Therapy

When Therapy Lets You Down

A note from a therapist about negative experiences in therapy.

Posted Sep 19, 2020

Therapy can be a beautiful journey, both for the client and the therapist. Yet what happens when the therapy experience isn’t what it is supposed to be? What happens when the therapy process is unhelpful, or even harmful?

Brett Patzke/Unsplash
Source: Brett Patzke/Unsplash

As a therapist, I am an advocate of therapy. I have personally seen the transformative and life-changing impact that therapy can have. Research suggests that psychotherapy can provide a number of positive benefits in helping with several mental health challenges or life challenges (APA, 2012; McHenry et al., 2014, Roberts et al., 2019). This is no surprise given how therapy can offer a safe environment where one can be heard, seen, empowered, experience unconditional positive regard, and obtain resources and support for their life goals.

Although therapy can have many positive benefits, unfortunately, therapy may not always have the outcome it is supposed to have (Curran et al., 2019). Curran et al. (2019) mention that where some might have very positive experiences with therapy, others might have experiences in therapy that are unhelpful or even harmful. Discussing this reality is not meant to discourage the seeking of therapy, but it is imperative to give a voice to those who have had poor experiences with therapy. As with anything, talking about the hard, or going through our “swamps” as I call them, sometimes is the only way in which we can get to where it is we hope to go (see my "It's Never Too Late" article for more on this metaphor). As we provide a space to discuss this uncomfortable topic, we make room to offer resources, empower those who have been impacted, and foster change. 

It takes an immense amount of courage to go to therapy. With the vulnerability and courage (and financial cost) it entails, it is understandable that there is an expectation and hope for the change it may bring. For some of you who are reading, perhaps you have had a negative experience with therapy. Perhaps your experience involved:

  • Services that were culturally inappropriate, culturally insensitive, or culturally dismissive
  • Sharing your story courageously to only feel unheard, misunderstood, or like your voice didn’t matter
  • A therapist who did not have the appropriate knowledge or competencies to support you in your goals 
  • Not feeling like you had a say in the therapy goals or process 
  • A therapist who seemed disconnected, distracted, or overly busy 
  • Experiences of microaggressions, victim-blaming, stigma, or other types of prejudice, subjugation, or oppression 
  • Being spoken to harshly, abused, or taken advantage of 
  • Your life challenges or trauma experiences being questioned or invalidated 
  • Going to therapy for years without seeing the outcomes you hoped for
  • A therapist imposing their values or beliefs on you
Jude Beck/Unsplash
Source: Jude Beck/Unsplash

Regardless of what it was that you experienced, to those who have had a bad or even traumatizing experience with therapy, this is what I hope to share with you: 

  • I am sorry. Regardless of whether the harm was intentional or unintentional, I am sorry that the supportive space that you hoped to find wasn’t all that you had hoped for.
  • Please don’t stop your recovery and self-care journey even though therapy might have let you down. Please don’t give us human therapists that much power. Whether you continue your journey in other ways, or by finding a new therapist, never stop the invaluable and beautiful work of loving yourself. You deserve it.
  • You can advocate for yourself. If there is something in your therapy relationship that doesn’t feel quite right or is unhelpful to you, and you feel safe and comfortable doing so, share this with your therapist. As a therapist, I ask my clients to tell me when something in our relationship isn’t working well, or the therapy space isn’t what they hope for. Discussions like these can enhance both the therapeutic outcomes and the therapeutic relationship.
  • Everyone deserves a safe space. If you are currently in a therapy relationship that doesn’t feel safe or helpful to you, it’s OK to find a new therapist. In fact, I tell my clients to find someone else if I am not the right fit! This isn’t about the therapist. It’s about you. Not every client-therapist fit is a match. Not every therapist has the competencies, knowledge, or skill set for specific needs. That’s OK! There are a lot of us out there with different gifts, personalities, and competencies/specializations.
  • If you are searching for a therapist that is the right fit for you, do your research and get to know what they specialize in, the types of therapy they offer, their qualifications and credentials, their fees/what insurance they take, along with any other information that may be important to you. Ask questions! You don’t have to wait to pay them to get answers. It can also be helpful to speak with them on the phone before a first session to get a feel for who they are and how therapy will go.
  • Don't give up on your recovery journey. Recovery isn't always a linear path and often involves many winds and turns.

Remember, therapy is about you, and you deserve to find the support you seek.

References

Research shows psychotherapy is effective but underutilized. (2012). American Psychological

Association. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2012/08/psychotherapy-effective

Curran, J., Parry, G. D., Hardy, G. E., Darling, J., Mason, A. M., & Chambers, E. (2019). How Does Therapy Harm? A Model of Adverse Process Using Task Analysis in the Meta-Synthesis of Service Users' Experience. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 347. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00347

McHenry, B., Sikorski, A. M., & McHenry, J. (2014). A counselor’s introduction to neuroscience. New York: Routledge.

Roberts, Neil P, Kitchiner, Neil J, Kenardy, Justin, Lewis, Catrin E, & Bisson, Jonathan I. (2019). Early psychological intervention following recent trauma: A systematic review and meta-analysis. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 10(1), 1695486. https://doi.org/10.1080/20008198.2019.1695486