Whether you are seeking help with low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues, the relationship you have with your therapist is an important one. If your counselor is a good fit for you, you will be able to talk freely and make real progress over time with the help of their skills and training.
If you’re considering finding a better match, take a look at our list of the top 10 online therapy companies to begin your search. Here are the top 10 signs that you may be seeing the wrong therapist.
1. You don’t feel free to speak your mind
If you sense that your therapist is judging or criticizing you, or if you feel otherwise insecure in expressing your thoughts and feelings, it’s time to move on. A productive relationship with a counselor needs to provide a base level of safety. While working through your issues, you should never feel a sense of shame or judgment about your life and your choices. A feeling of perceived negative judgment can cause clients to lie about their thoughts or behaviors or withhold the truth, which makes for a bad client-therapist relationship and little chance to make progress.
2. Your therapist behaves in an unethical manner
All therapists must agree to a code of ethics in order to become licensed. If you believe your therapist is pushing the boundaries of ethics, that is a cause for concern. Red flags to look for include:
- Your therapists knows you through friends or family and agrees to work with you anyway
- Your therapist gives you gifts, or accepts gifts from you or other clients
- Your therapist crosses a professional line and becomes too friendly or physical, or makes sexually suggestive comments
- Your therapist encourages you to become dependent on them and their advice, rather than supporting your independence
- Your therapist seems impaired by substances or personal problems
- You believe your therapist is breaking confidentiality codes (see #6 for more details)
To take a deeper dive into the ethics of becoming a counselor, check out the American Counseling Association’s Code of Ethics.
3. You sense that your therapist is inexperienced or otherwise unqualified
Avoid therapists who do not have at least a master’s degree in psychology, therapy, or social work. After they complete their degree, they will need to become licensed by the state in order to take on clients. Depending on the state and the type of therapy, this could require the completion of certain courses, and a minimum number of clinical hours (often ranging from 1500-2000).
These training hours are supervised by licensed professionals. New counselors will also need to take one or more exams to earn their license, and they will pay a yearly fee to maintain it. If you believe that your therapist is working outside of this established system, it’s a red flag.
When selecting a new therapist or evaluating whether your current counselor is a good fit for you, it can help to understand the most common credentials for mental health professionals:
- Psychiatrists (MD, DO). These medical doctors are trained in psychiatric medicine and can manage medications, often in partnership with other mental health professionals who provide psychotherapy.
- Psychologists (PhD, PsyD, EdD): They will have completed a doctoral degree, including clinical work and research.
- Social Workers (MSW, LGSW, LCSW, LMSW, LCSW-C, LISW, and others). These are professionals who have completed a master’s program in social work. The “L” indicates that they have completed licensing requirements for their state.
- Marriage/family therapists (MA, MFT, LMFT, LCMFT). They have completed a master’s-level degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. An “L” indicates completing licensing requirements.
- Pastoral counselors (MA, CCPT, CpastC, NCPC, NCCA). They have completed a master’s program in Pastoral Counseling or Pastoral Therapy.
The American Psychological Association has more information about the training and credentials associated with professional therapists.
4. Your therapist does not specialize in your area of concern
Chances are, you chose your therapist because they seemed to have experience helping other people with similar issues to yours. If you begin to sense that your areas of concern are not where your therapist has expertise, it may be time to make a switch. Most licensed therapists have experience helping clients manage depression, for example, but certain mental health conditions, such as body image issues, require more specialized experience.
5. You feel a lack of connection with your therapist
If you don’t believe that your therapist supports you and is on your side, it is time to consider other options. Your counselor should feel like a trusted ally, one with whom you enjoy speaking. If--instead of looking forward to sessions--you feel as though therapy is a chore to check off your weekly list, it’s not a good sign. Your lack of connection could be due to personality differences, or a different cultural viewpoint that may be difficult to bridge. Whatever the reason for a failure to connect, you will be unlikely to make good progress toward your mental health goals.
6. Your therapist breaks trust protocols
Whatever is discussed in therapy sessions should remain discreet, with certain important exceptions, such as for minors whose parents are involved in the therapy environment, and for clients who the therapist believes are in immediate danger of harming themselves or others. In order to be licensed and accredited, your therapist has agreed to follow a specific code. If they don't stick to it, it’s time to move on.
7. Your therapist brings up their own personal stories
While some degree of counselor self-disclosure can be beneficial for certain clients, most therapists know that they should keep their personal experiences out of therapy sessions. If you find that your therapist excessively recounts personal stories, consider finding a therapist who can keep the focus on you.
8. Your therapist isn't 'actively listening' to you
It is extremely valuable for a therapist to practice “active listening,” where they ask follow-up questions to gain more details and insights from your session. But if they repeatedly ask the same questions, or if they seem to be forgetting about stories or problems you have discussed in the past, it may signal that they are not paying close enough attention. It’s time to move on to a counselor who can listen, follow up, and help you move forward.
9. Your therapist’s attention is divided
Whether your therapy sessions are in the provider’s office or in a virtual setting, you deserve undivided attention from your counselor. If you find that their attention wanders to their phone, laptop, or other distractions, it is important to speak up and voice your concerns. If the distractions continue, it’s time to seek another provider. And if your therapist misses appointments, cuts them short, or arrives late, consider finding a therapist who will value your time more appropriately.
10. You just have a bad feeling
If you’ve done your research, and your therapist has everything you need “on paper,” there is still the possibility that they are not the right fit for you. Follow your instincts. If you feel worse after therapy, rather than better, it could be because your therapist is not right for you. Has therapy become more of a habit than a means to improve your mental health? If you keep attending your therapy sessions but don’t see progress towards your goals – self-sufficiency, positive self-esteem changes, better coping with difficult situations – it may be time to rethink the relationship and find someone who can lead you in a more productive direction.
When starting a new therapy journey, it may take two or three sessions to determine if your relationship with your therapist has what it takes to help you achieve your goals. If you notice one or more warning signs of a bad client-therapist relationship, you should bring up your concerns in your next session. If things don’t improve, consider finding a new therapist. Finding the right one can be a process of trial and error, but well worth it in the long run. Our list of the best online therapy providers can be a great place to start.