How To Know If The Therapist You're Seeing Isn't Right For You

If you've tried to find a therapist lately, you know just how difficult it can be. According to a feature in The Washington Post, the demand for therapists is incredibly high right now, but the vast majority of therapists have no room in their packed schedules to fit in more clients. Many have wait lists, some of which are more than 100 names long. Compounding the problem, as Forbes reported, is the fact that therapists are facing unprecedented levels of burnout because of the increased demand for their services.

Finding a therapist that's a good fit for you is even tougher. The Seattle Times interviewed Washingtonians about their struggles to find a therapist they thought they'd click with and found that people are calling anywhere from 15 to 40 therapists before they find someone who seems like a good fit. And even after all that work, some discover after just a few sessions that they don't actually click with the therapist.

If you've managed to find a therapist through all of these barriers, it's tempting to stay with them even if you feel like something is a bit off. However, it's important to pay attention to that gut feeling and explore why it's there. Staying with a therapist that isn't a good fit can impede your progress and potentially take a toll on your mental health. So, how do you know if your therapist really isn't the right fit? Well, thankfully you're here, because we've got all that covered in this article. 

You feel like your therapist doesn't have good boundaries

The relationship between a therapist and a patient is unique and nuanced. Though therapists can often feel like friends or family to patients who are sharing their most vulnerable selves with them, they're not. They're professionals. And as Rewire points out, the patient-therapist relationship is also an unequal power dynamic. Because of the vulnerability of the therapeutic process, the therapist can become an authority figure, and there's ample opportunity for them to abuse that power.

So, it's essential for therapists to have good boundaries. Signs that your therapist doesn't can be subtle or overt.

A common sign of a therapist with poor boundaries is when they tell you too much about themselves. Self-disclosure can be helpful when it's relevant to what you're bringing up. It can help your therapist make a point or provide validation. However, if you feel like you know a lot about your therapist's personal life or they share information that makes you uncomfortable, that's not good boundaries.

Sometimes a pat on the shoulder or even a hug from your therapist can be really comforting. But if they're always offering physical contact, or even worse, touching you without explicit consent, that's bad boundaries, and potentially unethical.

Most importantly, per PsychCentral, a therapist should never flirt with you or make sexual jokes or advances. If you ever even feel like your therapist is crossing that line, it's time to see a new therapist.

You feel like you can't be honest

There are so many reasons why you might feel like you can't be honest with your therapist, as psychotherapist and author Amy Morin told Time Magazine. Most of these reasons are motivated by totally normal feelings — we don't want to upset people, we want people to like us, or we're uncomfortable about being totally honest with someone else or even ourselves. Some discomfort with honesty is a normal part of therapy. Continuing to work on your relationship with your therapist may help.

However, if you've been working with your therapist for a while and you still have trouble telling them the truth, it might be because you don't feel safe. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), in order for people seeking therapy to be honest, they need to feel that their therapist is a safe person to talk to and that they'll respond in a respectful way to vulnerable disclosures. Therapists need to create this sense of safety by being honest themselves, by being gentle with their patients, and showing their patients that their attitude toward them doesn't change no matter what they disclose.

If, for whatever reason, you feel like your therapist hasn't created this sense of safety in your therapeutic relationship, it's probably time to find a new therapist. Therapy can't work without honest disclosure, so sticking with someone you can't be honest with is essentially a waste of time.

You feel like you're being judged

In an article for GoodTherapy, Dr. Lisa Vallejos wrote that in order for therapy to work, patients need to know that they can tell their therapist anything without being judged or criticized. Sometimes, even small actions on your therapist's part can make you feel judged. Maybe they make a face when you tell them something or roll their eyes or let out an exasperated sigh. Or maybe they make a comment that seems a bit harsh or say something fairly innocuous in a tone that doesn't feel right.

Unfortunately, Vallejos pointed out, it's easy for patients to misunderstand their therapists' body language, facial expressions, or even their words. If a patient discloses something they feel like they actually should be judged for, they may perceive that their therapist is judging them even if they aren't. Vallejos suggests being open with your therapist about how you're feeling. Having that conversation requires a willingness to be honest, which can feel impossible when you're feeling judged. But if you take the plunge, you could save yourself the trouble of finding a new therapist.

However, if you don't feel safe enough to have that conversation with your therapist, that could be a sign that they actually are judging you. The bottom line is, if you feel judged, you won't be able to be honest, and therapy won't work. So, if you can't shake the feeling, find a new therapist.

You feel shamed

Many people who seek therapy are dealing with shame — the painful feeling that something they've done or experienced makes them undeserving of love, compassion, and belonging, per Counseling Today. People dealing with shame often don't talk about the events at the root of that feeling because they have an intense fear of being rejected, which effectively validates their shame.

Because of this complicated dynamic, Stanislaw Malicki, specialist in clinical psychology, proposes that a therapist's guiding principle should be "do not shame." Malicki writes that some widely-accepted therapeutic approaches are unintentionally rooted in and reinforce shame. Approaches like telling patients that their beliefs or their actions are at the root of their issues — which can be an attempt to show the patient that they have the power to change — can easily be perceived as blame or shame, which reinforces the shame they already feel. When therapists rely on these approaches, they can unintentionally replicate trauma.

If your therapist continually blames you for your issues rather than holding you accountable with compassion and kindness, or if their reactions to your disclosures make you feel shamed, the therapeutic relationship won't work. You can try to talk to your therapist to see if the dynamic could change, but if they're not receptive or if things don't change, it's time to move on.

You feel like they're always giving you advice

Sometimes, people show up at therapy because they really want someone to tell them what to do about a certain situation, or several situations. But as Dr. Sharon K. Anderson points out in Psychology Today, that's not really a therapist's job. Though therapists can give advice, they often don't — and often shouldn't — Anderson asserts.

One of the central goals of therapy is to enable people to deal with tough situations and make decisions on their own. When therapists just give advice, even when it's solicited, they can inadvertently hinder their patient's progress toward that crucial goal. Anderson suggests that therapists can be most effective by giving advice about the process a patient can go through to reach their own conclusion rather than giving direct advice about a situation.

If your therapist jumps in with direct advice every time you're telling them about a situation, that's a red flag. It's especially unsettling if they're giving advice you didn't ask for. Anderson writes that this can be a sign the therapist is giving advice to make them feel important or like an expert, not to actually help you. Even if you ask for advice, be wary of a therapist who gives it readily. A good therapist will push you toward independence, not dependence on their advice.

You don't feel heard

A therapist's entire job is based on listening, so they should be great at it, right? Hopefully, yes. But, unfortunately, that's not always the case. Sometimes, as therapist Mary Jo Barrett discussed with Psychology Networker, this is because therapists are human too. Even therapists get distracted sometimes, and that's okay. But your therapist should be able to get back on track with their own self-regulation skills. If they can't, they're probably not able to stay present and actively listen, and they're probably not a good fit for you.

You might also need to look for a different therapist if you consistently feel like you're not being heard, which is a bit different than your therapist straight up not listening. This can look like your therapist being dismissive of something you think is really important, making suggestions that you feel don't fit the situation you're describing, questioning whether something really played out the way you think it did, or trying to make light of a situation that you're not ready to find humor in. 

Therapist and founder of OpenCounseling Mark Pines writes that even in good therapeutic relationships, there will be times when you feel like your therapist isn't really hearing you or fully understanding what you're trying to say. The first time it happens, he suggests an open and honest conversation with your therapist. However, if you regularly feel like your doctor isn't getting what you're trying to say, it's time to move on.

You feel like they don't understand your lived experiences

It's not realistic to expect that your therapist has had similar life experiences or that they'll understand all of your lived experiences. However, it's crucial to find a therapist who validates and understands your lived experiences. This is especially true for people with marginalized identities, Nikesha Elise Williams wrote in a feature for Self Magazine.

Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, queer, nonbinary, trans, disabled, and/or people living in poverty have vastly different experiences of the world than cisgender, heterosexual, white people. They often live through traumatic events that more privileged people never have to deal with, and they have to endure the daily traumas of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and classism.

If people with marginalized identities show up to a therapist who doesn't understand or validate the traumas they experience or doesn't comprehend the impact this has on their mental health, the people who are supposed to help marginalized folks heal end up doing more harm.

Becoming a culturally competent therapist is hard work, and unfortunately, a lot of therapists haven't done that work. So, if you bring up your lived experiences with marginalization and your therapist questions your perspective, gets dismissive, or simply doesn't understand the problem, find yourself a new therapist. Though they can be hard to find, track down a therapist with marginalized identities so you know they share at least some of your lived experiences.

You feel like they're not accepting of your morals, values, or beliefs

Your therapist does not have to have the same set of morals, values, or beliefs that you do in order for the therapeutic relationship to work. They also do not have to have the same religious or spiritual beliefs as you. However, they do have to respect your morals, values, beliefs, and religion.

Therapist and ethics specialist Michelle E. Wade wrote about this tricky balance for the American Counseling Association. She emphasized that it doesn't really matter if a therapist agrees with their patient's morals, values, beliefs or religion. The therapist's job is to ensure that their own beliefs don't influence the therapeutic work. However, that doesn't mean that therapists just have to sit, smile, and nod if they're triggered. If they feel they cannot be objective, they should refer you to a new therapist.

The American Psychological Association provides guidelines for how therapists can navigate difficult conversations about conflicting values, morals, beliefs, and religion which include steering clear of the topic whenever possible, asking reflective questions, and bringing the focus back to the patient.

If your therapist often makes comments about your morals, values, beliefs, or religion that you find uneducated, derogative, or even offensive, it's definitely time to find a new therapist. If they openly challenge your beliefs, judge you, or criticize your beliefs, morals, values, or religion, immediately end the session and say you won't be back.

Their therapeutic style doesn't work for you

There are so many different therapeutic approaches out there. According to Talkspace, many therapists practice a humanistic approach to therapy, which centers the client. Some practice cognitive behavioral therapy while others practice dialectical behavior therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, positive psychotherapy, and the list goes on.

When you're looking for a therapist, you might not be focused on their particular therapeutic approach, which makes sense since there are so many and it's nearly impossible to know what will work for you until you try it. Because of this, you might end up with a therapist whose particular approach doesn't really work for you.

Many therapists have experience with multiple therapeutic approaches, per Psychology Today. So, if the initial approach you try together isn't clicking, you can ask your therapist about other approaches. The big red flag is if they insist on their particular therapeutic approach. Therapists should be willing to shift their approach based on what works for the client, not what works for them. 

If they can't switch it up based on your needs, it may be because they don't have enough experience with other approaches. However, it could also mean that they're kind of zealots for their particular approach. Either way, an unwillingness to try a different approach is a dealbreaker.

They don't have expertise in your diagnosis

Therapists can't be experts in everything. As the American Psychological Association points out, even therapists that have been practicing for decades will encounter patients with mental health issues that they have no experience with or no expertise in.

Unless you already have a diagnosed mental health condition, the need for specialized knowledge in therapy may not be obvious until you're working with a therapist for a while. For example, once you've come to trust your therapist, you may disclose that you're struggling with an eating disorder. A good therapist will be upfront about whether they have experience treating eating disorders. If they don't, they may offer to consult with another therapist or offer a referral. Even if you like your therapist a lot, taking the referral may be the best option as treating certain conditions, like eating disorders, often requires specialized therapeutic approaches.

If your therapist either doesn't admit that they don't have experience with eating disorders or says that they don't have experience but they can handle it, that's a big red flag. If you choose to continue working with that therapist and either feel like they're continually stumped or not offering helpful feedback, it's definitely time to find someone new.

Though working with any therapist is often better than not working with one at all, working with one who doesn't have the expertise you need to get well may limit how much you can improve.

You feel like you're not getting any feedback

Though many therapists don't give direct advice, and definitely won't tell you what to do, good therapists will give you feedback that helps you work through your issues and make decisions on your own. The difference between feedback and advice is nuanced, and it takes a really good therapist to walk that line.

Talkspace staff writer Joseph Rauch asserts that a therapist's job isn't just to listen. Of course, active listening is an essential skill for a therapist. However, the goal of that active listening should be gathering information to provide actionable feedback. Rauch calls the hours spent in therapy "problem-solving workshops." You can use the hour to talk about the things you're struggling with and work with your therapist to come up with actions you can take and tools you can use outside of your sessions.

You should not leave a therapy session feeling like you have no idea how to move forward or that you don't have any strategies for dealing with your day to day life. If you do, it's a clear sign that your therapist isn't giving you enough feedback.

It's important to note that different therapists use different therapeutic approaches, and some of those approaches are based on a lot of listening and very little feedback. If that approach works for you, great! If not, find a therapist with a different approach.

Their schedule doesn't work for you

Getting on a therapist's schedule is nearly impossible these days, as The Washington Post reported. Rearranging your schedule to fit in a therapy appointment whenever a therapist is available is often a sacrifice we need to make in order to make therapy work. However, therapy needs to fit into your schedule in a sustainable way long term.

As Dr. Elyssa Barbash, founder of Tampa Therapy, points out, therapy is most effective when sessions are consistent over a long period of time. She asserts that therapy is most beneficial when people come in at least once a week over a period of months or even years. This kind of consistency isn't achieved by rearranging your schedule on a regular basis to accommodate your therapist's availability.

Ideally, your therapist will have a flexible schedule that can accommodate you or a weekly slot that works for both of you, counselor Jennifer Hamady writes in Psychology Today. However, if your therapist has limited availability, expects you to commit to a time slot that doesn't really work for you, or isn't flexible enough to commit to your specific scheduling needs, you won't be able to achieve the consistency that leads to good results. Finding a therapist whose schedule accommodates your schedule may be difficult, but it's worth the effort.

You dread talking to them

Dreading a therapy session is actually pretty normal, Dr. Morton Rosenbaum told Self Magazine. The whole point of therapy is to talk about uncomfortable things, which can be really hard, painful work. If you're dreading therapy because it brings up difficult feelings, that's completely normal. And unfortunately, it's something you have to work through for therapy to be effective. Not alone, of course. That's why your therapist is there.

However, your pre-therapy dread may also be a sign that you're not comfortable talking to your therapist for whatever reason. If that's the case, it's important to pay attention to that gut feeling.

How can you figure out what's causing your dread? Rosenbaum suggests working through it with your therapist, even though it may be an awkward conversation.

Be honest, and let them know that you're dreading your sessions. The therapist's response may be the information you need to determine that they're not a good fit for you. Or your therapist may be able to help you identify topics that have come up in sessions that you're dreading discussing further. If that's the case, you and your therapist can come up with a plan to manage your difficult feelings about that topic, or decide to avoid it for a bit and focus on something else.

You just don't feel a connection

In Psychology Today, Dr. Loren Soeiro called the relationship between a therapist and their patient "an alliance." He asserted that in order for therapy to be effective, the patient and their therapist have to build a connection based on trust, which allows them to work together — in an alliance — to address the patient's issues. Without that connection, the alliance cannot form, and therapy probably won't be effective.

Though building trust can take a long time, Dr. Soeiro admits that sometimes he can tell that he won't form a connection with a patient — at least not quickly. And often, the patient knows it too.

When you meet someone for the first time, you often know fairly quickly whether you'll "click." The same intuition applies with a new therapist. In an article for PsychCentral John M. Grohol, a Boston-based therapist, suggests that you'll probably have a good idea whether or not your therapist is the right fit for you by the third session. If you haven't felt the "click" by then, it's probably time to start looking for someone new.