I feel incredibly lucky that I was able to link up with an excellent therapist in my first go around. The therapist I was put in touch with through a local counseling office met with me bimonthly and then monthly through virtual therapy using a webcam. Initially, I was skeptical. I didn't think she would "get" me, and even if she did, I wasn't sure she could help.
Meeting with a therapist for the first time is like going on a first date. There are plenty of questions. You don't know how to answer most of them. You worry that you sound stupid. You don't know how to end the appointment without an awkward goodbye. The good news is that, like dating, all of this will pass if you find the right match.
As most people can tell you — and as you learn from dating — this is something you will know from almost the first meeting. Right away, my therapist and I had a certain chemistry that grew over time. When I was finally ready to graduate from therapy, I genuinely felt a loss.
When it's right, it's right. But, when it's not right, you'll know right away. When meeting with a therapist for the first time, it's most important to trust yourself and go with your gut. There are also a few red flags to watch out for before you book that second appointment.
Consider these big warning signs to determine if your therapist isn't right for you.
Circling back to the dating analogy, no one wants to voluntarily spend time with someone they feel judged by — whether it be a romantic partner or a therapist. Tina Gilbertson — Portland psychotherapist and author of Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them — calls this a "bad fit." Gilbertson tells SheKnows, "Many people are so used to feeling judged, they think it's about them instead of the therapist. With a therapist who's a good fit, you feel understood and accepted, not judged or criticized."
The only way you're truly going to open up in a raw and emotional environment is if you feel like you're in a safe place. Therapy, at first, is like that proverbial dream where you get on stage naked — at the very least, you want to know your audience isn't going to laugh at you. Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, licensed psychologist and breakup coach, says that if you've given it the old college try and still can't feel comfortable after three to four sessions, it's time to call it quits. "It's normal to feel uncomfortable telling a stranger your most private thoughts for the first few meetings, but after 3-4 times of meeting, it should begin to feel more comfortable," says Dr. Bradford.
Every therapist has their own personal "brand" of therapy. That's to be expected. What you don't want is a therapist with blinders on — a therapist so set in their ways that they aren't willing to communicate with you about your personal goals for therapy. Psychiatrist Dr. Jared Heathman agrees that it's time to consider a new therapist when your therapist is only interested in his or her own agenda. "Your therapist should care about your goals and help you set goals that both of you can agree on." Flexibility is key, Dr. Heathman adds. "If a certain technique is not working despite mutual effort, you want a therapist that can try other techniques with you."
While you want to be close to your therapist to form a long-term, trusting relationship, being too close can present a whole new set of problems. Dr. Judy Rosenberg, founder of the Psychological Healing Center for Healing Human Disconnect, says that a dependent therapist-patient relationship where your therapist becomes your "best friend" is a major no-no. According to Dr. Rosenberg, this may look like a therapist who "talks about him or herself instead of your issues (unless they are using themselves as an example to teach you a concept)." If that's the case, it's time to get out of there fast. A selfish therapist isn't doing you any favors.
There's a big difference between feeling uneasy and feeling uncomfortable around your therapist. The latter is normal and part of the growth process. The former could be a big red flag that marks inappropriate boundaries, according to Kathryn Gates, a psychotherapist with six years of experience. Specifically, Gates says to watch for therapists who "[disclose] specific information about specific other patients with identifying info (i.e., the patient scheduled directly after, who you see when you leave the office)." Gates also suggests quitting a flaky therapist who frequently cancels appointments and an unethical therapist who wants to meet for extracurricular activities.
If your therapist isn't helping you move forward, then you're just wasting your money with each session — harsh, but true. It's one thing to like your therapist and even get along with your therapist, but are you seeing any real results? Are you getting what you hoped for? Are you a different person than when you started? It's important to ask yourself these questions before you commit to a therapist for the long haul. Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., (aka "Dr. Romance") psychotherapist and author of It Ends with You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction, says, "Getting support is helpful, but it doesn't heal anything. You need a therapist who'll push you when you need it."
And here we are again, back to your gut. When you're talking about a therapeutic experience, a time in your life when you are supposed to open up and become vulnerable for the purpose of growth, just liking your therapist matters enough. While I would never consider my therapist a close, personal friend because of professional boundaries, I genuinely liked her and enjoyed seeing her each month. That counts for more than you know, says Dr. Samantha Rodman, author of How to Talk to Your Kids about Your Divorce. "You know if your therapist is wrong for you if you don't feel that 'click' that lets you know that you're on the same page. While, of course, any relationship will develop and grow over time, you should feel at ease in the very first few sessions."
Misti Luke, a licensed therapist in Oklahoma, agrees that this gut reaction is valid. As Luke explains, if you find yourself saying even once, "My therapist just does not get me," it's probably time to move on. Your mental health matters too much to stay with the wrong therapist.
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