4 signs that you should find a new therapist
One of the great victories in the world of mental health in recent years is the normalization of therapy and our need for therapy at certain times in our lives. In the past, doing therapy or expressing a need for therapy used to be quite taboo, seen as a weakness, or a sign that a person is "crazy" or unhinged. Today, people are far more open about doing or needing therapy than in the past (there are exceptions of course, but there is definitely a positive trend happening).
One of the side effects of this, which is also a positive, is that people are far more vocal about finding the "right" therapist. I get asked often by friends and family for recommendations on what to look for in a therapist and how to know a therapist is a good fit for them. The trouble is, there's no one technique or characteristic when it comes to the right therapist, because that depends on the individual person and their needs. What's easier is to be open to experimenting with new therapists while having an awareness of what therapist traits should be strictly avoided.
So here's 4 important traits to look out for when you're shopping for a therapist, or when you're noticing that something seems to not be working well with your current therapist:
1. Not paying attention
A therapist's job, if nothing else, is to pay attention to you deeply and intently. To try to truly understand and help you understand your own internal experience. No productive work in therapy can happen if the therapist is not fully paying attention to you. So when an individual has the sense that their therapist is not really paying attention to what they are saying in a therapy session, that is a very bad sign. This might look like them appearing distracted, looking at their computer screen more than they are looking at you, or you might notice that their responses to your statements are just way off on a consistent basis. Now of course every therapist deserves the benefit of the doubt initially. It might just be that they had a bad sleep, a bad day, or haven't had enough coffee. It could also be that you're not communicating things clearly to them, which could be something to work on in the therapy. However, if you're noticing signs that your therapist is not paying attention on a regular basis, then it's time to find one that does.
2. Too much advice-giving
This one might come as a surprise to some people, but therapy is NOT about getting advice from the therapist. Sometimes people expect that what happens in therapy is similar to what happens in a medical appoint with a physician, where a problem is identified, a solution presented, and instructions given on what to do/take to alleviate the problem. Therapy, however, deals with behavioral and internal psychological and emotional experiences, all of which do not change or respond well to direct instruction (Try telling yourself to just stop feeling a certain emotion and see what happens). Therapy is not about getting advice or instructions from the therapist, it is about joining together with a therapist to explore your psychological experiences and experiment (with their guidance, not their instruction) with new ways of navigating those experiences. So if you notice that your therapist consistently responds to your issues in therapy by telling you exactly what to say or do, that's a sign that you should move on.
3. Arguing or saying "but" too often
As discussed above, therapy is not about having a therapist tell you what to do or what is right for your life. Therapists have to be highly skilled in the art of not arguing or pushing back too hard even if it seems clear to them that their clients is doing something that is not working well for them. Because again, therapy does not work through direct instruction, it works through thoughtful and collaborative exploration of your psychological experiences and experimentation with new behavior. So if you get the sense that they are arguing with you, or notice that they respond to many of your statements with "but, ____" then this is a sign that they are assuming they know what is best for you and your life. Again, it's important to give them the benefit of the doubt and to be open and curious about whether they are pushing back for an important reason. If you have a solid, long-standing relationship with a therapist and they push back strongly on a particular occasion, you should probably hear them out. However, if your therapist consistently argues and pushes back, move along.
4. Avoiding the hard stuff
Therapy is hard work. It involves exploring some of the most difficult and painful issues that you might experience in your life. Therapists are meant to be a special type of person that you can go to with those experiences. A person who will refrain from judgement and is open to hearing whatever it is that you are thinking, feeling, or experiencing. At the same time, therapists are humans, and humans struggle with hearing and feeling painful psychological experiences. Some therapists, who might not be fully self-aware or who are just flat out not open to hearing certain types of psychological pain, may find ways to avoid it. You might notice that when you bring up the really painful stuff, your therapist glosses over it, tries to change topics or turn it into a positive. This is not a good sign. To truly heal, you need someone who is willing to get down into the mud with you and really explore and practice navigating your experience. So if you notice your therapist avoiding the painful stuff on a regular basis, they are not the therapist for you. And also, it's important to know that this is NOT a sign that your thoughts and emotions are too severe or too weird or strange for anyone to listen to. No thought or emotion is too severe for work in therapy. This is a sign that your therapist needs to do some self-work on their level of openness towards psychological pain.
A couple of take-homes here. First, your therapist deserves the benefit of the doubt, and any one offense that they make that is on this list should be forgiven and explored with them openly. This is especially true if you already have a strong relationship with your therapist. However, if you notice any of these therapist behaviors happening early on in the relationship, and happening frequently enough to constitute a pattern, then it's time to take your deeply held psychological experiences, and your hard-earned money, to a therapist who is open and willing to really get to work.