I knew I had to dump my therapist the day she forgot to light her scented candle before our session. The smell of weed hung in the air between our polite smiles.
This wouldn’t be a dealbreaker, normally. But it was unfortunately just one more sign on a growing list of indicators that Lydia* was no longer the right counselor for me. We’d been circling the drain for weeks, rehashing the same issues with no resolutions. She’d changed her schedule in a way that clashed with mine. She kept promising to email me “homework,” but never did. And now this.
My therapist sucked.
“Same time next week?” she asked at the end of our session.
Therapists are imperfect, just like us.
If there’s one thing I did gain from Lydia, it was the understanding that therapists are just regular people trying to do their jobs. And, like anyone else, some are good at their job, some are a good fit for some needs and a bad fit for others, and some just suck.
Therapist performance can also go through cycles and vary widely from patient to patient. According to the Zur Institute, most counselors, psychotherapists, and mental health workers will experience therapist burnout at some point in their careers. This can lead to “depersonalization (of patients and self) which manifests through general dislike, and a detached and callous — even dehumanized — attitude towards clients, who are perceived as energy drains or stressors.”
It can sometimes be hard to trust your judgment when navigating mental health issues. Self-doubt is, unfortunately, something many of us struggle with. If you’re not sure your therapist is working out, these doubts may compound. Is it possible that an educated and licensed professional isn’t acting in your best interest? Occasionally, yes.
Online therapy is booming in the age of coronavirus, but does it work?
With COVID-19 and social injustices dominating headlines, it’s no surprise that online therapy is in high demand. For some counselors, Business Insider reports, the number of calls for potential clients has quadrupled. But does online therapy work?
It does for me, though I admittedly had a rocky start. After my experience with Lydia, I opened an account on BetterHelp, a teletherapy provider. The first counselor I was paired with took days to reply to messages and, after waiting two weeks for our first session, she asked to reschedule the day before. Next!
Fortunately, the app made it very easy to request and get paired with a new therapist. I’ve been in online therapy with my current counselor for over two years, and it’s worked wonders. I’m not alone: a 2018 study found that online therapy for anxiety and depression disorders is “effective, acceptable and practical health care.”
Online therapy has certainly made counseling more accessible in the age of social distancing, and that’s a good thing. It’s important, however, that people new to counseling know how to spot a therapist that just isn’t working for them.
5 signs that it’s time to leave your therapist:
According to psychologist Ryan Howes PhD, clients should quit therapy when:
“…their goals have been met or when it becomes evident that they won’t meet them with this psychotherapist.”
Ideally, it’s the former. Sometimes, it’s the latter.
Mismatches happen; personality differences and other factors can get between a patient-counselor relationship. Some counselors specialize in addiction, bipolar disorder, and LGBTQ+ issues, while others do not. Some patients find better results with a therapist of the same gender, race, or religion. A mismatch doesn’t mean a therapist sucks, but it might mean you should ask for a referral to someone who is a better fit.
Other times, the issue is more than a mismatch. How can you tell that it’s them, not you, clearing the path to a breakup? Here are 5 signs your therapist sucks:
1. You don’t feel safe.
Therapy anxiety is normal, and many people understandably struggle to feel safe while sharing their innermost thoughts with a stranger. However, if after multiple sessions you still can’t envision yourself ever connecting with your therapist in a way that allows for you to speak openly, they may be failing to create a safe enough space for your needs.
Trust is crucial to the therapist-patient relationship. If trust can’t be formed or is broken, it’s unlikely you’ll make the desired progress. Trust can be undermined by many things, from violated boundaries to sudden or frequent changes in pricing or scheduling. If a therapist has done something that violates their code of ethics, leave, and consider reporting them.
If you struggle with trust and have tried to overcome that with your therapist, but aren’t making progress, you may need someone better suited to your needs.
2. You keep going over the same stuff.
For many, part of therapy is revisiting important events or persistent issues. As long as those conversations are helpful, that’s great. For those who feel stuck in a rut, though, it’s a problem worth bringing up.
Tell your therapist if you feel like you’re just rehashing the same topics every session. They should be able to ask questions or offer activities to help dig deeper or break out of the undesirable pattern. Maybe you’ll realize that you didn’t feel safe enough to explore new topics, or maybe you’ve met your goals and therapy is no longer necessary.
If after bringing the repetition up you still feel like you’re paying to be a broken record, it’s probably time to move on.
3. You feel like your therapist is the one in charge.
If you’re new-ish to therapy, it can be easy to cede control to the expert in the room. You may think that a layperson like you doesn’t have the insight necessary to call the shots when it comes to what you need out of therapy.
But that’s far from the truth. This is your therapy. You should feel empowered to set and work towards your mental health goals. Your therapist should be giving you tools to help you feel more in control, not leaving you feeling disempowered in their presence.
Therapy is about you, the patient. It’s a service you pay for. If you don’t feel in control of what happens in your sessions and don’t feel your therapist is helping you to get there, that’s a red flag.
4. Therapy just doesn’t seem to be working.
“The clinical and ethical question here is whether the therapy is actually helping you solve problems and move forward in your life, or offering you the support that you can’t get anywhere else and that you absolutely need to remain stable and functional.” Robert Taibbi, LCSW, Psychology Today.
If you don’t feel like you’re making progress with counseling, your therapist may just be hoping that more time will solve the problem. As terrible as it sounds, sometimes counselors find emotional benefits in hanging on to clients who aren’t benefitting from their therapeutic approach. In some cases, they’ll keep clients around to meet their own emotional or financial needs.
If it’s become a pattern to feel worse or neutral after your sessions rather than better, it may be time to go.
5. You’re reliving old, unhealthy patterns.
Do you tend to get run over in your relationships? Alternately, do you have a habit of running when things get hard? Could either of these unhealthy relationship patterns be playing out in your desire to leave therapy?
Ultimately, it’s a counselor’s job to identify these patterns and work to bring your attention to them. However, if the relationship is relatively new, they can be easy to miss. Check yourself before heading for the door.
How to dump your therapist:
As tempting as it can be to ghost a bad therapist, quitting therapy without notice should generally be reserved for situations where you feel truly unsafe continuing to communicate.
Taking steps towards therapy termination is a great opportunity to practice addressing conflict. You may learn new things about yourself and your therapist along the way. These insights might save the relationship, or allow you to part ways amicably.
Here’s how to go about it:
Step 1: Identify the issue.
If the signs above helped you clarify why your therapy sessions felt off, that’s great! If, however, you feel like your situation is more nuanced, it may be helpful to set aside some time to get to the bottom of the issue. Try journaling or, if you know someone you can trust to talk to about this, share your feelings with them.
Ask yourself what goals or expectations you had for therapy, and which ones haven’t been met. You might not be able to make sense of all the reasons why, but doing this self-exploration will make Step 2 that much easier.
Step 2: Talk about it with your therapist.
Chances are, you’ve talked with your therapist about some difficult stuff. This shouldn’t be any different. The next time you go into a session, tell your counselor that you’re thinking of ending therapy.
If they don’t completely suck, your therapist should be proud of you for speaking up for yourself and opening up about something difficult. Starting this conversation doesn’t have to mean that this is your last session (unless you really want it to be). Bring up your concerns and unmet expectations. Be blunt: you’re a dissatisfied client who isn’t getting what they paid for.
It’s possible that your therapist does have evidence that you’ve been making progress and simply hasn’t communicated that effectively. They may surprise you by agreeing that you’re ready to go, or that a different therapist may be better for you, and offer a referral.
Talking with your counselor about terminating therapy will help determine whether the decision is premature. Knowing that ending therapy was the right choice provides a mutual clean cut that makes moving on easier. You won’t spend weeks ignoring phone calls and emails asking when you’d like to schedule another session. Talking it out offers much-needed closure for both parties.
Step 3: Plan your exit.
Whether on your own or with your therapist, you’ll want to plan for what happens next. Do you need to find another counselor to work with before terminating therapy? Online therapy platforms make this easy, but in-person counselors can sometimes take longer to replace.
Inform your therapist of when your last session will be, and what you’d like to accomplish by then. This winding-down can often make the last few therapy sessions some of the most impactful, feeling almost like graduation. Ending therapy is a time to recognize achievements and areas where you still have room to grow. Take the time to appreciate what you have accomplished, and say bye-bye to bad therapy.