green flags suggest you may want to stick it out.
Your therapist leads with compassion
When we go to therapy, we often discuss complicated issues in which messy emotions can be evoked. You may have to tell your therapist about things which you feel great shame or guilt. It’s a really good sign if you feel that no matter what you tell your therapist, they respond from a place of compassion and understanding, Sylla said. We all deserve a place where we can talk about the difficult and complex realities of life, and a therapist who doesn’t subscribe to black and white thinking and who can meet hard emotions with care is one worth holding onto.
Your therapist doesn’t try to ‘fix’ you
Ultimately, all the work that’s done in therapy is done by you, not the therapist. Sylla pointed out that a good therapist is one that doesn’t try to fix or save you, instead he or she should equip you with the tools you need to be your own savior. Your therapist should not see it as their own personal goal to convince you of coming around to their way of thinking, instead they should be focused on helping you to release your own problem-solving powers. A good therapist believes and demonstrates that you are the expert on your own life, and that you therefore hold the answers on how to improve it.
How to end a relationship with your therapist
Step one in breaking up with your therapist, especially if you’re feeling ambivalent, is to try and talk to your therapist about your concerns to see if the break-up can be averted.
“Oftentimes, therapists make their best guess with what will work for a client and are not getting enough direct feedback. Also, bringing up concerns and seeing a therapist care and adapt can be very transformative for a client, and can make the therapy much more effective,” Zrenchik said.
However, if you’re convinced that the therapist isn’t right for you then here are some tips on how to extricate yourself.
- Don’t be tempted to simply ghost your therapist, you need to directly communicate to them that you will be ending your sessions together. Write an email where you politely explain why you won’t be moving forward with them. It might be tempting to lie and say something that doesn’t implicate them such as “I just can’t afford it anymore,” but this does you and them a disservice.
- Do not feel that you need to carefully tend to your therapist’s feelings, and trust that they have the emotional resilience to handle it. Therapists got into the profession in order to be helpful, so help them to help others by being truthful and direct about the reasons why you don’t want to continue.
- It’s also important that you give them as much notice as you can, so that they can offer the time slot you currently occupy to another person. There are often long waiting lists for therapy, so this is an important courtesy to observe. If you feel up to it, you can also schedule a “closure” session where you go over what you’ve achieved so far in therapy and bring the sessions to a neat conclusion.
Of course, if you feel that your therapist has egregiously crossed lines or boundaries and has made you feel threatened or unsafe, then you should leave in whichever way feels best for you. In this case you need to center your own needs.
“Many people have never had a healthy breakup in their lives, Zrenchik said. “And no one should stick with a therapist forever. So, breaking up a therapist may provide you a great opportunity to have a healthy breakup. Typically, most therapists take it very well and handle it professionally.
Therapists know that not every client, or every issue, is a good fit for them. It’s just part of the job.”
So don’t be afraid to trust your instincts and cut ties with a therapist who isn’t serving your needs.