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There are some obvious things to look for in a therapist, but you should also try to make sure your therapist is free of warning signs that doom your therapy and can even cause harm. What are they?

So, you're looking for a psychotherapist? There will be plenty of things you're actively looking for in the right therapist, starting with the basics. They should be licensed, offer the kind of therapy that you'll benefit from, and have experience in dealing with the struggles you're facing — whether they're depression, anxiety, PTSD, marital problems, or anything else. They should be competent, and in many cases, you'll also look for a therapist who can accept your insurance. 

To find the right therapist, however, you should also be on the lookout for things you don't want — warning signs that scream you should keep looking or immediately drop your current therapist and find another. What are they? 

1. The therapist is more than a therapist to you

People see psychotherapists during vulnerable times of their lives, and expose the deepest parts of themselves. For your therapist to be able to play a constructive and objective, rather than harmful, role in your life, it's important that your therapist is just your therapist, and nothing (much) else. Being otherwise entangled with a therapist — having, as the American Psychological Association terms it, "multiple relationships" — can quickly create a creepy and potentially dangerous power dynamic, as well as simply preventing your therapist from doing their job properly. 

So what's out, and what's in? Your therapist shouldn't be your friend, your relative, and definitely not a sexual partner. The APA says that "relationships that don’t hinder psychologists’ performance or harm their patients are ethically OK".

That may mean it's fine for you to say hi to your therapist at the bus stop and have a chat about the weather, and even OK if you, say, run a grocery store and your therapist happens to buy something there. More than that? Probably not. I'd even say friending your therapist on social media is a bad idea, though I've seen it happen.

I once asked my therapist for a short quote for an article similar to this one, and he refused for the exact same reasons stated here — "as psychologists, we're not supposed to engage in private relationships with our clients". I didn't consider asking for a quote to be a private relationship, but he did and drew a firm line. Any therapist who does differently and, say, invites you to their birthday party or asks you on a date is one you shouldn't just run away from, but report. 

2. Your therapist doesn't have experience with 'your problem'

Whether you suffer from postpartum depression, anxiety, PTSD, have marital problems, are working through a bereavement, or anything else, you're going to want to see a therapist who has experience in working with people who have faced similar struggles. As the APA puts it, "psychologists should only practice in areas where they are competent". Someone who doesn't know a whole lot about the thing you're going through, they're not going to be able to help you achieve your treatment goals. If you've already started working with a therapist when it becomes obvious that they're not able to assist you with particular issues, they should say so and will often recommend a colleague who would be a better match. If you're seeing a therapist who has no experience with your struggles who still insists they're competent, it may be time to look for someone new. 

3. Your therapist doesn't give you all the information you are entitled to

"Informed consent" means you agree to the treatment you're receiving and everything surrounding it after fully understanding it. It is important to enter therapy with this in place. To make informed consent possible, therapists should tell you:

  • What doctor-patient confidentiality means and what it doesn't — including under which circumstances they may inform others of anything you say in therapy, such as when you discuss planning suicide or harming others. 
  • The cost of the treatment and your rights upon stopping therapy. 
  • What will be involved in therapy and how long you can expect it to take. 
  • The experience your therapist has, and their qualifications. 
  • What kinds of records they'll keep on you and for how long. 

A therapist who doesn't clearly explain these things is a walking red flag, as informed consent is a very important principle.

4. You can't stand your therapist

This can mean a whole lot of different things to a whole lot of different people, but they all mean it's time to look for a new therapist. Your therapist doesn't have to be someone who could be a friend if they weren't your therapist, but you should be able to constructively work on your treatment together — and that means you shouldn't loathe them, whether for "bad practice" reasons or because you just really hate their high-pitched voice.

A good therapist will, by the way, give constructive advice when asked and it falls within their area of expertise, but they shouldn't shame or judge you, nor tell you what to do. They should respect your autonomy and personhood. A therapist who repeatedly pressures you to reconcile with your estranged abusive mother even though you've made it clear you want to process your trauma without taking this step is one example. If the reason you don't like your therapist is because they try let their worldview, rather than professional expertise, guide their advice, that's a giant red flag.

5. Therapy isn't working for you

If you're not noticing any improvement in your life or thoughts after attending therapy for a while, this may be a sign that you're not working with the right therapist. Therapy is often hard and exhausting work; it's designed to help you grow, and that involves some level of challenge. A therapist who just nods along or reflects what you said back to you without offering you any thoughts, homework, communication techniques, or anything else is one who isn't helping you. 

In conclusion

When you're looking at warning signs that it's time to dump your therapist or simply keep looking for one, there are some universal "no-nos". They include therapists who take on cases they have no professional expertise in handling, attempting to start personal relationships, and not being straightforward about billing. There are also personal no-nos, and just not "gelling" well with your therapist or finding that their methods don't really help you are also legitimate reasons to look for a new one. A psychotherapist shouldn't be a "yes-man" who goes along with everything you say, but you should never feel disrespected or shamed in therapy, either. 

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