So, you think that you might be stuck with a bad therapist or have started questioning some of the things your therapist has done. Or maybe you have recently started looking for a therapist. counselor, or psychologist, and want to know what bad qualities you should watch out for.
So, you think that you might be stuck with a bad therapist or have started questioning some of the things your therapist has done. Or maybe you have recently started looking for a therapist. counselor, or psychologist, and want to know what bad qualities you should watch out for.
Having a good therapist is vital to helping you achieve progress on your mental health concerns. On the other hand, having a bad therapist can keep you from making progress on your anxiety, depression, and sadness, leaving you wondering why you started therapy in the first place.
This guide will reveal signs of a bad therapist, so that you can get the emotional help you need and deserve. To help you get the best mental health treatment, this guide will also walk you through the steps you need to know in order to find a good therapist near you.
Before we get started on signs to watch out for in your therapist, it’s important to note that having one of these signs doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve found a bad therapist. If you are starting to feel better about your mental health, and you find that your counselor is helping you, it’s probably best to stay with them. If you have any concerns about your therapist or counselor, you can always bring them up to them directly, address them, or ask about their approach to therapy. If that isn’t helpful or you would prefer to dump your therapist and find someone different, we have some tips on how you can find a good therapist at the end of this guide.
1. Not Keeping Therapy Confidential
This is a big one. Therapists, counselors, social workers, and psychologists are legally required to maintain your privacy about what you speak about in session. They shouldn’t be telling other people about your therapy sessions without your consent to do so. There are some exceptions to this rule of confidentiality as some things cannot be kept private (e.g., risk of harm to self), but your therapist should review confidentiality and its limits at the beginning of treatment. Not talking about confidentiality is a huge red flag in therapists.
2. Giving You Advice
A lot of people expect therapists to give them advice on what to do with their relationship, marriage, or job. Therapists are allowed to share their thoughts and opinions on things going on in your life, but the goal of therapy is to give you the ability to advocate for your needs and decide what situations and relationships are best for you. If your therapist is telling you exactly what you should be doing, they aren’t giving you the power to grow and make these changes for yourself.
3. Not Listening
This one should be a clear warning sign for a bad therapist or counselor. If you find that your therapist is missing a lot of things you’re saying or appears to be daydreaming during session, they may not be giving you their best. Everyone has days that they are tired or may not be feeling their best, but it becomes a problem once it is happening multiples times. If your counselor is not making an effort to truly understand you, it may be time to find a better therapist.
4. Lacking Empathy
Empathy is one of the most important skills that a good therapist can have. Empathy refers to the ability to validate and understand what you are going through, while acknowledging the emotional pain of some of your challenges. Feeling like your therapist is downplaying your struggles and invalidating your emotions doesn’t make therapy productive, and it can make it hard to talk to your therapist.
5. Judging Your Decisions
One of the traits of a good therapist is someone who can listen non-judgmentally to challenging mental health concerns, substance abuse problems, and relationship woes. Therapy is intended to be a space where you can discuss sensitive topics without the fear of being judged by your counselor. Looking out for judgment from your counselor can be important in your healing process. Notice their verbal reactions, tone, and facial cues when you reveal your concerns. These signs about how they react can give you insight into if they are a good therapist for you.
6. Putting Their Political, Religious, or Spiritual Beliefs on You
Politics, religion, and spiritual beliefs can certainly come up in therapy. You may be working through how some of these topics are affecting your mental health, and it may be natural for your therapist to ask about these topics as they relate to what’s important to you. However, a therapist should never tell you what you should believe politically, or what your religious or spiritual affiliation may be. If your therapist does this, it doesn’t create an environment where you will feel like you can tell them how you actually feel.
7. Telling You Not to Talk About Certain Things
There shouldn’t be anything that is off limits to discuss in therapy. Therapy is supposed to be a safe space where you are entitled to talk about uncomfortable topics. When a therapist tells you to avoid talking about certain things, they may be the ones who feel uncomfortable with you bringing them up. That tells you that a therapist may be incapable of holding space for topics that are important to your healing, and a different therapist may be a better fit for your concerns.
8. Not Understanding Your Background
A therapist should truly understand you in order to know how they can best help you. If a therapist approached every client with anxiety the same way, they would be unsuccessful and not helpful to their clients. Because of this, it’s important for your counselor to ask questions about your culture, gender, and sexual orientation to better understand you. If a therapist avoids asking you these questions, they won’t know who you truly are or how they can help you in a therapy session.
9. Shaming Your Mental Health
It’s sad to think that some therapists will shame mental health, but it’s a possibility. Unfortunately, some therapists don’t believe in mental health diagnoses like Attention-Deficit/Hyperacitivty Disorder (ADHD or ADD) or personality disorders like Borderline Personality Disorder. If a therapist attributes your ADHD to laziness or not trying hard enough, they won’t be able to help you feel better. Good therapists will help you feel comfortable with your mental health diagnoses, while also making sure you understand your diagnosis is not something that you made up or to feel guilty for.
10. Focusing on Them Too Much
Have you ever had a therapy session where it seems like your therapist is focusing only on themselves? If you bring up something difficult that happened to them and your therapist always brings it back to something similar that happened to them, that’s not a good thing. You won’t be able to get treatment for your mental health concerns if your clinician isn’t focusing on you. Some self-disclosure by therapists can be a positive thing, but it can be problematic when the entire therapy session feels more focused on the therapist than you.
11. Forcing You to Open Up
Although it’s a therapist’s role to help you open up about difficult topics, forcing you to talk about something before you are ready can be a warning sign. Especially for topics like trauma and abuse, it can take time before you feel comfortable opening up to your therapist. While therapy can be uncomfortable at times for change to happen, you should still be able to consent to what your counselor has you do in session.
12. Avoiding Difficult Topics
Just as a therapist should never force you to talk about something you aren’t ready to talk about, counselors can’t completely avoid the reasons that brought you to therapy. Counselors should explore the challenging mental health topics with you in order to help you. After several sessions of getting to know you and building a relationship with you, therapy should be able to go past surface-level topics to the reasons why you came to therapy in the first place.
13. Being Defensive About Feedback
Working up the courage to provide your therapist with feedback can be challenging. If you do bring up feedback to your therapist about something they did in therapy and notice they get defensive, angry, or question your intentions, that’s a red flag for a therapist. Therapists should create a welcoming space in session where you feel comfortable bringing up difficult topics to them without worrying about how they will respond.
14. Not Holding Boundaries
Relationships with therapists should feel close and warm. But relationships with counselors should not feel like you are talking to a friend or a partner. If you feel like you are just talking to a friend in a therapy session, you won’t be receiving help from a professional. Similar to that, therapists should never cross boundaries of hanging out with you outside of session like a friend. Therapy is intended to be a professional relationship.
15. Constantly Being Late to Session
If a therapist is late to session one or two times, it usually isn’t a big deal. Everyone is late at times and counselors are people too. But if your therapist is always running late to your appointments, you probably aren’t getting the mental health help that you need or your full therapy session. If you find that your counselor’s tardiness is consistently cutting into your therapy time, it’s time to reconsider your current therapist.
16. Touching You Inappropriately
Touch isn’t always a red flag in therapy. There can be times where a hug, pat on the arm, or high five may be appropriate and welcomed by someone in therapy. A bad therapist will touch you inappropriately in ways that are sexual or romantic. It may also be a warning sign if a therapist makes you feel uncomfortable with their touch or doesn’t ask you first before giving you a hug. It’s important that your therapist asks for your consent before providing physical touch so that it can be clearly discussed that the touch is okay.
17. Taking Forever to Call You Back
Therapists are expected to return your call within a couple of days at least. Many good therapists are able to call their clients back within one to two days of their client’s call. Therapists who can’t be reached may be too busy or have too many clients to devote enough time to you. Or they may be too bogged down in too much paperwork. Either way, a therapist who doesn’t return your calls within a reasonable amount of time may be a bad therapist. Counselors who take too much time likely are unable to truly help you in the way you deserve.
18. Not Calling You Back at All
There may even be times where your therapist never returns your phone call. This can happen quite frequently for clients who are looking for new therapists and attempting to schedule an initial consultation. If you contact a potential therapist and they don’t return your phone call, you may have dodged a bullet. Before you even start therapy, if they aren’t willing to take the time to call you back, they won’t be able to give you enough time once you start therapy with them. Consider it a favor that they let you know up front who they truly are.
19. Only Caring About Their Perspective
It’s never a good thing for a therapist to push their own perspective on you. Therapists can share their perspective, but you are ultimately the expert on your own mental health. Good therapists should be open to hearing your perspective and taking it into account during mental health treatment.
20. Counselor Only Uses Mental Health Lingo or Psychobabble.
Mental health diagnoses and treatment information can seem scientific and confusing. Psychologists, therapists, and counselors are guilty of occasionally using psychobabble to explain how you are feeling and how they are going to help you. Great counselors and therapists will break that information down for you so that it’s understandable and makes sense.
21. Rushing into a Diagnosis
Therapists, social workers, and psychologists should take the time to come to the conclusion on an accurate diagnosis. If your therapist is diagnosing you within the first five minutes of your session, they don’t truly know you or your mental health concerns. Look for a therapist who will take the time to get to know you before diagnosing you.
22. Not Explaining Your Diagnosis
When your therapist finally comes to the conclusion of what you are experiencing, they should explain to you what your diagnosis means. If you continue to have unanswered questions about your diagnosis and your therapist isn’t open to or able to answer them, that can be a warning sign. It may mean they lack the knowledge or education to fully explain that diagnosis.
23. Pushing Their Diagnosis
Questioning your diagnosis is normal and asking your therapist about how they got to your diagnosis is appropriate. A therapist should have a reason for giving you a diagnosis, and that reason should be that you meet diagnostic criteria and they have thoroughly assessed you. It’s an issue when therapists continue to push a diagnosis on you without any evidence of why you have that diagnosis and without explaining other potential causes of your symptoms. Seeking a second opinion of your diagnosis is appropriate if you don’t feel that your current diagnosis is correct, and your counselor is unable to provide information on how they gave you that diagnosis.
24. Failing to Discuss Your Treatment Plan with You
Discussing your treatment plan is a normal part of therapy. It is where your therapist discusses treatment options, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, online therapy, and in-person therapy. Your treatment plan outlines exactly how mental health treatment with your counselor is going to help you. Your therapist should discuss treatment goals, skills that will be learned in therapy, and how you will know when you are ready to end therapy. Ideally, this is something that you help your therapist develop through a collaborative approach. It isn’t uncommon for bad therapists to not discuss your treatment plan with you.
25. Caring Only About Their Goals
Treatment plans are important because it’s where you come up with your joint treatment goals. Treatment plans should not be created by your therapist alone. Instead, they should involve you in the process to make sure that the mental health problems you have are actually addressed. Therapists who are only focused on their goals may not be able to address the problems that brought you into therapy.
26. Giving No Explanation of What to Expect in Therapy
As part of the treatment plan and intake for therapy, therapists typically discuss what therapy will be like, possible treatment approaches, and how long therapy will last. These are general expectations that will help set you up for success with your therapist. After starting therapy, you should feel like you have a roadmap of skills you will be learning in therapy and how your therapist will help you achieve them.
27. Keeping You in Therapy Forever
Unless you want it to be and can afford it, therapy isn’t mean to last forever. In most circumstances, therapy is meant to be short-term to address a certain problem or mental health diagnosis. Therapy sessions that feel more like catching up with a friend when you don’t really need to be in therapy may be a red flag that your therapist is keeping you in therapy for financial or other reasons.
28. Using Therapies That Don’t Work
Therapists and counselors should be knowledgeable about the types of treatment, like cognitive behavioral therapy, that are the most effective for your mental health concern. Asking your therapist about why they are choosing a certain type of therapy or treatment can help you understand if they are using an appropriate mental health treatment or if they are using something questionable.
29. Trying to Stop You from Leaving Treatment
If you’ve come to the conclusion that you no longer need therapy, you should make that known to your therapist in a therapy session. As long as you are stable and have no significant risks or safety concerns, your therapist should not be defensive or not allow you to leave therapy. Being in therapy is a choice. The choice to be in therapy is ultimately up to you, not your therapist.
30. Unaware of Their Limitations
All good therapists know what they are good with and what they aren’t good with. Some therapists are skills at treating personality disorders while other therapists are better at helping people struggling with anxiety and depression. Therapists are legally obligated to refer you to a knowledgeable provider if they don’t have enough experience, training, or supervision to help you with your presenting concerns. Therapists’ websites often list the common mental health challenges they help people with. When your therapist doesn’t work with your type of mental health concern yet enthusiastically offers services to help you, they may have ulterior motives.
Now that you know some things to look out for in a bad therapist, you may feel that you are ready to change therapists. Or you may now feel that you are ready to start your mental health journey and seek out a therapist to address your concerns. Before diving into searching online for a therapist, there are still a few steps that you need to take to be successful in your search for a great therapist. Outlined below are the steps you should take to find a good therapist and avoid a bad therapist.
1. If you have a bad therapist, get rid of them.
Before you can find a good therapist, you need to get rid of your bad therapist. For people who are conflict-averse and don’t like confrontation, this can be a challenge. To dump your bad therapist, you have several options. You can address the decision directly by contacting your therapist and letting them know you are ending therapy and provide a reason if you would like. This may be challenging for some people who are conflict-averse and dislike confrontation. Another option would be to contact your therapist’s office and leave a voicemail with their administrative assistant or with the therapist after working hours explaining that you would like to cancel your session and do not wish to reschedule. If you would prefer not to address this directly, you can choose to not show for your next therapy session, but you may be charged a late cancellation or no-show fee.
2. Be clear on what you are looking for help with.
Asking yourself why you are looking for therapy is the first step to finding a good therapist. Some people look for help with a particular mental health diagnosis, such as anxiety, depression, or trauma. Other people may just need help with a recent life transition, such as divorce, graduation, or a new job. It’s important to become very clear on what your needs are for therapy because therapists specialize in different concerns. While some therapists may be really experienced in working with individuals for grief, others may prefer to work with couples. This information will become important to you once you start your search for a therapist.
3. Identify what type of therapist you want to work with.
In your past or current search for a therapist, you may have noticed a lot of different titles for people who can provide mental health treatment. Psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, social workers, and therapists can also provide therapy, but their background and education often vary. Understanding the differences between these types of providers will be important to make sure you find the right type of fit for you as a therapist.
Here is an overview of what different mental health providers can do to help you with your mental health concerns. Psychologists typically have a doctoral degree and can diagnose mental health disorders, complete psychological evaluations, and help alleviate mental health concerns through therapy. In some states, psychologists can also prescribe psychiatric medication for things like anxiety and depression. Psychiatrists, who are medical doctors, prescribe medication and some are also able to provide therapy. Clinical social workers and licensed professional counselors help people by providing therapy to people in a variety of settings such as hospitals, substance abuse clinics, nonprofits, and community mental health clinics. Marriage and family therapists are a different type of therapist who specialize in helping families and couples in their interactions with each other.
4. Decide if you would like online or in-person therapy.
When you begin your search for a therapist, it will also be important for you to decide if you would rather be seen online from the comfort of your own home or in-person at a therapist’s office. With types of therapy options expanding, this will be helpful for narrowing your search to the appropriate search engines.
Many therapists are now offering telehealth options for people who would prefer to be seen virtually, and it can offer many benefits for people. For working professionals, parents, and others with busy schedules, the option to have therapy virtually can make it easier to fit into their schedule. You no longer have to worry about the long commute to your therapist’s office, traffic, or taking off additional time to fit in a weekly therapy appointment. Online therapy can also be helpful for people with certain conditions, such as anxiety, who feel uncomfortable seeing their therapist in-person. Starting therapy online may be less anxiety-provoking and be an easier step towards addressing your mental health challenges.
On the other hand, some people may prefer to see therapists at their office. It may be valuable to experience the in-person connection to your therapist as in-person therapy can often feel more personable and it can be easier to develop a relationship with your therapist. It may be easier to understand your therapist and for them to understand you in-person, as they’re able to better read your nonverbal cues, tone, and subtle body language. It may also be more helpful to address some mental health challenges in person, such as social skills, as you’re able to interact with others in person rather than virtually.
5. Look into your budget for mental health services.
Unfortunately, deciding on a good therapist takes looking into what you have budgeted for mental health services. As a first step, decide if you would like to use your insurance benefits or if you would prefer to pay out-of-pocket for services.
Most insurance companies (e.g., Blue Cross Blue Shield, Medicaid) offer mental health benefits and have providers listed in their network. It may be helpful to use your insurance benefits to pay for mental health services because it can reduce the costs associated for medical care. For specialized treatments, such as substance abuse or eating disorder treatment, it may be particularly helpful for reducing costs of treatment. While insurance can be helpful for reducing the cost of mental health therapy, there are also cons. When using insurance for mental health benefits, you will be limited to the providers you can choose to receive therapy. These providers may have long waitlists and may not have the training and specializations you are looking for.
After you have decided if you want to use your mental health benefits, you can determine how much money you can use each month for mental health services. Traditional therapy, especially if it is in person, can often range from $100-$300 per session for out-of-network providers. If you have a PPO insurance plan, you can often submit the costs of your out-of-network therapy expenses to your insurance provider to be reimbursed for some of the costs.
To reduce costs of therapy, some therapists will offer sliding scale fees where you pay for each session based on income. Therapists will also occasionally offer pro bono services for clients, where you are not required to pay for services. Another option for reducing the costs of therapy is often pursuing group therapy, which is typically lower than the cost of an individual session. Additionally, there are many monthly online platforms, such as BetterHelp or Talkspace, that offer memberships, texting, and chat support with therapists at a reduced rate.
6. Consider benefits provided by your school or workplace for mental health.
Some companies offer mental health benefits, such as psychiatry and therapy, through an Employee Assistance Program. Employees may provide services at a reduced cost or over the cost of mental health services in these cases. It is important to know however that when using an Employee Assistance Program, your employer is entitled to know if you make an appointment and if you attended that appointment. Concerns of confidentiality associated with these programs can make some people choose other avenues for pursuing therapy.
If you are a college student or in school, you may also be able to receive mental health treatment through your university health clinic. Within universities, there are often college counseling clinics that provide therapy and psychiatry services to enrolled students. These clinics may also include walk-in clinics for those experiencing mental health crises. These types of services have the benefit of being low-cost and offered in a location convenient to campus.
7. Reach out to those in your network to start your search for a therapist.
Often, the best referrals come from people you trust and know. You can start your search for a therapist by asking friends and family for recommendations for a mental health provider, if you feel comfortable revealing your mental health concerns to them. Receiving referrals from people you trust can be a good way of identifying a good therapist that someone else has had success with.
If you don’t feel comfortable talking to those who are close to you, you can also bring up your difficulties with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues to your doctor. If you are using mental health benefits from insurance, you may have to have a referral from your primary care doctor to use your insurance. Bringing up sleep issues, fatigue, and anxiety are some of the most common things that bring people to their primary care physician. If you aren’t comfortable talking to your doctor about your mental health challenges, there are more discrete ways of seeking out mental health treatment.
8. Look through directories and search engines for other therapy options.
Many people start their search for a good therapist by typing into Google or other search engines “Therapist near me.” A general search like this can be a starting point, but to find a great therapist, you will need to narrow down your search and potentially your search engines.
Let’s start off with search engines that will help you narrow down your results. Websites such as PsychologyToday.com or GoodTherapy.org contain lists of therapists who have been verified by the website. These websites also provide quick access to the therapist’s website, contact information, education, and training. To help you find a counselor or therapist that is a good fit, you can filter your results by the therapist’s specialization (e.g., anxiety, depression) and insurance they accept.
There are also many national mental health organizations that provide directories for you to find a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. Examples of these national mental health organizations include the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, the National Alliance on Mental Health, and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Each of these organizations have webpages that contain lists of mental health professionals who may be able to help you. Some of these websites are also specialized in certain conditions, such as anxiety, which is why it’s important to know what concerns you need help with before beginning your search.
9. Narrow your search criteria to find the best therapist for you.
You’ve found the best search engine for you to begin looking for a therapist, and now you want to find the best therapist for you. On the search engine you have chosen, apply any filters that can help narrow down your search results to therapists that will be a good fit for you. For example, you may be able to narrow down your search results on Psychology Today by insurance type, specialty, therapist degree, and age of clients they see. This step will save you time from sifting through many therapists who aren’t a good fit for you.
Once you have found a handful of therapists that see people with your mental health concerns and are a good fit for your needs, take some time looking into their profile and website. These can be a good first introduction to your therapist’s personality and treatment approaches they utilize. When looking at different profiles, stay on the lookout for potential warning signs discussed above. If you see a therapist that has judgmental language, shames certain mental health diagnoses, or only pushes on therapy treatment, it may be better to find additional therapists as options.
10. Schedule consultations with potential therapists.
Until you meet a therapist in-person or virtually, you won’t be able to tell if they are a good fit for you. That’s why it is important to schedule an initial intake with a therapist so that you can get to know them, they can get to know you, and you can decide if it will be a good match.
On their websites, many therapists will have a phone number or link where you can schedule a 15-30 minute phone call or virtual meeting for a consultation. During this initial consultation, pay attention to key warning signs like if they arrive late, appear distracted, don’t listen to you, and are pushy in their approach. This will reveal how they may act once you are therapy with them, which is why it is important to assess different providers through multiple consultations. Once you have found a therapist who is a good fit for you, you can then begin your therapy sessions with them.
11. If you see multiple warning signs in your initial consultation or therapy sessions, know that you can also switch to another therapist.
Now that you know the signs of a bad therapist, you are well prepared to notice these red flags in your initial consultation or therapy sessions. At any point that you are no longer happy with therapy or your therapist, it is your choice to be able to leave therapy. A bad therapist will try to force you to stay, but the choice is up to you in how you overcome your mental health challenges.
Dr. Carrie Jackson is a contributor of JournalOwl. Her primary interests are to increase access to evidence-based mental health treatments for children and adolescents, providing specific information to parents and individuals with ADHD.
Carrie is a graduate of West Virginia University with a doctoral degree in Psychology, and a specialization in Clinical Child Psychology. Carrie has worked as a therapist and evaluator at several children’s hospitals, providing care and treatment to clients with ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and anxiety. She has also worked with children with chronic medical conditions, providing supportive mental health care to children with cancer and burn survivors.
Although originally from South Carolina, Carrie has lived in two countries and four states. She enjoys hiking, traveling, and trying new recipes.