When I was in my early twenties and thinking about seeing a therapist for the first time, I had an image of a very loving, nurturing, maternal figure in my head. I imagined someone very put-together, kind, and all-knowing. Like, literally, I thought my therapist would know everything. And say the exact right thing all the time. And simply heal all my wounds with her mere presence. In short, I thought she’d be the perfect person.
You already know where this is going: my therapist was not perfect. Sometimes she misunderstood me or said something that rubbed me the wrong way. I was shocked to find out she’d been divorced because aren’t therapists supposed to have it all figured out all the time? I distinctly remember thinking, “Huh. I guess therapists are just people.” Go figure.
Any therapist you meet will be imperfect because any person you meet will be imperfect, and, yep, therapists are just people. And therapy, just like any other field, is full of great people working very hard and holding themselves ethically and morally accountable… AND, just like any other field, therapy is full of people working out their insecurities, fears or stress through their clients. Sometimes all of that hard stuff takes over and make an imperfect person into an actually bad therapist.
It’s obvious to stay away from bad therapists and seek out a good one. But how do you know if your therapist is good or bad? Wrong question. The question to ask yourself: Is this a good therapist for me? And here’s how to tell:
- Does your therapist do what they say they will? Call you back, email you that article they mentioned, show up for appointments, start on time, end on time, etc.?
- Do they remember significant information you share? Either by referring to notes or pure memory, are they able to recall your goals and your history?
- Does your therapist apologize when they get something wrong? Do they model humility and mistake-making for you?
- Do you leave your sessions feeling safe, validated, and understood?
- Do you look forward to sessions with your therapist? Do you feel a general sense of progress and hope regarding your work together?
One last question: If any of the above isn’t going well (your therapist never returns your calls, you feel blamed by your therapist for a misunderstanding, you dread showing up for sessions and leave feeling worse than before), can you talk to your therapist about it? Can you say to them, “I know you’re busy and I’m not your only client, but you gave me your phone number and encouraged me to use it, and then whenever I call, you don’t respond and it feels really dismissive to me. It’s affecting how much I trust you and this process. I want this to work – I need to get this off my chest so we can move forward.” And if you can bring yourself to say it, how does it go? Are you met with understanding, clarification, and apologies? Or dismissal and invalidation?
There are important differences between being forgetful and being dismissive, taking ownership and displaying self-pity, misattunement and total disconnection. Forgetfulness, owning mistakes, and misreading situations are all part of being an imperfect human while dismissiveness, self-pity, and absolute disconnects are signs a therapist hasn’t done their own work. Part of being a good therapist is owning your own human experiences, making sense of them, and integrating them appropriately into your life and career.
If you can answer yes to all or most of the questions above, great! You’re probably with a therapist who’s a good fit for you. If you answered negatively to several of the questions, consider talking to your therapist about the issues or begin shopping around. (Psychology Today or Good Therapy are great places to start.) No matter what, remember you deserve excellent mental health treatment and have the right to advocate for yourself or switch providers as needed.