Is it time to “break up” with your shrink?
Therapy can be a foreign experience for many people. It might not be something you grew up doing, or had conversations about. In fact, your only experience in therapy may have been seeing exaggerated depictions of it on TV.
And this unfamiliarity is to be expected, because many people don’t seek mental health help—or even realize they need it—until they reach adulthood.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, the average age of onset for persistent depressive disorder (depression that lasts at least two years) is 31 years old. Similarly, many people experience symptoms of anxiety in children but do not seek treatment until they adulthood.
It’s no surprise, then, that you might not know what to expect from a therapist. If therapy isn’t going your way, you might just assume that this is just what therapy is, and that this form of treatment is “not for you.” While therapy does take work and patience, sometimes the reason that therapy isn’t working is because your *therapist* isn’t working for you.
“An important part of the therapeutic process is making sure you and your therapist work well together,” says Charlene Sanuade, MSW, LCSW, clinical therapist at CS Counseling and Therapy in Illinois. “Every therapist uses their own techniques, style, and approach, but if you don’t feel comfortable enough to be open and honest when working with them, it may be time to find a new therapist.”
Not sure if your therapist is giving you what you need? Here are the telltale signs that your therapist is simply not the right fit for you.
1. You tell your therapist what they want to hear.
If you’re censoring yourself or tailoring your answers to please your therapist, that signals you don’t feel comfortable being honest with your therapist—and they can’t help you unless you’re being honest. It’s normal to feel some hesitation in the first few sessions, but eventually, you should feel like you’re able to be honest with the person sitting across from you.
“Any time you are unable to comfortably share your true thoughts and feelings, that is usually an indication that the relationship is not right,” says Sanuade.
2. You feel judged or shamed by your therapist.
Similar to #1, feeling judged by your therapist can be a big roadblock to a successful (and honest) therapy session.
“When a therapist is the right choice, [you] will typically feel willing, safe, and open to being there,” says Vanessa B. Tate, MA, LMFT, and adjunctive faculty at the University of Colorado, Denver. You should feel “supported and understood as to what you want to explore,” says Tate.
3. You are not meeting your treatment goals.
It might be a red flag if “you are not feeling better, not gaining insight into [the] concerns that brought you into treatment, and/or not learning different tools to manage relevant issues,” says Hunter Hansen, PsyD, LMFT.
To be clear, treating depression or other mental health problems takes time, and no therapist will “cure” you in the first session—or even the first four sessions. But you *should* be able to feel progress, whether it’s finding new coping strategies for stress or just having revelations that change how you view the world.
“The best way to know if it’s a good fit is if you feel that over time you are gaining self-understanding, self-compassion, and the ability to change unhealthy behavior patterns that get in the way of being your best self,” says Amy McManus, LMFT, relationship therapist in Los Angeles.
4. You have no idea what your treatment goals are.
It’s hard to reach your treatment goals if you don’t know what they are, and the right therapist can help facilitate setting those goals and how to reach them. “If you can’t say clearly what you’re working on, or if your therapist has a different idea from you, then it may be time to switch things up,” says Sara Stanizai, LMFT, owner of Prospect Therapy in Long Beach, CA.
A therapist who isn’t right for you might dwell on other things they see as problems, instead of focusing on what’s actually bothering you. When you try to bring up your issues, they always find a way to bring the conversation back to the non-problem. This may signal you have different goals (and that your therapist isn’t listening to your needs).
“It is critical to experience that you and your therapist have the same goals and there is a roadmap for what you need,” says Jennine Estes, MFT, licensed marriage and family therapist at Estes Therapy in San Diego, CA. “Therapy won’t be successful if there are different goals and the roadmap isn’t clearly stated and agreed upon.”
5. Your therapist is talking more than you.
One thing TV shows get right about therapy is that—for the most part—you should be doing most of the talking, and the therapist should be asking questions and offering occasional commentary. It’s a problem if your therapist consumes your 50 minutes by elaborating on their opinion on everything you say.
If your therapist “gives you advice before they even know you,” or you “don’t feel you are being listened to,” you might be in the wrong place with the wrong therapist, says Teresa Solomita, LCSW-R, NCPsyA, psychoanalyst at Therapy 2 Change.
6. You feel uncomfortable advocating for yourself.
This might not be obvious to people who are new to therapy, but you as the client have the right—and are even encouraged—to directly tell your therapist what you need from them. Want them to ask more questions? You can request that. Want them to spend less time talking about your job and more time talking about your marriage? You can request that, too.
“I always encourage clients to bring [any] problems up in therapy,” says Stanizai. This confrontation has more benefits than one: “Not only can we not address an issue if we don’t know about it, but it’s also good practice to speak up for yourself in sometimes awkward situations.”
But if you try and your therapist ignores your requests, fails to meet your requests, or makes you feel uncomfortable for making these requests, a new therapist might suit you better, says Ryan Engelstad, LCSW, therapist in Princeton, NJ.
One caveat: “It is possible this discomfort is coming from depression [or] anxiety symptoms,” says Engelstad. For example, anxiety can inhibit your ability to trust your instincts and make you feel like you’re “burdening” others when you make requests. “It is worth trying to ask the therapist questions to determine where the discomfort is coming from,” says Engelstad.
7. Your personalities don't jive.
You’re not looking for a friend, but you still need to have compatible personality traits. Therapy looks different for everyone, so figure out the personality traits that would make you most comfortable on the couch.
“If you need a therapist with a sense of humor because it will help you loosen up on the journey, find that therapist,” says Solomita. “If you need them to be calm and stoic, so you feel safe from the chaos, find that therapist. If you need someone to be interactive (without being your friend), find that therapist.”
8. Your therapist invalidates aspects of your identity.
Never, ever stay with a therapist who suggests that part of your identity is to blame for your mental illness. This can sometimes be explicit or just implied, but either way, it’s a problem. Your gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, etc., should not be something to “fix” in therapy, and it also shouldn’t be something you have to “teach” your therapist about.
“If you came in to address grieving the loss of a loved one, and the therapist started asking questions about what it means to be transgender, you should probably continue your search for a therapist,” says Nicole Rennix, MA, registered associate marriage and family therapist at Napa Valley Therapy in Napa, CA.
9. You dread your sessions.
There’s discomfort, and then there’s dread. You might need to brave some discomfort in the beginning if you’re still adjusting to opening up, digging into painful memories, or confronting the habits that aren’t serving you well.
But dread is different. You shouldn’t feel anxious, scared, or sick at the thought of sitting across from your therapist. If you feel like therapy is “the worst thing you have to do this week,” or the session “drags on forever,” you might be with the wrong therapist, according to Rachel Wright, MA, LMFT, psychotherapist and and co-founder of Wright Wellness Center. “While therapy [with the right therapist] may not always be enjoyable, you still want to go, even just a little bit.”
10. You end the session more frustrated than when you started.
It seems obvious, but therapy should be therapeutic. “When you work with a therapist that is a good fit for you, you leave a session feeling better about yourself than you did when you came in,” says Kac Young, PhD.
The last thing your therapist should do is *add* to your problems. “If a therapist’s behaviors, mannerisms, or style of speaking cause you to feel frustrated in any way, feel free to speak up and address it then—or move on,” says Sanuade. “You are never obligated to remain in a therapeutic relationship that does not meet your needs.”
It’s normal to feel emotional after a session, or be left with a lot to think about, but if you regularly walk out with anger about something your therapist said or did, you should seek a new therapist.
Instead of settling for the first therapist you find, shop around. “I recommend that everyone contact at least three therapists,” says Wright. “Meet with two of those in person for a first session and see how the vibe is. What is their office like? Are they the same in person as they were on the phone? These are all important things.”
Want to learn more about treatment for mental health concerns?