Is Your Therapist Re-Traumatizing You?
Here are the 7 red flags of a bad therapist.
Posted April 11, 2011 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Life can throw a bunch of curveballs at you. You can suffer from discrimination, grief from lost loved ones, abuse from loved ones, losing your job, financial collapse, environmental toxins, and natural disaster, and health degradation. All of these are normal and real side effects of living.
How you handle these difficulties is key to your mental health and overall quality of life. How your therapist helps you handle these is even bigger — as poor therapy can result in keeping you down and losing your resilience.
There is nothing sadder for me than when I witness the effects of poor therapy on someone. I've heard horror stories from clients, observed distressing situations with friends, and even experienced some of it firsthand. Perhaps the economy adds to the difficulty, giving psychotherapists who fear losing business an incentive to keep clients distressed so they keep coming back.
While there's been some research on the detrimental effects of poor therapy, it's difficult to measure the actual numbers of people who have suffered at the hands of a damaging psychotherapist. I'd suspect there's been an increase though — which is why I want to emphasize what you as a consumer should be seeking.
The following are some of the indicators of good therapy, with a discussion of the red flag situations that you should avoid. If you are experiencing these red-flag situations with your therapist/counselor, don't be afraid to speak up and look elsewhere. Voicing your concern and seeking better therapeutic help is a sign of health and boundaries — not resistance or an indication of your brokenness.
#1 Your Life Outside of Your Therapy Session Should Improve
Do you find yourself waiting all week to get back to your therapy appointment? Does it feel like life is on hold until you can get back and discuss more problems? While it is wonderful to have someone process your pain and life with you, they should not be the sun that you orbit around. It shouldn't feel like you're a drug junkie waiting for your next fix.
Instead, you should begin to see measurable improvement in your life. You should begin to feel more empowered, more confident, and more able to handle distressing situations. A good therapist/counselor helps you find your strengths. They feed your resilience and focus on your core strengths that will help you overcome difficulties.
If a therapist/counselor is constantly picking at your wounds and leading you down a rabbit hole of eternal analysis to the point where you feel like you can't function in life because you need an analytical fix, there is a danger. You may even be suffering some re-traumatization (see this post to understand how re-traumatization can take place). If so, get out and seek new help.
#2 Your Social Interactions and Relationships Should Improve
Have you begun to cut off friends and relationships to the point where your therapist/counselor is your only main confidante in life? If so, there might be a problem.
It can be normal to have a shift in relationships over the course of therapy. Perhaps you've been hanging around people that have drained you or you discovered that all your relationships are generally one-way relationships. In these cases, it's typical to have a friend or group shift. Old ones fade and new, healthier relationships enter your life. That's a sign of progress and growth.
However, there's a serious problem if all of your relationships have ended and your therapist/counselor is the only fulfilling relationship in your life. Having a healthy social group in our lives is one of the main ingredients for living a longer and healthier life, so a good therapist/counselor helps you cultivate this critical part of your life.
#3 You Have Money and Your Finances Are Stabilizing
Are you saving up all of your extra money just to see your therapist/counselor? Healthy therapy doesn't break your bank account. In fact, healthy therapy is about helping you make better decisions in your life, which is usually demonstrated in making better financial choices.
It is unethical for your therapist/counselor to take your last dime. Instead, your therapist/counselor should be working with you on the fee and/or referring you to a community clinic that offers a sliding scale fee if you are strapped for cash.
#4 Your Therapist/Counselor Focuses on the Positive
One of the hallmarks of resilience and cognitive adaptation is the ability to see the world with the glass half full. There is a ton of research that supports this and why therapy/counseling works because it helps adjust unhealthy ways of seeing the world (from parental and societal introjects to irrational fears).
If a therapist/counselor, however, perpetuates the negative beliefs and ways of processing information, then you're not healing. You could even get worse. Therefore, check out how the therapist/counselor reframes what you tell them. If they constantly point out the negatives with no positive points of view, run.
#5 Laughter Is Part of the Process
It's true that the best medicine is laughter. Your therapist/counselor should be able to laugh with you and help you laugh at yourself. Nonstop seriousness is not healthy and downright unbalanced. Humor is one of the largest aspects of resilience and the ability to bounce back from trauma. Yes, you will have serious sessions and crying, and releasing pain can be one of the biggest forms of recovery. Humor and laughing at times is just as important too. You might benefit from looking elsewhere if you feel like your sessions are too tense, rigid, and don't allow for humor.
#6 Therapy Isn't a Marriage
Have you been seeing your therapist/counselor longer than you've lived in your home, had a job and been with your partner? I've heard stories of people seeing their therapist/counselor every week for 20 years. While controversial, research shows that such long-term therapy with one therapist/counselor can be a problem. In these situations, the therapist/counselor is creating a dependent relationship. In fact, according to the American Psychological Association's and the American Counseling Association's Code of Ethics, it is downright unethical to do harm by fostering dependent relationships and/or abusing power.
#7 Therapists/Counselors Should Respect Your Boundaries
What are some of the common violations that therapists/counselors have made that resulted in (or could result in) getting their license revoked? First, a therapist/counselor should never engage in any kind of romantic relationship with you. They should not tease or flirt with you in any way. They are strictly prohibited from dating you. If there's any kind of romantic attraction, they need to refer you to someone else.
In addition, a therapist/counselor cannot engage in a dual relationship with you. What does that mean? They cannot be your yoga partner and your therapist/counselor at the same time. If you're a hairdresser or other service provider of a therapist/counselor, they cannot give you therapy/counseling sessions because they already have a relationship with you. Yes, therapists/counselors can only have one-way relationships with their clients. Anything else is not okay. Nor is bartering for services. (There is some allowance for minimal bartering in certain circumstances along with allowances for therapists in small towns, but you get the gist. No exploitation and/or abuse of power.)
The bottom line is, pay attention to your intuition. If something feels awry with your therapist/counselor, leave. Don't let them bully or manipulate you. Therapists/counselors are human beings. Just like every profession, there are good ones, mediocre ones, and horrible ones. Stay away from the horrible ones.
It's challenging with therapy because you've opened up and shared your most vulnerable parts of yourself. You want to believe the person you're sharing it with has your best interest at heart. Often times they do. Sometimes they don't. Please use this information as a way of saying no and teasing out the bad ones. Like love, if you've been burned, don't give up. Good therapy can be the most healing elixir around; it can improve your overall health, relationships, career, lifespan and quality of life.