Despite what you might have seen on television, therapists aren’t mind readers, and they can’t dig around in your brain and change your thoughts without your cooperation. Good therapists don’t ask you to do strange things like “rebirth” yourself or scream your way through the pain. Just like with any other treatment, if it seems strange, unhealthy, or crazy, it probably is.
Therapy is so much more than just a chance to talk about life challenges. For many people, it’s life-saving. The crippling grip of depression, the overwhelming weight of anxiety, or the pain of an abusive relationship can each make life so difficult and so painful that even the most mundane tasks can feel impossible. With the right therapist, though, you can transform from a shell of your former self into a blossoming, thriving, and happy person. A good therapist draws you out, makes you comfortable, and finds unique strategies to conquer your challenges.
Because of this transformative power of therapy, though, therapists have significant power. A bad therapist can make every problem worse by making you feel guilty, undermining your relationships, and even sexually abusing you. If you’re already struggling with mental health concerns, though, the prospect of finding a therapist – and protecting yourself from abusive therapy practices – can feel daunting. Friends and family members, however, can be excellent sources of recommendations, and online therapist search engines can let you know if a therapist has the training and qualifications to help you. The search for a therapist doesn’t have to be hard, and knowing the warning signs of bad therapy can help you avoid therapists who do more harm than good.
Therapist Ignores Your Goals or Values
A good therapist will question why you think the things you do, particularly if you have unhealthy goals, such as using drugs forever. But a therapist who undermines your core goals and values – including your political and religious beliefs – is not engaged in healthy therapy. Similarly, your therapist should not try to push his or her own beliefs on you, and a therapist who evangelizes a particular religious philosophy is especially dangerous.
Therapist Fosters Dependence
A good therapist doesn’t want you to stay in therapy forever. If you’ve been in therapy for more than a few months and aren’t making any progress, though, it could be a sign that your therapist is creating dependence rather than nurturing your personal growth. Your therapist should not make you feel like you need him or her to be happy, and should not tell you that you’ll be in therapy for an extended period of time. If you begin to feel like you can’t make a decision without consulting your therapist, this is a red flag that it’s time to move on.
Therapist Does Not Have a Plan
Good therapy is an art and science. Your therapist may make adjustments here and there, but good therapists approach therapy scientifically. They identify your problem and then strategize about the most effective and healthiest ways to fix them. A therapist who doesn’t have a clear plan – and a plan she discusses with you – about how to fix your problems is a therapist who may spend years charging you and offering you little or nothing in return.
Therapist Engages in Sexual or Romantic Behavior
It is never appropriate for a therapist to flirt with you, and engaging in sexual behavior with a client is such a serious ethical violation that it’s a crime in many states. Your therapist wields significant power, and a sexual relationship with a therapist is not a relationship between equals. Any therapist who attempts to start such a relationship is manipulating and using you while undermining your emotional health.
Therapist Undermines Your Relationships
Just like abusive romantic partners, abusive therapists often attempt to separate their clients from friends and family. This is a way of fostering dependence and can wreak havoc on a client’s mental health. If a therapist tells you to stop talking to someone you love, to break up with your partner, or to make other dramatic decisions regarding your relationships, it’s a giant red flag.
Of course, a good therapist will point to problems in your relationships. If a therapist tells you she thinks a relationship is abusive or argues that your mother should treat you differently, this is healthy. As soon as a therapist starts trying to end your relationships or begins blaming your loved ones for your challenges, though, you have a problem. You are the only person responsible for your emotions, and ending a relationship is not going to cure depression or another mental illness.
Therapist Cannot Accept Criticism
Healthy therapy is a dynamic exchange. Moreover, you’re a paying customer, which means you’re entitled to excellent service every time you see your therapist. Good therapists actively solicit feedback from their clients, because doing so allows them to formulate a more effective treatment plan. The process of receiving criticism also informs a therapist about your values. For example, if you tell the therapist that you don’t think she fully understands something you said, this helps the therapist understand which values are most important and the ways in which they connect to your emotional health.
Therapist Relies On You for Reassurance
It’s fine for a therapist to share relevant stories from her personal life, but she shouldn’t be vulnerable in front of you or rely on you for emotional comfort. Good therapists maintain strict, rigid boundaries between their personal and professional lives. If a therapist begins seeking comfort from you – by getting defensive in response to criticism, demanding positive feedback or a good online review or repeatedly telling you, that you hurt his or her feelings – it’s time to move on. Therapists who engage in such a practice make therapy about them, and you’re paying to get help for your emotional challenges – not to provide support to an unstable person.
Therapist Does Not Challenge You
A therapist should accept you without judgment or criticism, but this doesn’t mean a therapist has to accept everything you say as true or correct. Good therapists challenge problematic thinking. If a therapist hears you say your spouse “always” or “never” does something, for example, he should point out that this sort of thinking is both inaccurate and harmful to relationships. By helping you gain a greater awareness of problematic thought patterns, your therapist increases your chances of getting better.
Therapist Uses a Discredited Modality
Modality is the technical term for the approach a therapist uses to treat your mental health condition. Modalities such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, mindfulness-based therapy, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing all have the support of the scientific community and have been proven effective in numerous scientific studies. Effective therapists embrace effective therapies, so don’t be afraid to ask your therapist which modality she’s using and what studies have to say about its effectiveness.
If your therapist cannot explain the modality she is using, she might be doing little more than chatting with you about your feelings, and this isn’t sufficient to help you move past emotional challenges. If your therapist tells you a specific modality – or combination of modalities – that she plans to use, Google them or ask your doctor if the method is appropriate and effective. Treatments such as re-birthing, primal scream therapy, and energetic healing aren’t just bizarre – and more than a little embarrassing to watch – they’re downright dangerous. Make sure your therapist is using a treatment method that works, not one that belongs on a Broadway stage.
Therapist Violates Confidentiality
Confidentiality is the bedrock of healthy therapy because if your private thoughts aren’t kept confidential, it’s nearly impossible for you to comfortably and openly share in therapy. Confidentiality is about more than just not telling other people what you say, though. Your therapist has violated confidentiality if he or she:
- Doesn’t tell you how she plans to use your private health information and does not provide a HIPAA privacy statement.
- Approaches you when he runs into you in public without first waiting to see if you want to acknowledge him.
- Tells members of your family about things you’ve said in therapy without your permission. Even children are entitled to privacy in therapy, and your therapist can’t reveal personal information to your parents, spouse, or anyone else.
- Leaves voicemails on your phone discussing therapy without your permission.
- Discusses something you said in individual therapy in a group therapy session. For example, if you confide that you’re afraid of your spouse, your therapist has violated confidentiality if he reveals this information to your spouse in couples counseling.
Confidentiality violations are so serious that therapists can lose their license over such violations.
The overwhelming majority of therapists are intelligent, good, competent people. But therapy is private and unsupervised, which means bad therapists can practice for years without getting caught. One bad experience isn’t a reason to give up on therapy. Therapy really does work, and you’ll know you’ve found the right person for you when you begin to feel yourself making progress.