How to Know when You have a Bad Therapist

by Anne Windermere Patient Advocate

I was visiting a friend the other day and telling her of my recent misadventures in therapy. She suggested that I should have a new reality show called "Merely Me goes to Therapy" and every week I can showcase the bloopers and blunders of the helping profession. Now don't go stealing my idea You can tell by my tone that this is going to be a slightly sardonic post. It is true that I have become a bit jaded about therapy recently. Know that I do believe in therapy. When therapy is good it can literally save your life from despair. But when it is bad I believe it can cause more harm than good.

I have personally experienced both sides of the coin.

When I was in my twenties I had the fortunate experience of finding one of the most skilled and effective therapists I have ever been to. The thing was is that I found him through sheer luck. I was going through a very bad depression which had me crying at work. My best friend and co-worker at the time led me back into his office and made a call for me to set up an appointment with a psychologist. I spent zero time searching. My friend did all the work and it only took minutes to get me hooked up with someone. The therapy I would end up receiving was life changing.

I believe that therapy can be compared to dancing. When you see dance partners who are connected then the dance appears seamless and easy. But when you see two people dancing who have no connection you pay more attention to counting steps or technique. You are made aware of how difficult dance can be if you have a bad partner. It is no longer fun and is more of a chore to keep your toes from being stepped on.

It is my opinion that so much of therapy is based upon the connection you have with your therapist. I don't care what kind of method they are using, if you aren't jiving with your therapist on a basic human level then the therapy is not going to be effective.

The traits which my first therapist had which I am finding to be rare included: Having ethical standards and appropriate boundaries, allowing me to lead but never letting me wander too far from the topic at hand, able to validate my thoughts and feelings, showing a gentleness when the subject matter could cause great anxiety or distress, but also knowing when to challenge me to take the next steps and move forward with my goals.

This therapist helped me through the worst of my depressive episodes when I felt I could cope no longer. When I finally left his care I felt as though I had truly accomplished something. I was given the tools to not only survive but to find some happiness. For this I will always be grateful.

I have given you an example of how therapy can be good for you. But when is therapy "bad" and even harmful? I am always giving the suggestion here to try therapy. And I do believe that it is a good idea to try. But also know that there are therapists out there who may not be helpful to you and it is helpful to be discerning about who you choose to be your therapist. You will be spending a lot of time with this person. You will tell them very intimate things. You may be spending a lot of money out of pocket or through your insurance. You deserve to find the best therapist for you, someone who can truly help you to reach your goals.

I am going to give you a list of some traits or behaviors of therapists which I find to be deal breakers. If you find that your therapist shows any of these qualities or behaviors then it may be time to find another therapist.

Your therapist crosses personal and/or ethical boundaries. I have had two therapists who have wanted to be more of a friend to me than a therapist. As much as it might seem enticing for a therapist to be your buddy, this is a line which should not be crossed. They will not be able to be objective and help you if you enter too much into the friend zone. One therapist wanted to go for walks with me during our therapy session. I found it curious but it also made me feel uncomfortable. Another therapist wanted to give me hugs right away. I was very uneasy with this show of affection and so soon into therapy. This same "hugger" told me during one of our sessions that he was enthralled by me and would even take a bullet for me. I joked nervously. "Oh you probably say that to all your patients." The bottom line is that if you feel the therapist is crossing some lines that he or she shouldn't then trust your gut. This may not be the therapist for you.

Your therapist discloses too much personal information. I have had the misfortune of having a therapist who made me want to yell, "This is MY therapy session, not yours!" In some cases self disclosure from a therapist can be helpful but too much is inappropriate and can cause harm. I recently discussed my childhood sexual abuse with a therapist who then told me in great detail about his sexual abuse. I found it disturbing and it caused me great anxiety. His revelations did not stop there and pretty much anything I said was met with a story of his own. I began to wonder if he was in need of therapy himself.

Your therapist chooses to follow an agenda that you did not agree to. I was happy to oblige when one therapist asked me what goals I wanted to work on. I told him that I had Multiple Sclerosis and wanted to come to terms with accepting that I have this disease. I told him that I have a son who has autism and I would like to learn how to handle my fears over my child's future. These were but a couple of the concrete goals I had in mind with regard to therapy. Instead of working on these things he chose to discuss how I was sexually abused as a child and this was during my second session. It was too soon and it freaked me out. It was not what I wanted to discuss during my time there.

Your therapist breaks confidentiality: I had a therapist who would begin his session by talking about his previous patients he had seen that day. I felt bad for even listening. I didn't want to open my mouth as I was fearful that he would disclose my information to the patient who came after me.

This is a short list but you get the gist of things. Just because someone has the credentials to practice therapy does not mean they are a good therapist. It is so difficult because going to therapy puts one in a vulnerable position. You want help. You want to trust. It is easy for those of us with depression to second guess ourselves. Don't doubt yourself. If you feel that something is not right it usually isn't. Get the best therapist that you can. It is your money, your time and your life.

How about you? Have any of you had a bad therapist? What things did they do which caused you to terminate therapy? Please share your experiences here. We want to hear from you!

Anne Windermere
Meet Our Writer
Anne Windermere

These articles were written by a longtime HealthCentral community member who shared valuable insights from her experience living with multiple chronic health conditions. She used the pen name "Merely Me."