8 Signs Your Therapist Isn't Working For You
A bad therapist isn't necessarily one who's running around breaking all the rules of therapy, up to and including friending you on Facebook. Many therapist-client relationships can be, well, not quite right, and that's largely down to the peculiarities of the situation: you're asking for a professional service while also requiring a lot of intimacy, fundamental trust, a good set of boundaries, and a lot of other qualities. (The very eloquent Captain Awkward, who writes regularly about therapy, refers to therapists as "personal trainers for the psyche," which is an excellent demonstration of the dynamic: these people are here to help you with your health, but they're also supposed to respect and understand your particular needs as you do it.) So how do you pick out the signs that a therapist just isn't working out?
Therapy isn't always an immediately-hitting-it-off situation; there are situations in which you can improve or alter the relationship by speaking up. In fact, a clear sign of a wrong-for-you therapist, according to Dr. Joel Young at Psychology Today, is one who can't take sensible criticism from a client. "Good therapists," he explains, "are prepared to accept criticism and to adjust their behavior accordingly. If your therapist treats fair and constructive criticism as a sign of mental illness, get away from this therapist immediately." If your therapist has done things on this list, it's right and fair to raise them with them; you're not telling them how to do their jobs. Crafting an active therapeutic space has to be a two-way effort, and they should know that.
If it's not working, though, it's time to say goodbye and get yourself somebody new. Here are eight signs that a therapeutic relationship isn't working out.
1. You Don't Feel Heard
Therapists are, fundamentally, there to listen to your problems and help you sort them out. Feeling "heard" can be a tricky thing to explain, but a good therapist should be able to be trusted to follow your narrative, remember what you've said previously, give credence to your opinions and views, and make you comfortable. Everyday Feminism explains that a good therapist is one who can make you feel utterly secure in airing your problems and receiving a solid, helpful, attentive response, which is apparently called "holding the space". Therapists who, for whatever reason, don't seem to be absorbing what you say are not the best choice for you.
2. They Use Judgement Or Shame
Therapists can make mistakes and judgement calls, even if it's entirely not their place to do so. However, just because they're human doesn't mean you should forgive them for making you feel ashamed or judged about your life and issues. Even if you've f*cked up bad, your therapist is not there to make you feel bad about those things. Psych Central points out that this can be implicit as well as explicit; behavior like eye-rolling is included. (This is particularly relevant in terms of women and their sexual and relationship choices; several of my friends have had therapists respond with judgement in really emotional volatile situations, from assault to serious emotional abuse. Not helpful.)
3. They Make You Feel Inferior
A therapist is an expert, but that doesn't mean they should spend their time making you feel as if you can't possibly be trusted with your own issues; they're there to help rather than produce a hierarchy. Good Therapy's excellent list of 50 potential signs of "questionable" therapy is worth a look, but one of the things it highlights is any therapist who introduces a power dynamic where they're unquestionable and you are inferior. This includes "looking down on you," whether it's demeaning your choices, background, responses, or anything else. This is a kind of extension of the judgement difficulty, but it's a specific issue in that you yourself are meant to be empowered by therapy, not belittled by it.
4. They Don't Respond Actively
The ability to do "active response" is one of the foremost signs of a well-trained therapist. It's essentially a series of continued signals that they're listening, responding and processing what you have to say, including non-verbal signals, nods, small vocalizations like "I see," and other appropriate responses to your words. A lot of therapy these days is done face-to-face, rather than with the person and the therapist looking at other parts of the room, so this particular kind of listening is very crucial. (Not challenging you enough can also be an issue.) If they're not responding actively, you'll likely only hear silence, see them getting distracted, or looking at other bits of the room, and not see any bodily signs of their interest; Dr. Leslie Carr recounts the story of one client whose therapist actually fell asleep during a session. Yikes.
5. You Don't Trust Them
A lot has been written about the client-therapist relationship, but one fundamental aspect of it if it's going to be workable has to be your innate trust in them: in their abilities, their duty to you, their protection of your private information, and their attempts to serve your interests as much as possible. The Huffington Post explains that the environment of a therapist should be one in which you can "freely voice any thought" without fear or repression, and if you sense that you don't seem to be able to do that in their environment and can't seem to shift your inherent unease, it's a signal that the dynamic isn't working for you.
6. They Just Don't Seem To Get Your Experience
Therapists don't necessarily have to have lived your exact life; in some cases, a little distance and perspective are important. Their job is based on their ability to find empathy and professional methods of assistance for everybody they can, even those with radically different backgrounds. But that doesn't mean you can't feel as if, well, there's some part of your life they're just not understanding. Places like Pink Therapy make lists of explicitly gay-friendly therapists for a reason; somebody with an interest and connection to your particular community or situation, whether they're part of it or just experienced in it, can be a very useful thing in therapy. If you feel as if there's a "block" that you can't seem to overcome, whether it's about your experiences as a woman, a person of color, an LGBT person, or something else, it's a signal that you may not have the right therapist.
7. Your Sessions Seem To Focus Too Much On Them
All therapists have egos and opinions of their own, but it's a key signal that your own therapist is not working for you if you seem to spend a significant portion of your sessions focused on them, their thoughts, stories, relationships, and other issues, to the detriment of your own issues. The National Network of Depression Centers points out that it's not actually kosher for therapists to discuss their own personal life in therapy with clients, as the space is meant to be entirely about the person being helped; even if your therapist is a fascinating individual and their stories all seem to be vaguely related to your issues, at root they are not your friend. If they're overreaching their professional boundaries by attempting to be your buddy, or sucking up space through discussing their own lives, they're clearly not operating in a proper therapeutic manner; they are, after all, employed to help you.
8. They Say It's Not Working
This is an interesting one; you may feel as if you're going well, but it's entirely possible that your therapist may decide that you need to terminate your sessions. This doesn't happen very often, but Psych Central has a comprehensive list of the possible reasons a therapist may not wish to work with you any more, from recognition of their own lack of training in your issue to emotional conflicts, scheduling difficulties, and plain old interpersonal dysfunction. This can be a tricky thing to navigate, but the key thing to remember here is that you can't "persuade" them to keep taking you on; even though you are the client, you need somebody who's going to actively and willingly help you through delicate and important territory, and a therapist who has opted out is not, by definition, the best person to do that. If this does happen, try to have a good conversation about why and how it makes you feel, and see if they may have recommendations for another person who may be more appropriate.
Images: HBO; Giphy