Red Flags in a Therapist

by | Apr 8, 2021 | Articles, Featured, General Mental Health, Psychology/ Therapy

It has always been my belief that the world would be a better place if everyone got therapy, somewhat regularly, including therapists. Whether your goal is to resolve past trauma, change behavior, get rid of certain thoughts, cope with emotion or with a mental diagnosis, or even if it’s just to “oil up” your efficiency levels and well being- which could simply mean having a paid professional to dump some weekly stress on so that it does not affect other areas of your life- therapy is a no brainer. Even therapists in certain programs are required to get therapy before they enter into the professional field. Though, perhaps that requirement should one day extend to every therapist in training. Contrary to some beliefs, therapy should not necessarily be a one and done solution. Looking for the right fit, however, can be a puzzle. 

I’ve often said that finding a good therapist is like finding a good pair of jeans- you might have to try a few on before selecting one that you wear once a week, every week. Even after you pick a favorite pair, you might outgrow them, or come to a place where both of you decide it’s time to move on to say- a heavier or lighter style. We must remember that therapists are human, also, and while no one is perfect- there are some definite red flags to watch out for in your search. 

I must reveal something to you. A big reason for me wanting to write this article is because a few of the below listed flags actually happened to me- some of them with the same therapist no less. Luckily, and perhaps because of my background in psychology and my experience with my own clients, I was able to recognize these red flags sooner than later, and stopped seeing them. But that got me thinking- what about all the other people out there who are trying to find a therapist? How many other people might be coming across scenarios like this- and feel inclined to just let it go or just put up with it- not knowing that some of this is considered atypical and inappropriate behavior, or that it means you are not a good fit?

Hence, the birth of this article. My intention is to help those who may be considering, or actively looking for a therapist. This also applies if you are currently in therapy and are experiencing discomfort or are looking to change therapists. It is also not uncommon for therapists to refer you to other forms of therapy if they feel like you need something specific and they are not qualified in that area of expertise, so even if you are currently in therapy and everything is fine, you may find yourself in a position to seek out another therapist in the future. 

With that said, here are some red flags to watch out for on your search for a therapist:

1) Your therapists keeps cancelling your appointment, moving it around, being late, or even forgetting about you altogether.  

This actually happened to me, with more than one therapist (neither of whom I chose to work with of course).

One particular therapist whom I had thought was promising ended up cancelling every appointment except for the first one. That means in the course of one month, we only had one appointment. She would say things like, “I’ll text you the details”, and then she never did. On the day of, I would text her to double check because I hadn’t heard from her, and her response would be, “So sorry! I completely forgot. I booked an appointment during that time.” I say “would” because this happened more than once.  

After even getting me confused with another client of hers and texting me to confirm evening appointments even though I was not available in the evenings, I finally asked, her, “Why do my appointments keep getting moved?” 

Her response was, “So sorry you know I’m going through some personal issues.” 

Well, I am an empath. And being in the mental health field myself, I understand that people can have “personal issues” that come up. I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. Firstly, because she was highly qualified- she had more certifications and credentials listed than your usual therapist (though that is not necessarily helpful, as you will find out) . Secondly, because I figured, she must be going through something right now, and this could be an unusual time. 

Well guess what, she still didn’t show up for our third and last appointment. After that, I promptly started looking for another therapist, and I did not feel bad about it. Some would say that three strikes is two too many. And, had the matter been more urgent, it probably would have been. 

Bottom line is, personal issue or not, if a therapist, doctor, or anyone for that matter is finding it difficult to manage more clients, or if he/she is going through a major personal issue, it is up to them to use their better judgement and take some time off. That would be much better than making clients book appointments and then constantly cancelling or forgetting about them. It is never a good idea to fill up your calendar with more clients than you can manage. I would never do that to one of my clients. It’s a matter of simple integrity. 

*For the record, I do come out of these situations in disbelief and slight amusement. Thankfully, it’s not a matter of life or death for me, and I tend to become amused at trivial things, or at the least I see them as interesting learning experiences. However, I do understand that for some clients, not being able to attend their weekly therapy routines can be dire. Because of that, keeping appointments needs to be top priority for a therapist- you are talking about people’s lives here. 

2) Your therapist can’t stop bragging about themselves.  

Boasting a little here and there is normal for everyone, but isn’t that what those certificates hanging in your therapist’s office are for? It’s one thing for your therapist to tell you their qualifications- especially if the intention is to let you know whether or not they are a good fit in their specific type of training to work with you. However, it’s quite another matter if your therapist brags multiple times, constantly reminding you of their “25 years of experience”. Or, if they bring this up to cover up a lack in their department. That’s called ego. 

Interestingly enough, I’ve had to listen to this from a few therapists. I’ve learned to recognize that often when therapists start bringing up how much knowledge they have (without you asking) it can be a form of their own insecurity. Once, a therapist who took over one month to finally schedule a first appointment had wrong information on telemedicine and insurance, and when I politely corrected her, her exact response was, “Well, I guess you know more than me than my having over 25 years of experience.” 

It was snarky and also plain wrong. I was baffled. And I tried explaining to her the law, but she actually repeated that line about her 25 years of experience again. Bottom line, it did not work out. I also double checked with my insurance, and the information I gave her was indeed correct. 

Unfortunately, ego is a major issue that I see with not only therapists, but with life coaches, teachers, and even parents. I have a theory that once a leader leads with their ego, or once a mentor mentors with their ego- then the student suffers. Once ego is the prevailing factor, it becomes a matter of who is right or wrong, versus the efficiency/impact of the job at hand.  

It is no different for a therapist. When a therapist interjects their own egos into your treatment, it may hinder their ability to treat you, their own ability to discover new things, their ability to admit fault, and it also produces a barrier between yourself and your therapist. I’m not talking about the good kind of barrier- otherwise known as having professional boundaries (see number 3), I’m talking about a counterproductive type of barrier that might prevent you from getting correct treatment. 

I have even heard of therapists misdiagnosing their patients (unfortunately this happens more often than one might think).

In one instance, when the patient asked the therapist to go over the list of DSM symptoms, the therapist adamantly refused and instead kept repeating “I have a PhD. in this, I don’t need to list the symptoms for you.” This is a classic example of the therapist placing his/her needs to protect their ego above the treatment (or mistreatment) of their patient. Every patient is justified in, and should feel comfortable in asking their therapist for an understanding of their diagnosis, and of course, it should be the intention of the therapist to help them clearly understand why the diagnosis was given. To refuse (especially without a valid explanation) is a red flag. In this case, it turns out the therapist had mis-diagnosed this patient anyway. It was perhaps because the therapist was trying to protect her ego instead of admitting to misdiagnosis, that she got defensive in the first place. The point is, ego can get in the way.

Therapists are human too, which means that they have feelings and they do make mistakes- but it also means that they should be constantly learning, from the latest journals, articles, and research in their field- and hopefully be humble enough to be learning from their own clients. Training does not equate to ability, especially when that training becomes a hindrance. 

3) Your therapist crosses the line between professionalism to friendship or more. 

This is a big no-no, and when taken too far, has caused therapists to have their licenses taken away. 

We may have seen a movie or heard horror stories of inappropriate therapist-client relationships. Unfortunately, those stories may have given therapy a tainted image. The fact is, it is generally considered unethical for therapists to engage in physical contact with a client (hugs are up for debate), and sexual contact is illegal. 

Therapists are ethically not allowed to give therapy to friends or family members. There are many reasons for that, including confidentiality, bias, power dynamics and professionalism. A therapist should also always be professional. The general rule of thumb is, if you don’t feel comfortable with the interaction or if you are questioning the appropriateness of your therapist’s behavior, they might not be the right fit for you. 

Bottom line is, be careful that a therapist does not cross the line of personal boundaries; and if you are even questioning that, if the therapist makes you feel physically uncomfortable, then it may be a red flag. 

4) Your therapist judges you, shames you, makes you feel like you are vying for their approval, or says things like “I didn’t like you”. 

Now there are mental health conditions where feeling judged by others is a symptom of the client’s mental health, and in that case one might feel a general sense of being judged by people in general, including therapists. However, regardless of your situation, a therapist should never say things like whether or not they like you as a person. You should never, ever feel like you are being judged by a therapist. Or a life coach for that matter. In fact, I wish that teachers and parents and all of humanity would all learn how to not be judgmental- but alas, that might be too much to ask for now.

It takes a strong person to go to therapy and be able to reveal their thoughts, secrets, and entire life to someone else. Therapy requires an extremely high level of trust, and if you don’t have it, then you may feel inclined to withhold personal information or even worse, lie. One of the major faux-pas clients can do to self sabotage their progress is to lie, twist, to or omit information from their therapist. Doing so can defeat the purpose of therapy. 

 Yes, a degree of this comes from personal experience also. During a strange and overtly friendly 30 minute chit chat I had with the same therapist that had the scheduling conflict, she mentioned something that had my head spinning afterwards. After we had been chatting for a while, she blurted, “You know what, I like you a lot better now! I really didn’t think I liked you during our first call, but now after talking to you, I like you a lot better!” 

At the moment, I laughed it off. She had said it light heartedly, so I figured she was just being honest. After all, the conclusion was that she liked me, so I supposed that was good. Of course, who wants a therapist that doesn’t like you? That would not be a good fit for either party. After the call though, I found myself questioning the relevancy of that statement, and whether or not she should have told me her personal opinions or judgements about me at all.

The answer is no. 

A therapist should never reveal to their client their own personal opinions on the client. Afterall, one of the major benefits of seeking a certified therapist is that they are trained in taking away their own biases and judgements. (This should really be the case for seeking a life coach also). 

I am not saying that therapists won’t feel emotional or levels of like or dislike at any given time toward a client. We are all human beings, and this is perhaps unavoidable. Bias is a natural response for practically every human being. However, it is the duty of the therapist (and life coach, IMHO) to remove their biases in order to ensure that their own feelings are not interfering with the therapy. It is also the duty of the therapist to be aware of their own feelings, and to analyze them, as problems can arise if the therapist is unaware of his/her countertransference- or if they reveal their countertransference to their client. 

Bottom line is, your therapist needs to keep their own emotions and biases out of the picture. If biased opinions were what we needed, we could just talk to our family members or our friends.

5) Your therapist brings their own baggage into your sessions. 

Again, this is one of my issues with many other life coaches out there who are not trained in bias removal or psychology. In fact, they may even use their own personal experiences as the supreme reason why they are qualified to coach you. This can be dangerous, as no one’s experiences nor the way they process experiences are the same. Just because one thing worked or did not work for one person, does not mean it will work or not work for you. If they are telling you what to do or what not to do mostly based on their personal stories- and especially if you get the feeling that their stories do not align with yours- then it may be time to switch. However, it is worth noting that having a therapist or life-coach who understands you, your unique background, or your chosen profession is equally important (see number 6). Just make sure it’s not the only qualification you take into consideration.

I would like to mention that “mentors” are an exception. Mentors are neither therapists nor life coaches, and often the relationship is more personal and long term. If what you are looking for is a guide in a specific field to take you under their wing, show you the ropes, and essentially make you a part of their life, then mentorship might be the way to go. That is an entirely different ballgame and the only time personal experience should be a deciding factor. 

6) Your therapist has a “black or white” / “all or nothing” mentality.  

I had a therapist who was great in uncovering family dynamics, but not so powerful at providing solutions. Every therapist works differently- it could very well have been that solution-based methods were just not in her area of expertise. Every time I asked her for a solution, she would give me extreme black and white answers. “Either have them in your life or not” “Either you continue to deal with their behavior or not” “Either you allow mistreatment or not” “Either you have a close relationship with them or not”. It was unsettling for me, as she was speaking about my own family members.  It wasn’t until she mentioned something about not viewing things in “black and white” that it clicked for me- the solutions she was giving me were exactly that. It was, perhaps, projection on her part. Unintentional, perhaps, but nevertheless. 

Note: This is an example where having a therapist who understands your culture or your background is so important, and why cultural psychology is gaining more momentum. 

Note two: This is another example where having a therapist with decades of years of experience and certifications may actually go against you, as certain types of psychology and schools of thought may not have been taught in past decades. Some therapists tend to be more “old school” than others, and it all depends on what the right fit is for you. 

Overall she was a decent therapist, but we must keep in mind that therapists are not deities, nor are they solutions themselves. Their job is to help you figure out your own solutions, and you are the ultimate decision maker. However, with that said, some are more solution oriented than others. In that certain cases, it would be beneficial to have possibilities to choose from, and those possibilities shouldn’t always be limited to two extremes. 

Coming from a world of personal development and life coaching, I myself subscribe to the mindset that the possibilities are endless. I help my own clients brainstorm and come up with “out-of-the-box” solutions, and then help them realize the best fit for what they are trying to accomplish at the time. However, not every therapist might agree with me on coming up with possibilities. This is one of the key differences I see in therapists versus life coaches- therapists tend to be more realistic, risk-avoidant, and some of them (not all) tend to concentrate on the analysis of the problem over the solution. Therapists generally tend to stick with the tried and true (see number 7). While that may be good for some people or certain situations/ problems (ie addiction), it is not the right fit for everyone or every situation.

7. Your therapist does not understand your background or is unwilling to work with your line of work.

As I mentioned earlier, therapists tend to be more realistic in their approaches, which means they don’t often “dream big” or have an entrepreneurial mindset. This can be a problem for people coming from the creative world, or the entrepreneurial world, or in a profession that is atypical. Sometimes, therapists simply have a hard time understanding the mindsets that being in such worlds require. 

I have both experienced and heard of therapists who seem to be lost as to what to do with a client who takes big risks in order to achieve their dreams. I have heard of therapists suggesting practical solutions to creative individuals, such as “if by this age you have not reached your goal, then you should quit and choose a different career and get a 9 to 5.” 

These can be words of death for an entrepreneur or a creative. There are countless issues with that type of thinking. If you always think inside the box, then you will always get inside the box results. Also, what if you don’t want to live an inside-the-box type of life? Thus, that is again another reason why I myself became a certified life coach instead of a therapist. The life coaching world are well suited for people who want to achieve atypical goals. A good life coach will navigate solutions with you to make the impossible possible (or at least that’s my goal with my clients). If you want an amped up solution oriented approach, life coaching or personal development programs are the way to go. It is designed to push you and get you to keep going. 

Therapists, on the other hand, are trained to deal with people with anywhere from minor to severe issues, and a certain type of thinking that may be considered visionary for entrepreneurs, may also be considered delusional for say someone who is suffering from schizoaffective disorder. Therapists are understandably trained in reality checking their clients, but you have to be careful that they do not steer you away from your dreams and your life goals. That becomes dangerous, and in my humble opinion, would suppress your amazing human potential (see number 8), which would really be a shame. 

*With that said, however, I am of course still a huge advocate for therapy, because obtaining goals is different than understanding yourself. Designing a future is different than taking a deep look at your past. I believe that it is wise to get both, because, after all- when you do reach that peak, you want to make sure that you are doing it for the right reasons.   

8. Be careful that a therapist not disempower you, or keep you in a victim mindset. 

There are a few ways a therapist can disempower you. One way is that they might disempower you from going after your dreams/goals, because they themselves do not see it as possible. They might be concentrating on the “norm” rather than the outliers, and in doing so are using examples of what is common rather than what is extraordinary. (Don’t mean to be repetitive but, this is another difference between therapy and life coaching).    

Another way that therapists may be disempowering has to do with dependence. 

Some people are with therapists for an entire life time, and I see nothing wrong with that in regards to three cases: 

1) It is clear that your client-therapist relationship is one where you pay someone to talk to once a week and relieve some stress or weekly baggage. 

2) There are different problems you are working on, perhaps requiring different methodologies or even with different therapists. 

3) You have a diagnosed condition which requires you to go to therapy for longer periods of time, perhaps even your entire life. 

To put things in perspective, some popular types of therapies are actually designed to be shorter term. For example, strict CBT is designed to take more or less six months or anywhere from 5-20 sessions per issue.  This is done for good reason, as the goal for a good therapist is to want their clients’ problems to be resolved and for them to have the tools in order to self sufficiently deal with their own problems. However, you can go through CBT for multiple issues. Therapy is not necessarily a one and done thing- and in fact, I believe everyone should be working on themselves for longer than just a few sessions or six months.

When it becomes a problem is if you start to rely and depend on your therapist too much, and you start using them as a crutch. Unfortunately, I notice dependency quite often. Sometimes, clients start to feel like they cannot make a decision unless they talk to their therapist about it, or depending too much on their therapist’s approval (redflag number 4). 

Now this can also tie in with therapists propagating their client’s victim mindset. One of the tricky things with therapy is that talking about problems can sometimes make the problems seem bigger, and lead to a rabbit hole of “there’s something wrong with me” or “I am a victim of this problem”. In other words, they concentrate too much on the “illness” part. That can cause disempowerment, and unfortunately can cause the client to concentrate more on the problem rather than how to resolve it. Yes, the point of therapy is to understand your condition and learn how to live with it, and to even understand what circumstances you were a victim of- but be careful- make sure you are also working on how to empower yourself. 

It is so important to make the time and effort to understand our past, our family dynamics, ourselves, our thoughts and our behaviors. This “understanding” is the juice of therapy.

The bottom line is, no one is perfect. You’re not going to find a “perfect” therapist, nor a perfect life coach or a perfect partner or perfect parent or perfect anyone. However, you need to feel comfortable with them and trust them enough to be able to tell them when they do things which are disconcerting to you. That’s right, if a therapist does something you are uncomfortable with, you can- and should- bring it up to your therapist. Afterall, they can’t read your mind, and they may be unaware of what they have done or that you are bothered by something. The response you get from your therapist may tell you a lot about whether or not you should stay with them. 

There are thousands of therapists out there, all specializing in different methods with different backgrounds. Your chances of finding a good fit (or even several good fits) are high. A good rule of thumb is to do your research on multiple therapists ahead of time, choose a few favorites, and if you are not sure, then meet with multiple ones for 1-3 sessions before deciding. If it doesn’t work out at any given point, at least you’ll have a couple more in your back pocket to choose from. 

Just like a good pair of jeans, you are the only one who will know which therapist makes you feel comfortable. Don’t have any qualms about trying on a few first. Shopping for a therapist can actually be fun, and no matter what, it’s all a learning experience. One of the great things about therapy (and psychology) is that you develop a strong sense of self awareness. You learn so much about yourself, and that can begin with the process of discovering your preferences. Happy hunting!

~Serena Sun

Founder & Director of Breaking Taboo

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