10 Warning Signs of Bad Therapy: The Biggest Red Flags

There are some great therapists out there. There are also some bad ones – I’m sorry to say. Anyone who has read any of my recent posts will know that I had the misfortune of meeting a therapist who turned out to be abusive.

In my last post, Setting Boundaries, I mentioned the difference between boundary crossings (which can often by addressed and dealt with in therapy and can even be helpful talking points), versus boundary violations (things that therapists simply should not do).

A quick reminder:

Now I’m going to list ten boundary violations that are absolute red flags in psychotherapy. If you notice any of the below signs of bad therapy, it’s important that you seek further advice and support as soon as possible. And it might also be a good idea to find a new therapist.

  1. My therapist wants to have a sexual or romantic relationship with me inside or outside the consulting room. 

This is never okay! Sexual boundary crossings are a purely selfish act and abuse of power on the part of the therapist. Unfortunately these instances do occur, because clients are made to feel special by their therapist. They may crave an extension of the love and safety experienced when in the therapist’s room (who wouldn’t) and they are often happy to go along with it – until it devastates them physically and emotionally further on down the line.

Therapists often asks clients to keep quiet about this, by saying things like: “if this gets out it will ruin me and/or my family.” Famous words from my own ex-therapist about our communication outside of sessions: “I’m taking a risk and you could make a fool out of me.” This is an example of pushing the guilt back towards the client, who is vulnerable and has done nothing wrong.

2. My counsellor says says he/she would like to have an affair with me when treatment is over.

Most therapists will agree that post-termination affairs are an absolute no-no. As in the scenario above, the power difference is and always will be present, which is highly damaging to the client even when carefully handled. A therapist who makes this suggestion during treatment is already undermining their work and is likely to be encouraging the client to ‘feel better’ (whether intentional or not) so that they can change the nature of the relationship.

There are rules in some countries about therapists waiting a certain time period (eg two years) before starting a relationship with a client. However even in this instance, I’ve heard of people marrying their therapists and it still ending in disaster. I’m sure there are very rare cases where it does work out – but probably isn’t worth the risk.

3. My therapist told me that I was his/her favourite client.

There should be absolutely no favouritism. Or talking about other clients. Highlighting your positive traits and encouraging you is a good thing – but suggesting you are in some way ‘special’ in comparison to other patients could be a sign of grooming.

4. My counsellor talks excessively about personal issues without any therapeutic purpose

Providing examples from the therapist’s own life is not a bad thing, if used minimally and in order to benefit the client or establish better rapport. Everything a therapist discloses about themselves, they should be doing with the knowledge that it is beneficial to the patient’s needs. If the session becomes about the therapist and their problems rather than the client, or if roles become reversed, it’s time to cut and run!

5. My therapist tries to enlist my help with something not related to my therapy

This is just one example of dual relationships and also could be seen as an abuse of power. Business relationships, friendships, etc – they are all forbidden. Some exceptions may be made in very small communities where the therapist has an unavoidable link to the client, but this should be discussed openly in sessions and the boundaries made clear.

6. My counsellor encourages dependency by allowing me to get my emotional needs met by them

This is where the therapist “feeds you fish, rather than helping you to fish for yourself.” If a therapist makes a client believe that they are the only person able to provide the support and encouragement they need, this could be fostering a dependency. Therapists should be helping to provide the tools for independence and growth. (In my experience, some attachment to the therapist is needed in order to heal, but this is very different to fostering dependency.)

7. My therapist has told me that I should break ties with most of my important relationships and I don’t understand why

A healthy relationship is one where the clinician is encouraging of positive relationships and connections outside of the their office.

8. My counsellor answers the phone during my session

This one requires little explanation. It’s a terrible and ignorant thing to do. Perhaps there are some incredibly rare circumstances (eg emergencies) where this might be acceptable.

9. My therapist pushes me into highly vulnerable feelings or memories against my wishes

Therapy should be at the pace of the client. There should never be any pressure to explore difficult feelings or memories.

10. My counsellor keeps changing the length of my sessions. Sometimes it’s 20 minutes, other times it’s an hour and a half

Therapy should start on time and finish on time. Of course, there may be occasional exceptions where the therapist is unavoidably late (as is life), but this should be rare. An important part of boundary setting and making the client feel safe, is a predictable session length.

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If you are interested in this post, feel free to subscribe to my blog for further upcoming posts on the more ‘subtle’ warning signs of questionable therapy.

Have you experienced poor therapeutic practices? Feel free to post a comment in the box below. (If accessing by WordPress Reader the box might not show up, but you can find it on the direct link here.)

 

 

10 thoughts on “10 Warning Signs of Bad Therapy: The Biggest Red Flags”

  1. Thanks for sharing this. People seek therapy often when they’re at their most vulnerable. It’s important that we know how to to protect ourselves because of this. It’s a subject that needs much more exposure and It gives me hope to see someone writing about it in a comprehensive and accessible manner.

  2. Having had problems with previous therapists not providing a secure base, plus abuse in a vaguely client-therapist like situation (too complicated to explain here), I am very aware of all the things my current therapist does to maintain boundaries and make me feel safe. It is the reason I keep coming back despite relationship ruptures, trying several other therapists with different approaches and a longish period when I didn’t need therapy.

    1. I’m sorry to hear that you have experienced poor therapy. It’s great that you are able to recognise the good work your current therapist does and that you feel safe. It’s so important.

  3. I recently terminated with a therapist who I don’t think was malicious at all, but who I don’t think had great boundaries. The first issue I had was that this therapist was using deep breathing exercises while we were in session. At first, I thought maybe this was a non-verbal cue to get me to breathe when I was getting intense or animated, since that is when this person would engage in this behavior. Finally after a couple of sessions, I questioned my therapist because it felt manipulative (have a history of manipulation in my family) and I just asked to be told to breathe. Then my therapist told me it was just something this person did without thinking on autopilot. They told me that other therapists who have sat in on their sessions have noted them doing it and commented on it when [my therapist] seemed a bit anxious.

    So that was the first message that I stressed out my therapist.

    Then we had other conversations that involved therapist telling me that I took a lot of energy, and that I was a lot of work.

    By the time this therapist violated my trust (despite a release being signed so it was legal but not ethical) and then told me that I would be better off with a “more experienced psychologist who could better handle my issues,” I was a wreck and done.

    This therapist (I withheld pronouns for this person’s ultimate privacy), should have never told me that they were feeling overwhelmed. That is for supervision. It left me feeling ashamed and like I was broken beyond repair. As I said, it was never malicious or ill-intended on the part of this therapist. Just a lot of bumbling around and making poor choices.

    Thank you for sharing this.

    1. Thank you for sharing this. It sounds awful! You should never be made to feel like a burden on your therapist in any way – in fact it should be the opposite, a feeling that your therapist can handle anything you choose to share, no matter how mild or intense.
      Sometimes therapists say or do things that aren’t intended to be malicious but still damage the faith and trust of their patients. They’re definitely only human and mistakes do happen, but it sounds like what you experienced was just clumsy and tactless. Sorry to hear you went through this.

      1. Thanks. It was clumsy I think. I think she is well-meaning, but was obviously overwhelmed by my case. Clearly not my problem though and one she should have taken to supervision.

    1. Thank you for your comment. It’s great to hear you’ve had good therapists – just how it should be! Therapists who are deliberately harmful are very rare but you are right – people remain quiet about it. I did at first, for several months.

  4. I had a therapist a long time ago who I realized years after I’d stopped seeing him, that he’d made subtle indications that he had more interest in me than as just a client.

    More recently I had a therapist who would answer the phone and I hadn’t known it was a boundary violation. But it did annoy me and I would think, “how is it ok for you to answer the phone while you’re in session with me?” But I never said it out loud to him. Good to think about my present therapist now who has not answered the phone as of yet.

    Good topic since so many people who seek therapy really don’t know what’s acceptable and what’s not because of what they’ve been around. I now know of so many boundary violations in my own life prior to any therapy after finding out that my feelings that something wasn’t right wasn’t me just being overly sensitive.

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