Can therapy be harmful? What are the signs that you have a terrible therapist?
We asked experts to shed light on these questions.
Rev. Connie L. Habash, MA, LMFT
A bad therapist tells you what to do
A good therapist will listen to you, reflect what they hear, and ideally help you find your own answers within. They may have suggestions or ideas, but ultimately, it’s important to empower you to make your choices in life.
There are exceptions to this, such as preventing a client from harming themselves, but in general, if a therapist is constantly telling you that you have to do what they say, question it.
A bad therapist talks a lot about themselves
Counseling is for the client, not the therapist. Generally, therapists don’t share about their lives, because they don’t want the session to become about them. It should be focused on the client’s needs and experience.
If a therapist is often talking about their own problems or personal life, you’re not receiving everything you should out of your sessions.
A bad therapist pressures you to have a lot of sessions
Sure, it takes a few sessions to get a sense of how well you’ll work together. And change does take time, honestly. But the number and frequency of sessions should be a discussion between you and the therapist that you return to from time to time, not a mandate for a massive long-term investment. It’s always your choice.
A bad therapist judges you
The last thing you need when you’re vulnerable and sharing difficult feelings is the sense that you’re being judged for them. If this is the case, find a different therapist who can accept you and support you as you are, while holding the vision for who you want to be.
A bad therapist is flakey
If your therapist is constantly forgetting about sessions or frequently has to reschedule, there may be something going on in their life, like a family problem or a health issue.
Talk to them about it and work it out together. But if they’re just not making it a priority or putting other things ahead of your sessions, find someone who makes your time a priority.
Psychiatrist | Author, Find Freedom Fast: Short-Term Therapy that Works
A bad therapist may extend the clock for years
Short term therapy is out there for many issues but people are unaware of it and often get trapped in open-ended long term treatment. It may be very costly and not usually focused on specific problems.
Once people do go for help, they may end up spending years in therapy hashing and rehashing the past, but not getting positive solutions or a new perspective on an old set of problems.
As a health care consumer advocate and practicing psychiatrist, let me assure you that it doesn’t have to be this way. Many mental health problems can be substantially helped in a relatively short time period using targeted strategies and short-term therapeutic approaches.
If a therapist wants to keep the patient on the clock for years and doesn’t address the real issues, that may be a warning sign. Whether I’m speaking to an audience of mental health professionals or health care consumers, I always tell them this: For many people, the first line of treatment should be short-term, straightforward problem-solving techniques that have specific goals in mind.
As with other health conditions, one can proceed to long-term care if it’s needed. The work I do as a psychiatrist, educator, and public speaker is to help spread a positive message that many mental health problems can be treated quickly, effectively, and completely, which is not popular oftentimes.
G. Scott Graham, MS, LADC
Licensed Substance Abuse Counselor | Psychotherapist | Business Coach, True Azimuth, LLC |
Author, Ten Things You Need to Know About Coaching Before You Get a Coach
A bad therapist can’t talk about the model they are using with you in therapy
The first thing you should do is ask your therapist what model they use
Most people don’t ask this question when they see a therapist. Most likely because they are not aware that there are different models about how people change. They might have heard of psycho-analysis and maybe even behavior therapy but probably not much more.
There are many models of therapy from reality therapy to Adlerian therapy to rational emotive behavior therapy to motivational interviewing to interpersonal psychotherapy — just to name a few.
Don’t accept “I am eclectic” as an answer — “eclectic” means “I don’t know.” And don’t accept an activity as a model. Play therapy is an activity. Art therapy is an activity.
Second, ask for proof of competency
Your therapist should not only be able to tell you what model they use but show you a document/certificate that shows they have been trained in that model. You don’t want someone who read about some model (and it’s accompanying technique) over the weekend and experimenting with it on you.
Finally, ask your therapist if the model they are planning to use in your therapy is proven effective
For example, interpersonal psychotherapy (or IPT) has been proven more effective than Rational Emotive Behavior therapy in treating depression.
If you are considering therapy, then these three questions will help you sort out the good therapists from the bad therapists. If you are currently in therapy, ask these questions at your next session.
It is noteworthy that people ask these types of questions all the time in other aspects of their health care — from cholesterol to cancer to high blood pressure therapies.
People seek to make informed decisions about their physical health but somehow don’t bring the same critical thinking when making decisions about their mental health.
Traci W. Pirri, MSW, LCSW-S
Owner & Director, Hope of the Journey
Therapists come in all shapes and sizes. What makes a good therapist for one person might make them a bad fit for another. But, like with everything, there are skilled, ethical clinicians and those who miss the mark. Knowing how to spot the bad ones can save you lots of time, money, and emotional turmoil.
Luckily, there are a few easy things to watch for that can really help weed out the bad apples.
A bad therapist shows lack of attention
Therapists are human, and we all have moments when we’re tired or lose focus. However, if your therapist seems consistently off focus–asking you to repeat things, responding with unrelated or unhelpful statements, or (yikes!) even falling asleep–this is a huge warning sign that the therapist might be burned out.
A bad therapist can’t connect with the client
You can have the best skills as a therapist around, but if you can’t connect with your client, you will not be effective. The strength of the relationship between a client and a therapist is one of the most predictive elements of a good outcome.
It’s kind of like dating. If you don’t feel that connection pretty quickly, move on. While they might not be a bad therapist overall, they are not a good fit for you.
A bad therapist gives too much advice
Most people think that therapists are constantly giving advice and helping people make better decisions. While many people do find they improve their decision-making as a result of therapy, a good therapist helps their clients decide for themselves instead of just giving a solution.
A bad therapist feels like the expert in everything
Beware the therapist who works with all populations and all specialties! Part of all clinical licensure ethical standards requires counselors to practice within their scope.
If we are inexperienced with something, we need to fully disclose that and be actively seeking supervision and/or training in these areas. If we are untrained, we are required to refer out.
Sometimes, counselors get so caught up in their desire to help others that they forget to stay within their scope. This is one of the most common ways a therapist can get into an ethically bad situation.
A bad therapist has poor boundaries
Every therapist has a different way of working. These systems and policies should be clearly communicated to you both in person and through documents such as the Consent for Treatment. If the therapist isn’t following their own policies or doesn’t seem to have any, it is confusing at best and dangerous at worst.
Poor boundaries can look like anything from not having a clear policy regarding canceling appointments to making sexual advances towards clients.
While poor boundaries about things like scheduling don’t always lead to severe boundary-crossing like a sexual advance, there are usually other smaller boundaries that have been crossed first. So, it’s a good rule of thumb to look for a therapist who does have good boundaries from the start.
Clinical Therapist | Founder & CEO, Anew Era TMS
When it is time to enlist the help of a psychotherapist, the process of finding one may feel like a daunting chore. Most people are comfortable asking friends for referrals to other providers, be it a dentist or a medical doctor. But some may shy away from asking others for a referral to a therapist.
So, the list of possible providers streams down the computer screen, one name after another. Some may select a therapist based on their location, others by their gender. However, much care should be taken when deciding which therapist you will be welcoming into your mind and your life.
To help eliminate the substandard therapist options, note any of these red flags when meeting with a prospective psychotherapist:
- A bad therapist does not look you in the eye. Any therapist who does not make eye contact may lack empathy or will not forge a bond with you.
- A bad therapist appears bored. The therapist should be tuned in to your story and not be distracted, nodding off, or constantly looking at their phone.
- A bad therapist lacks expertise. Some therapists agree to take you on when in reality they have no practical experience treating your particular mental health condition.
- A bad therapist makes you feel uncomfortable. If while in their presence you are fidgety, anxious, or just plain uncomfortable, this is not a right fit.
- A bad therapist is not a good listener. A good therapist will respond appropriately to the feelings, thoughts, or experiences you share.
- A bad therapist does not elicit confidence. If the therapist does not inspire feelings that he or she can help you with your problem, they probably can’t.
Margery D.E. Boucher, MA, MS, LPC-S
Licensed Professional Counselor, North Texas Counseling
A bad therapist gives too much advice
If your therapist is telling you what to do, instead of helping you on a path of self-discovery, that is no good! Therapists are not advice-givers! We are supposed to help our clients learn to think, act and problem solve on their own.
A bad therapist gives too much self-disclosure
A little self-disclosure can be appropriate, especially when trying to connect and build trust with clients. However, if you notice that you seem to know as much about your therapist as they know about you… that is a problem! And of course, having an intimate relationship with clients!
Brandi Lewis, M.Ed, LPC
Licensed Professional Counselor | Owner, Reach Counseling Solutions, PLLC
A bad therapist makes you feel that you can’t speak freely without feeling judged
I have found that clients who don’t feel that they can speak freely don’t have the same results because they may not be forthcoming with information or openly tell the truth about what they may be feeling or going through.
There are therapists who specialize in many different areas. A therapist may not be right for you if you are seeing a therapist who doesn’t specialize in your concern. For example, if you struggle with anxiety or depression, it may not be helpful to see someone who specializes in solely addictions.
A bad therapist uses too much self-disclosure that it overshadows your needs
For example, you’ve come in because you’ve had a bad break-up with your partner. Your therapist begins to talk about one of her breakups as a means to relate to you and says, “Oh, yes. Breakups are tough. I’ve had a bad breakup. You’ll get through it. This is not as bad as you think.”
Certified Mental Health Consultant, Enlightened Reality | Relationship Expert, Maple Holistics
A bad therapist makes you feel that you are being judged in your sessions
If you find yourself nervous to open up about certain things because you expect that this specific therapist will sneer, snicker or respond in other inappropriate ways, it means that you should not be seeing them.
A bad therapist blurs the boundaries of the therapist-client relationship
If your therapist opens up to you too much about their personal life, takes out their phone to show you pictures of their kids, or suggests meeting up outside of the office, it’s a clear indication of a lack of professionalism.
Laurie Bankston, LPC
Licensed Professional Counselor, Journey To New Beginnings
A bad therapist does not respect your time
I have heard of clients having to wait 30-45 minutes for a 45-minute session! Unless your therapist is handling an emergency, this is unacceptable.
In the past, I worked for an agency that encouraged therapists to double-book sessions. This meant that if both clients showed up for your 11:00 session, you saw one client from 11-11:30 and one from 11:30 to 12.
In this scenario, one client had to wait 30 minutes and both had shorter sessions (standard was 45-minute sessions). If you notice that your therapist is consistently late and your sessions are shorter than expected, your session time may have been double booked.
Your time, just like your therapist’s time is valuable. In the same vein, good clients are not consistently late and do not miss appointments without calling first.
Jacqueline Getchius, MA, LPCC
Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor | Owner, Wellspring Women’s Counseling
It’s important to advocate for yourself when entering mental health therapy. Always trust your gut if you get a bad feeling that the therapist you’re seeing may not be a good fit or, even worse, may actually be a bad therapist overall.
A bad therapist engages in unethical behaviors
If you notice your therapist engaging in unethical behavior, such as talking about other clients with you, overly sharing about their own personal life, or leaving other clients information around the office where it could easily be seen by other clients.
More signs of a bad therapist would be not starting or ending sessions on time, taking phone calls during your session, or clearly becoming inattentive during your sessions, such as dozing off or staring out the window.
Even on a more basic level, a bad therapist is also one who doesn’t give you feedback about your mental health diagnosis, has no clear treatment plan for your sessions together and doesn’t share information about other treatment options available to you.
A bad therapist tries to make the session about themselves
A therapist may disclose a personal anecdote from time to time if they deem it to be in the interest of the client. It is not uncommon for therapists to use themselves as tools to illustrate a point to the client or to relate to them in order to build engagement.
But if a client becomes concerned about the therapist’s feelings, whether or not the therapist is accepting of them, or feels afraid to disclose information for fear it would upset the therapist, that is a sign the therapist is not maintaining necessary and appropriate boundaries in the therapeutic relationship.
Founder & CEO, CareDash
As CEO of CareDash, a health provider rating site, I can tell you about several of the most common reasons people give when negatively reviewing therapists.
- First of all, insufficient empathy is an issue — this is often apparent when the therapist talks about themselves rather than asking questions to the patient.
- Another common complaint is about therapists who appear to be distracted, for example by talking on the phone or never looking up from their notepad.
- Violation of privacy or confidentiality is another serious issue often mentioned in negative reviews of therapists.
- An excessive focus on billing and payment on the therapist’s part at the beginning and throughout the therapy relationship is a turnoff for many counseling clients.
- Additionally, we hear from unhappy reviewers who complain of therapists cutting appointments short or showing up late — a red flag to watch out for early in therapy relationships.