We’ve all been there. If you haven’t, you’re probably not reading this article. By “been there” I mean struggling. Whether it’s with a bad marriage, a troubled child, an addiction that has us in a half-nelson, or simply the feeling that something isn’t right. Maybe that something is depression or anxiety. And maybe it’s time to find a psychotherapist.
Reality is, people seek out therapy for all kinds of reasons. And they’re usually really good ones. Even highly successful folks — the ones you think couldn’t possibly have anything wrong with their lives — seek therapy in big numbers.
But if you’re looking for a therapist, what — and who — exactly should you be looking for? Fortunately, the internet has made shopping for a psychotherapist easier than ever before. Websites like Psychology Today and Network Therapy provide profiles of therapists which consumers can browse based on geography or specific issues. Know that therapists pay to be on these sites — it’s advertising of sorts — but they’re certainly a good place to start.
The number one predictor of success in psychotherapy is the connection a client feels to their therapist. As long as the clinician is credible, don’t worry about how many diplomas they have hanging on their wall. A zillion master’s degrees or doctorates will not determine a therapist’s ability to empathize and help you work through your challenges.
Most therapists work hard at their vocation. It’s comforting to know all licensed therapists are required to complete continuing education credits in order to stay licensed. This means therapists are always learning and staying current on treatment recommendations and diagnoses updates.
However, I’ve heard more stories than I can count about psychotherapists who’ve somehow, some way, gone awry in their treatment of patients. I’m not sitting in judgment of other therapists but I know, as a psychotherapist, what I personally would not consider acceptable treatment in therapy.
Here are five red flags you should avoid like the plague when you’re choosing a therapist. Remember, your comfort level is what matters above all. But if you’ve never been to therapy, you may not know what is common, appropriate practice.
1. Distracted. If a therapist seems more interested in watching the clock or reading his emails during your session, get outta there. And fast. I’ve heard about therapists who actually answer their phones when meeting with clients. A friend of mine saw a therapist who took her clients with her to run errands. Uh-uh. You’re paying for the undivided attention of a professional and that’s what you should get.
2. Self-absorbed. It’s fine once in awhile for a therapist to share a small tidbit about their own life if it’s appropriate to what’s going on with you. Therapists should use these details sparingly and only when they believe this information will be useful to the client. A therapist once said to a client of mine, “Your husband is exactly like mine and he’s not going to change, so you should leave him.” Any therapist who is talking more about themselves than listening to you has lost their way. Move on.
3. Critical. Yes, it’s absolutely the job of the therapist to guide you toward seeing your role in your relationships and how you may be sabotaging yourself in any number of situations. But therapists shouldn’t be unkindly critical. Long ago, a friend of mine was working through her abusive childhood in therapy. This was very emotional for her and she shed many tears in her sessions. At one painful point, she began crying uncontrollably. Her therapist said, “You’re pathetic. Stop your whining.” And that, people, is not the way therapists should talk to their patients.
4. Inappropriate. Sorry to say, this happens. A very beautiful female client of mine saw a male therapist who insisted on rubbing her shoulders during her sessions. She felt uncomfortable but wasn’t sure if this was what therapists routinely did. Um, no, they don’t. Your therapist shouldn’t touch you, and certainly not without asking first. Same goes for inappropriate or flirtatious remarks about your looks or clothing.
5. Personalizes. A divorcing client of mine — who also happens to be a recovering alcoholic — recently met with his child’s therapist who was helping determine custody arrangements. This psychotherapist shared that her own father had been an alcoholic and that she had many painful memories of him. Almost immediately, the therapist began raising outrageous parenting concerns that were clearly about her own father and had nothing to do with my client. Therapists are people with life experiences, but those experiences should in no way influence how they work with their clients. If you get the feeling your therapist is judging you based on their own issues, cancel your next appointment.
Bottom line: If you feel unheard, criticized, or victimized by a therapist, find another one stat. No psychotherapist is going to hit it out of the park every time but, in general, you should feel liked, respected, and thoughtfully guided by the therapist you choose. And most importantly, don’t let one bad apple dissuade you from getting the help you need.