Signs of a bad therapist: what you need to know

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Woman punching at phone while on therapy session. She sees signs of a bad therapist.

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When looking for mental health support, it’s just as important to be aware of the signs of a bad therapist as it is to know the signs of a good one. Although therapy has many evidence-based benefits, a bad therapist can spoil your therapy experience and discourage you from continuing with treatment. It’s important to know how to find a good therapist and avoid the bad apples.

So what makes a bad therapist? In this article, we go over 20 signs of a bad therapist, as well as the signs of a good therapist and how to search for a therapist who meets your needs.

What are the signs of a bad therapist?

Few therapists are truly “bad” — but, like in any profession, bad eggs do exist. When we talk about a “bad” therapist, we’re referring to therapists who break their code of ethics and engage in unethical, exploitative, or abusive behaviors. 

These 20 signs of a bad therapist are never acceptable behaviors, and it’s important to take action to protect yourself as soon as possible if you come across any of them.

They try to engage in a sexual or romantic relationship with you

One of the most harmful unethical behaviors that a therapist can engage in is to engage in a romantic or sexual relationship with you. This is explicitly against any therapist’s code of ethics and is an exploitation of the inherent power they have over you as your treatment provider. Because of this power, these relationships can never be consensual.

Under no circumstance should a therapist or mental health provider ever speak to you or touch you in a sexually suggestive way. Even if you express sexual attraction toward your therapist, they should never reciprocate — they should talk to you about it in a professional manner.

They don’t respect your confidentiality

Another essential ethical boundary that all therapists must heed is that of confidentiality. Confidentiality means protecting your right to privacy as well as taking measures to protect your health information. 

Your right to confidentiality is protected by The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). There are some exceptions; therapists have a duty to break confidentiality if they think you’re a danger to yourself or others, or when they have knowledge or suspicions of child or elder abuse.

If you think your therapist may be breaking your right to confidentiality — for example, if you see them out in public and they introduce you as their client, or they tell your family members what you’ve talked about in sessions without your written consent — this is a big red flag that you should immediately report to your state’s licensing board.

They share too many personal details

Self-disclosure is when the therapist shares information about themselves in session. Most therapists practice self-disclosure to a certain extent — for example, you may know that your therapist has children or even that they have been through some similar experiences as you.

However, all of a therapist’s self-disclosure should be to help you in the therapeutic process. If you feel like your therapist talks about themselves too much, or if they share details about their personal life that make you feel uncomfortable, this is inappropriate and a sign of a bad therapist.

They don’t respect your time

This is a tricky one, and some people may be more sensitive than others to tardiness and time issues. But you’re paying for a therapeutic intervention, and your time deserves respect. If your therapist consistently disrespects your time by starting sessions late or cutting sessions short early,  it’s a sign you’re dealing with a bad therapist.

Of course, therapists are human and it’s understandable to have emergencies sometimes that cause tardiness or last-minute cancellations— but if this is happening repeatedly and you feel like your therapist doesn’t respect your time, it may be time to move on.

They have poor boundaries

Therapists should always respect your boundaries and understand that a therapeutic relationship isn’t the same as a friendship. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be friendly, and you need to build a great amount of trust with them for therapy to be effective. But they should always respect your boundaries.

Poor boundaries can show up in many ways, the most extreme demonstration being a sexual relationship between therapist and client. But even if it doesn’t get that far, pay attention to displays of poor boundaries — like sharing too many personal details about their life, calling you at inappropriate times, coming to your home, or being overly invested in your life (for example, telling you that they couldn’t sleep because they were so worried about you).

They have an expired or suspended license

This one is a big one. To provide therapy, someone must have an active license (or be gaining clinical hours toward licensure and working under the supervision of a licensed practitioner). Practicing without a license — whether the therapist never had a license, their license expired, or their license was suspended or revoked — isn’t only unethical, it’s illegal.

If you’re concerned about your therapist’s license, you can verify it on the appropriate state licensing board. Find out the type of license your therapist claims to have, and their license number. Many states have a mental health regulatory agency that can verify your therapist’s license. If not, then check with the state’s licensing board.

They don’t provide informed consent

Informed consent is about making sure that you’re educated about any treatments that the therapist will deliver, and that you consent to receiving them. Informed consent usually happens in the first session — your therapist may explain to you how therapy works as well as your right to confidentiality (and its exceptions).

Your therapist shouldn’t provide any treatments that you haven’t consented to. For example, it is unethical for your therapist to start Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy without explaining the process and how it works and getting your explicit consent. Similarly, it’s unethical for a therapist to hand you a prescription, for example, Zoloft for anxiety, without discussing it with you first. 

They engage in illegal behavior

Another sign of a bad therapist is engaging in illegal behavior, even if the behavior doesn’t affect you directly. For example, if you find out that our therapist commits tax fraud, it’s a big red flag. The exception to this may be if they have broken the law to uphold their ethics — for example, if they’ve been arrested for advocating for human rights.

They use methods that have been proven to be harmful or ineffective

Unfortunately, some therapists still practice therapy methods that have been proven by research to be ineffective at best, and harmful at worst. 

A common example of this is conversion “therapy” for people in the LGBTQ+ community. Research clearly shows that not only is conversion therapy ineffective for changing people’s sexual identity (which is an unethical goal in itself) but is also very harmful to their mental health, and is known to increase rates of suicide.

Any therapist who uses outdated types of therapy methods is engaging in unethical and dangerous behavior.

They hold racist or discriminatory views

This should go without saying, but any therapist who holds racist, homophobic, misogynistic, or otherwise discriminatory views is a bad therapist — whether or not they talk about those views with you in sessions.

Mental health providers value the inherent worth of all human beings. If they hold these views, then they aren’t respecting this core professional value. This is unethical for a therapist, and any therapist who holds these views needs to be kicked to the curb.

They minimize your struggles

Your therapist should make you feel heard, understood, and valued. Therapists who judge you, belittle you, or minimize what you’re going through aren’t good therapists. Watch out for therapists who compare your struggles to others’ worse experiences, saying things like, “At least you haven’t gone through…,” or “Just be grateful that you….”

Keep in mind that part of a therapist’s job, especially if they use cognitive-behavioral techniques, is to help you challenge your own perception of events. Trying to help you challenge your own negative thoughts isn’t the same as minimizing your experiences.

They make false promises

Mental health conditions, like depression and anxiety, are chronic, which means there’s no cure for them. Therapy helps you learn how to manage the symptoms and live as well as possible. Your therapists shouldn’t make false guarantees about recovery. It’s a particular red flag if they refer to the treatment they provide as a “cure” for your mental health problems.

If a therapist is promoting a treatment as a “cure” or making other false promises or guarantees about recovery or recovery timelines, then it might be “snake oil” being offered by a bad therapist.

They’re often distracted during sessions

Your therapy session is about you. You deserve to have your therapist’s full attention during the time you’re paying them for mental health support. One sign of a bad therapist is being distracted during sessions — for example, looking at their phone, stopping to take a call, or constantly checking the clock. You wouldn’t appreciate this behavior from anyone, and it’s not okay when a therapist does it, either.

They impose their religious or spiritual beliefs on you

Many therapists offer faith-based therapy if you belong to a particular religion and are looking for spiritual guidance. But you may share the same religion as your therapist, or may not be religious at all. Many people simply don’t want to mix their therapy sessions with their religion.

It’s okay for your therapist to be religious, but if they try to talk to you about religion or push their beliefs on you without your invitation — it’s a red flag.

They pressure you into things you aren’t ready for

Therapists should never pressure you. This includes pressuring you to open up about something you don’t want to talk about or taking some sort of action in your life, like leaving a relationship.

Most therapists encourage you to take steps toward your goals, even when they’re scary. For example, they may encourage you to expose yourself to your fears or encourage you to talk to your partner about something important. But they should never pressure or try to force you when you have stated that you aren’t ready.

They rush a diagnosis

A thorough psychological evaluation takes time. If your therapist or psychiatrist jumps to a diagnosis within a few minutes of meeting you, they could be a bad therapist. Unfortunately, misdiagnosis is common; this is a critical problem because to receive the right mental health treatment, you need the right diagnosis. 

If you don’t feel like the therapist spent enough time with you before giving you a diagnosis, you may be seeing a bad therapist.

They aren’t open to feedback

Good therapists invite and listen to feedback. If your therapist isn’t willing to accept feedback from you about their services — if they get angry and defensive when you provide feedback — it may be a sign that they’re a bad therapist.

They argue or get into power struggles with you

Your therapist should never become argumentative with you. They may encourage you to change your perspective about something, but it’s not about “winning” an argument — it’s about helping you. If sessions start feeling like a power struggle, it’s time to get out.

They don’t respect your expertise

Every person is an expert on their own lives. You know yourself best — you know about your past experiences and what your symptoms feel like firsthand. You know what’s worked for you, what hasn’t, and why. Of course, your therapist brings their own mental health expertise to the table, too.

But your therapist should never make you feel like your expertise and knowledge about yourself and your experiences don’t matter. 

Good therapy is about forming a collaborative relationship where your expertise is also respected.

They lie about their experience and knowledge

It’s okay for therapists to have different areas of expertise. For example, some therapists may specialize in treating obsessive-compulsive disorder, while others work with people who have ADHD. However, a therapist should never lie about what they’re experienced in treating. If your therapist misguides you to believe they’re knowledgeable in an area they’re not, it’s time to move on. 

Different mental health conditions require different expertise, and it’s important to find a therapist who’s experienced in working with people going through similar experiences. Ask potential therapists about their training and experience to ensure that they’re knowledgeable in treating your issue(s).

What makes for a bad fit between therapist and client?

Sometimes a therapist isn’t “bad” at all, but still not a good fit for you. In general, it’s recommended that you see a therapist 3 or 4 times before deciding if they’re a good fit. That’s because it usually takes a few sessions to start building rapport in the therapeutic relationship. You might feel a little awkward during the first visit, but start to feel more comfortable as sessions continue.

If you still feel like it’s a bad fit after a few sessions, let the therapist know and look for another therapist.

Some signs your therapist isn’t a good fit for you (even though they may be a good therapist) include:

  • Their style of therapy isn’t what you’re looking for — for example, they may focus more on psychodynamic therapy while you’re searching for a therapist who uses behavioral therapy.
  • You’d prefer a therapist who shares your identity, including gender, racial, or sexual identity. 
  • You don’t feel like you can be yourself with your therapist, even after several sessions.
  • They don’t have experience treating what you’re dealing with.
  • You want a therapist who is older or younger.
  • You just don’t like your therapist.
  • Your therapist hasn’t been clear about treatment goals or isn’t sticking to them, and/or you feel like your sessions are moving in circles.
  • Your therapist’s availability doesn’t work with your schedule.
  • There are other logistical barriers to accessing treatment easily, like insurance networks, lack of telehealth options, or office locations.

Of course, if you struggle with anything from the list above, it may be a good idea to terminate the relationship sooner rather than later. If you feel unsatisfied, uncomfortable, or unsafe for any reason, you have no obligation to continue seeing that therapist.

How to leave a bad therapist

You have the right to leave any therapeutic relationship at any time, whether you’re working with a bad therapist or a good one. But when you have a bad therapist, you may be more nervous to leave the situation or hesitant to trust your gut. It could be even harder if they don’t take feedback well or you’re afraid they’ll become argumentative. It could also be because they’ve put you in a situation where there is an unhealthy power imbalance, and you feel afraid of retaliation.

It’s understandable for this to be scary, and how you want to go about it is up to you. Some people choose to “break up” with their therapist in a session. But there’s nothing wrong with leaving a voicemail or sending an email or text message. If your therapist has done something to make you feel unsafe or uncomfortable, canceling and never rescheduling your next appointment may be an option.

If there are issues within the therapeutic relationship that you think can be fixed — for example, if you’d like more homework assigned between sessions or if you’re worried that therapy isn’t productive enough — it may be helpful to talk to your therapist about it before “breaking up” with them. You may be able to make a plan together to address these issues.

If you’ve encountered a truly bad therapist who’s breaking ethical or legal rules, you should not only leave the therapist but consider reporting them to appropriate authorities, like the state licensing board or another therapist, if you feel safe and comfortable doing so. 

What are the signs of a good therapist?

On the other hand, what are the signs of a good therapist? Some things that define a good therapist are:

  • You feel safe with them.
  • They never judge you or make you feel small.
  • You feel that you have their full attention while you’re with them.
  • They respect the legal and ethical obligations of their position, including confidentiality.
  • They always respect your boundaries.
  • They have specific experience in treating the condition you have.
  • You feel validated when you talk to them about how you feel.
  • They challenge you, but they never pressure or force you.
  • You come out of sessions not always feeling “good,” but feeling like the session was productive.
  • They’re open to feedback and alternatives.
  • They affirm and celebrate all aspects of your identity.

How to find a good therapist

There are a few different ways you can find a good therapist, including:

  • Through word-of-mouth and recommendations from friends and family
  • Through your insurance plan
  • On online directories, like the Klairty platform, where all independent practitioners are vetted for active licensure and adherence to ethical and legal responsibilities

When looking for or first meeting with a potential therapist, ask them important questions like:

  • What are your areas of expertise?
  • Where were you trained in this expertise?
  • What methods of therapy do you use?
  • What’s your typical availability?
  • What type of licenses and certifications do you have?

These questions can help you determine whether a therapist is the right fit for you.

Find a therapist on Klarity and get the help you deserve

Wading through the sea of therapist profiles to find a good therapist can be exhausting. On the Klarity platform, you can find a tailored list of therapists or psychiatrists and have an appointment in as little as 48 business hours. All of the providers on Klarity are actively licensed and board-certified, and they can help you through a wide variety of mental health conditions.

You deserve a good therapist. Get started today to find a licensed mental health professional on Klarity for tailored mental health therapy.

 If you’re having a mental health crisis or experiencing a psychiatric emergency, it’s crucial to seek immediate help from a mental healthcare professional, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist. You can also call your local emergency services, visit your nearest emergency room, or contact a crisis hotline, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) in the U.S. 

The information provided here is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as a guarantee of service, legal, or medical advice. The content here is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified healthcare provider or lawyer with any questions you may have regarding a medical or legal issue. Klarity does not assume liability for any reliance on the information provided on our blog.

Medically Reviewed By Dr. Zoe Russell

Dr. Zoe Russell received a dual bachelor’s degree in biology and psychology from the University of Michigan-Dearborn, pursued a master’s degree in public health from Michigan State University, and received her doctorate in osteopathic medicine from Michigan State’s College of Osteopathic Medicine in 2021. Currently, Dr. Russell is completing her residency training in family medicine and hopes to specialize in female reproductive and mental health.

Author

Saya Des Marais

Saya Des Marais, MSW is a former therapist-turned mental health writer. Through her writing, she strives to make dense – but often life-saving – psychological research and information accessible to everyone who needs it. As a therapist, she worked with children, teens, and adults in a wide variety of settings, including in community mental health clinics, residential care facilities, and public school districts.

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