Life can throw a bunch of curveballs at you. Whether it's a bad marriage, losing your job, a tough childhood or just the feeling that something isn't quite right, you may feel like it's time to seek therapy. But where do you start? What—and who—do you look for? While finding the right therapist for you will ultimately come down to your own set of individual wants, needs and level of comfortability, there are a few red flags you can look out for to help make your search a little easier. Below, patients and therapists share the red flags they think you should look out for when choosing a therapist.
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#1 These Four Things
Any of these four things:
- Therapist checks for messages during the session.
- Therapist pushes their own religious views on their client (it's a stupid mistake, but it's common).
- Therapist discloses content of the sessions to third parties. Exceptions to this rule are clinical supervision (when a therapist seeks a senior or colleagues for technical advice) or when the patient's life is at risk.
- Therapist flirts with client.
#2 They Tell You What To Do
I think there is a misconception that advice-giving is what is most helpful. Therapists don't often give advice but rather they offer alternative perspectives and create space for a collaborative approach to explore new ways of overcoming obstacles. We, as therapists, shouldn't ever assume we know what is best for a client to do. It is their life.
If you have a therapist telling you what to do, I would have to assume there is an unhealthy power dynamic occurring which can have a variety of negative outcomes. Of course there is a time and place for advice but usually, that should come from a peer or family who are essentially at the same power level as you.
#3 They Talk About Themselves
If they work in a lot of things about themselves and their lives.
#4 They Drag Out Your Treatment
I can't speak to those clinicians in private practice because I'm in community mental health but for agency based therapy, it is not a long term service. Most CMH agencies are bound by EBP (evidence-based practices) which are time-limited and short term (6-12 weeks). I would be wary of a therapist who seems like they are dragging out your treatment. The goal is progress, not perfection.
#5 They Check Their Phone
If they are distracted at all (check a text or email or anything) during the session.
#6 These Warning Flags
Therapist here. My role is a little different as I am a trauma-based, short term crisis therapist, meaning I just help stabilize my clients to where they can be transferred to a lower level of care. To me warning flags are: no risk assessment, no crisis planning, no exploring triggers, no plan to help you cope when faced with a trigger (especially important when triggered in/ out of session), no timeline for treatment, no discussion about your rights as a patient, too much advice-giving, also giving advice about anything outside of their scope of practice (medical treatment, religious practices, legal issues, etc), in family/couples sessions specially, any therapist who acts like a referee to determine who is right or wrong. Covering these items is important in therapy because it will help the patient long-term in processing emotions, using healthy coping skills and problem-solving on their own.
#7 They Have Open Availability
If they can get you in immediately, it may mean they don't have many clients. This could either mean they are very new or not a very good therapist. It could also mean they had a cancellation, so do some research.
#8 You Don't "Click"
I'd like to take this time to remind everyone that it's important to find a therapist with whom you can "click." If their personality is a clash with yours or their modality doesn't work for you, it's fine to find someone else, Heck, it's expected. This is kind of my own personal style showing in a way, but I'm of the opinion that if every session the therapist is talking more than the client, there's something very wrong.
It's a little normal for them to interrupt you to focus on something you said here and there, or direct you if you lose your way, but if they're yammering on and you can't even talk about what you wanted to, I'd say that's a pretty big red flag for me. That said, I'd still say give it a couple of sessions before deciding on that because the first session can often mean a lot of information gathering, so they have to touch on a lot of things.
#9 They Push Their Religious Beliefs
If they start pushing their religious beliefs on you.
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#10 You Aren't Being Heard
If a therapist doesn’t give you an informed consent; if a therapist doesn’t thoroughly explain his/her informed consent to makes sure you understand; if a therapist doesn’t listen to your needs; if a therapist says they are a BLANK therapist (CBT, DBT, psychoanalytic, etc.) and they don’t listen to your individual needs; if a therapist reroutes all your problems back to some aspect of your life. Overall, if it feels like you aren’t being heard and understood, that's a red flag. More so, if it feels like the therapist isn’t trying to understand your point of view.
#11 They Hold Things Against You
When your therapist is sure that you told them things you never did, and hold those things against you. I had a psychiatrist like that once, and I'm glad I got a new one. The things she held against me made me look like I was actually crazy.
#12 This List
A few things come to mind right away: Is there any good reason to know about their ex-husband, kids, pets, son-in-law, etc? I think not. For $100+ for 45 minutes, the focus should be completely on the patient. Are they licensed and is their office legit? You can check their license number which should be readily available on their business card/invoice/hung up on the office wall. Does it look like a business office or an isolated deserted building with just you and them? Do you get a creepy vibe?
Do you feel better or worse after you walk out? Do they approach problems with assurances or just make you feel bad about yourself? Do you go home with new tactics or strengthened tactics to deal with your life? Are they building you up to function well on your own? Do they measure success by you not always needing sessions?
Are they happy for you when you are stable enough to dial back the frequency of sessions? Are you practicing techniques in your sessions that can be used when you are on your own? Are they "holding you hostage" as a place to spill your guts, or are they teaching you to practice their methods across multiple parts of your life?
#13 Two Golden Rules
I'm in a Master's of Counseling program right now, and one of our professors says his two rules are this: If the therapist is not in therapy themselves, run; and, if the therapist is not in some kind of consultation with other therapists (to get other perspectives their clients), run.
#14 They Talk About Themselves
Therapist here! The big three are as follows: Talking about themselves in a way that is too detailed or detracts the attention and focus from you. Advice giving, we are not here to tell you what to do. Not referring you on when an issue is out of their competency. For example, attempting to treat LGBTQ issues without training or skills with that particular population.
#15 They Shame You
- If they ever at any point make a pass or flirt with you.
- If they try to friend you on Facebook or any other social media.
- If they disclose identifying details about other clients to you.
- If they shame you for any decision or otherwise deliberately make you feel bad.
- If, in group, couples, family, etc. counseling they seem to pick one side over the other (choose a team).
- If they disclose traumas that happened to them during the session and somehow make the conversation about themselves rather than about you.
#16 They Don't Keep Professional Boundaries
Not keeping professional boundaries. For example, sharing personal information about themselves, giving you direct advice about a serious decision (like a recent breakup), and expressing their personal opinion strongly. If you see any sign of them judging your decisions, opinions or feelings, they may not be the therapist for you.
#17 They Tell You You Have Daddy Issues
I had a single session with a psych almost a year ago. I was 5ish minutes into answering the question "Why are you here?" and he stopped me and asked if I had issues with my dad. I told him yes, because I do, and his response was "Yeah, thought so." When I asked him why, he told me it was because I'm fat and that girls who have daddy issues either sleep around or put on weight. I'm coincidentally in the waiting room right now to see another one, so wish me luck!
#18 They Aren't Specific To Your Needs
Therapist here. It's important to know what kind of therapy you're interested in. Do you want to know more about yourself and why you are the way you are? A psychoanalyst might be better for you. Do you want to tackle a specific issue such as anxiety/depression/eating disorder etc.? Look into CBT or more behavioural-based therapists. Make sure they are using evidence-based practices.
This will heavily influence the kind of therapy you receive. Sometimes people don't want advice, just reflection. Sometimes people want very specific things to be addressed in therapy. One thing I haven't seen mentioned yet is that it's important that you both know what you're here to work on. What are your goals in treatment?
#19 “That Must Be So Difficult For You"
My therapist responded to everything I said with, “That sounds awful” or “That must be so difficult for you." Obviously, lady, that’s why I’m here. Do something.
#20 They Tell You What You Want To Hear
Does it seem like he or she is telling you what you want to hear? Chances are, you went to a therapist in the first place because something isn’t going well in your life. If all they are doing is validating your way of thinking without challenging you and offering to teach strategies to help you going forward, chances are therapy from that person isn’t going to be any more useful than chatting with your bartender at your favorite pub. Also, therapists too often forget that people lie. If they take patient self-report as gospel, important factors may be missed.
#21 They Flirt
Any kind of flirtation (it does happen), get out of there.
#22 They Judge You
Therapist here. They should never make judgements about people in your life, especially your SO. It's pretty basic that you can't form an opinion on someone based on your patient's description. It doesn't mean they never say anything about the relationship, but they should seek a lot of information and only talk about people in relation to you.
#23 They Talk About Themselves A Lot
If they disclose more about themselves than you do about yourself. When used appropriately, it is usually a way to connect with a client. If every other sentence is "I've found in my life that..." they aren't using therapeutic skills, they're just going off of their subjective experience to life.
#24 They Can't Recognize When The Rapport Isn't There
Therapist here, and I’m really sorry that some of you have had negative experiences with counseling. Not everyone is going to click and be able to build that rapport but it’s also the therapist’s job to recognize when the rapport is not there or when we are completely out of the scope of what we are working with. It’s important to realize what you specialize in and make that decision to refer to someone else more qualified in that area. It’s hard to know sometimes when to refer because you want to give time for rapport building but you also don’t want to waste your client’s time and when you eventually refer it’s frustrating for them to have to start all over again with a new person.
#25 They Don't Have Boundaries
Therapists who don't set clear boundaries. Boundaries are VERY important.
#26 They Get Defensive
As a fairly young therapist, it is not unusual that my patients are unsure about me being competent enough at my age. They will think you lack the experience of an older therapist that has been longer in the job and went through more life events themselves. I think it's important for me to listen to those concerns and (if it is their wish) give them my view on this matter. Usually, that's all it takes for them to get more confident in my skills. I think a massive red flag is a therapist that is getting very defensive when confronted with concerns or critic. Its usual a big sign of trust if a patient opens up about those things and a chance not to be missed.
#27 They Talk, Talk, Talk
For me, the biggest red flag is that the therapist talks about themselves. As a therapist, I am the only tool I have in the session, but that session is NEVER about me. So if I have a relevant experience that I can sum up in like two sentences that might help you I’ll share something but that’s about it. If early on you know about your therapist's children or friends or weekend just get up and go find another therapist.
#28 They Don't Believe You
I had a client tell me about how she had a therapist who didn't believe that the client's parents were physically abusing her when she was a teenager (about four years ago), and the therapist wanted to talk to her parents to check to make sure the client was telling the truth. Um...you call the child abuse hotline IMMEDIATELY, you don't TALK TO THE ABUSERS TO VERIFY THE VICTIM'S STORY.
This therapist never called the hotline and told the client that she didn't believe her, and my client was abused for two more years because of it. If a therapist tells you that she doesn't believe your story, get a new therapist. It's not our job to dictate what is true and what isn't—it's our job to help you process through all of it.
#29 They Have A Hidden Agenda
They seem to have a hidden agenda. What you want to work on is your relationship, but the therapist keeps bringing up anxiety. It could be that the therapist suspects that anxiety is the core issue, but that's too many steps ahead and she should meet you where you are and slowly get to the core but not rush you!
#30 They Must Be Empathetic
I see a lot of comments on just how to be a better listener and help friends. I'm a crisis counselor in training for three different crisis lines, so this is just my two cents based on the training I'm getting: Be empathetic. Highlight their strengths. If someone says, 'I can't stop cutting myself' or something along those lines, thank them for sharing, tell them they're brave for reaching out to find help, tell them they're inspiring that they trying to better themselves.
#31 They Push Their Values On You
When the therapist gives a lot of advice. Therapists aren't really supposed to give advice. They can make suggestions that you think of trying together, but if a therapist is constantly pushing their values or opinions on you, something is wrong.
#32 They Don't Review The Rules
Therapist-in-training here! Here is a bullet point list of what I think others covered:
- If they don’t provide informed consent.
- If they don’t review the rules of confidentiality every so often.
- If they strictly provide advice rather than encourage you to think of options.
- If they don’t gently challenge your thoughts and assumptions.
- If they try to push a religious agenda.
- Checking their phone and email while with you.
#33 You Feel Terrible After Sessions
You feel terrible after many sessions with the therapist, and especially after talking about it, it doesn't get anywhere.
#34 They Tell You Exactly What To Do
The worst things a therapist can do: Give you solutions and telling you exactly what to do instead of helping you find them; Starting with a faith approach treatment. I have know of a therapist whose immediate approach is to evangelize the patient, disregarding their beliefs. A therapist is not a pastor. One thing is discussing your beliefs, another one is the therapist imposing them; A therapist needs to be a blank space where the patient starts putting their ideas. That means they should not be judgmental and should not involve or establish personal feelings towards you.
#35 They Get Angry
I've been working as an LMSW for two years in a clinic. When you act out your strong emotions and the therapist gets triggered and defensive, angry, or in general just projects their emotions onto you (as opposed to being a holding space to allow you to process them and then work through them), that's a big red flag.
#36 They Shouldn't Give Advice
Therapists should try not to give advice. On one hand, I'm training for the Crisis Text Center, their rule is to never give advice unless you're referring them to resources (if the texter specifically requests them). Even though you may have lots of experience in whatever the other person is going through, once you try to solve their problems for them, or tell them go talk to their parents or friends to solve it, you start to make the situation so that the texter is now reliant on others to solve their issues for them.
Problem-solving for people in crisis should be collaborative. When someone asks, "I'm so stressed right now, what should I do?", telling them what to do makes them now dependent on you to solve their issues. Instead, asking, "Has this ever happened to you before?" or "What do you usually do to help calm yourself down?", makes it so that the texter reflects on their own strengths and find how to deal with their issues and not be dependent on others.
On the other hand, sometimes you have to give advice. The other text line I'm training for, people usually come for advice on what to do or some legal advice on their situations. When the question becomes, "I want to run away, how do I keep myself safe?" and not "How do I deal with my stress", sometimes it's necessary to tell them about what options they should consider.
#37 They Tell You To Avoid Your Trauma
I tried talking to a therapist about the abuse I'd suffered as a child. She shut me down and said we should "be talking about positive things and looking forward to my future." She did what every toxic adult had done in my life, tell me to avoid my trauma. What a poisonous therapist and experience.
#38 They Always Use Talk Therapy
An important thing I’ve learned is that sessions don’t always have to be “talk therapy.” Hopefully, you can kind of tell when someone’s just not into it that day. Talking and psychoeducation are important but sometimes I just play cards or do something not overtly “therapeutic.” Sometimes people feel more able to open up if you don’t push them and let them do it on their own time.
I’m not trying to waste anyone’s time by playing games or doing other things but sometimes it’s therapeutic to just be present with someone. I had one adult male client who was struggling and one day I suggested just coloring (sort of half-joking) and he said, “That sounds goofy. I’d love to. I haven’t colored since I was little.” We talked about just random things and I learned a lot more about him through the “mindless” activity.
#39 They Only Validate You
If they keep validating that it's okay you feel the way you do, but offer no alternative way of thinking.
#40 They Don't Help You Define Your Goals
Not helping you define goals to move forward. Some therapists are happy to take your money and just let you complain about life for an hour—and while that might be a relief for you, it's only going to help long term if there are actionable steps taken that are agreed upon by you and your therapist. This is the "work" of therapy and most important, but also when many people drop out.
#41 They Start Their Responses With "At Least"
If they start most of their responses with "at least" and then try to put a silver lining on it instead of honoring your pain and what you shared with them.
Counter-transference: When a therapist projects certain feelings or assumptions on to a client. My (ex)partner and I had started couples counseling. At some point, I revealed my negative opinions about cops and the entire law enforcement system (grounded on personal experience). She told me her husband was a retired cop and argued with me. She had a contentious attitude in the next session. Unprofessional nitwit.
#43 They Present You With Answers
If they immediately try to present you with answers to all of your problems, not lead you to your own solutions. There is a major distinction there.
#44 They Call You By The Wrong Name
I cancelled a therapist once because she kept calling me by the wrong name (after correcting her every time) and forgetting our meeting time four times in a row.
#45 They Have An Ego
A common red flag I hear from patients about past therapists is around how quickly a therapist believes they know their patients. We may have worked with thousands of patients and be absolute experts in certain conditions but YOU are the expert on you. If a therapist tells you about yourself really early on in treatment, it’s a good indication you should run. They’re not paying enough attention to you and can’t deal with their own ego. I may think I know something about a patient but I will either ask whether it might be the case or make note of it and look for evidence for or against it in the future.