You decided that you were going to do it. You were going to go out on a limb and try this therapy thing that everyone has been saying is so great. It might be a little strange during the first session with your therapist taking an active lead and asking what seem like random questions. But this is normal, right? Well, mostly, yes.
But what if it wasn’t? How would you know that your session was bad?
It might be shocking to read (and hard to admit), but there are some therapists that won’t be a good fit for you or the right counselor for what you need. There might even be some therapist who you think do “bad therapy!”
(*cue the audience’s gasps of outrage and terror*)
What exactly is “bad therapy”?
In order to know what to do about bad therapy, you must first recognize what it is. Realizing that you’re having bad therapy can be obvious, as in your counselor tells you what you should or should not do; or it can be as subtle, as in you continuously leaving the office feeling kind of icky and like you were judged. Occasionally leaving worse than when you came is sort of standard (i.e. some sessions are hard and leave you with more questions), but you should never feel judged by your therapist and you should not consistently be leaving feeling worse.
Recognizing that you’re not getting the most out of your session might be a horrible feeling. We know how hard it was to seek help and that it can be humiliating and defeating to get your hopes up for some good therapy and then have it turn out poorly.
How else might you recognize “bad therapy,” you ask? Easy. Here are some ways to recognize if you’re having bad therapy.
1. Your therapist told you how you should feel about your situation. You are in control of how you feel. Your therapist shouldn’t tell you how to feel about a situation. Instead, they should ask you to go “deeper” in that emotion. In other words, allow you to have that emotion and explore why it’s there. If your therapist is telling you how to feel, then you may be experiencing bad therapy.
Therapist: “No, you shouldn’t feel bad! You tried your best/you were right/maybe they didn’t mean what they said?” <- WRONG
2. You may be having bad therapy if your therapist is not listening to what you have to say. This may look like your therapist interrupting you when you speak, or it may take the form of the therapist being totally off base over and over. Not feeling heard is a terrible feeling and therapists are trained to be good listeners. Also, you may not be feeling heard if you are leaving session feeling like you were misunderstood, frustrated, or shamed.
You: Talking about your dog suddenly dying in the past week.
Therapist: “Well, at least you have a cat, still!” Or, “I’m sure your dog wouldn’t want you to be upset. Why don’t we go back to talking about why you came in for counseling in the first place?”
You came into therapy (hopefully) to explore your life and become a better you. I don’t know about you, but I would not be able to focus on myself if I just lost my cat or dog. Instead, your therapist should let you explore why you’re sad and how much your pet means to you.
3. You may be having bad therapy if your therapist is telling you what you should do. Giving advice is not your therapist’s job. Their job is to listen, build a relationship with you, help you understand yourself and your situation enough so that you can figure out the perfect decision (or options) for you, and then support you in deciding what do to. As we have said before, your therapist is not your friend who says whatever they feel like.
Therapist: “You should just break up with him. He sounds like a douchebag.” #IfIHadEightEyesTheyWouldAllBeRolling
4. You leave more often than not thinking to yourself, “What did I get out of this?” If you feel like you get nowhere in your sessions, you may be having a case of bad therapitis. Now, you may not feel like you have made enormous amounts of progress in every session, but you shouldn’t feel like you wasted your time on a consistent basis. Your time in therapy should be reflective and thought provoking (more often than not).
Therapist: “We really covered a lot of ground, Stanley the Manley! Same time next week, chump – I mean, champ?!”
You: “Uh, sure.” (thinking in your head: “What ground did we cover?!”)
5. You feel really distant and disconnected from your therapist after more than a handful of sessions. If you’ve been seeing your therapist for a month or so and you still don’t feel connected to your therapist, you’re probably having bad therapy. Again, therapists are trained to build rapport. Sometimes, we’re just not the right fit (and now I bet you’re wondering how to tell if a therapist is a good fit), but other times, if you feel uncomfortable, distant, or disconnected, you might be having bad therapy.
When do these situations happen?
Keep in mind that any of these situations can happen at any point of the therapy process. But if any of these situations are happening to you consistently, we’re sorry. That really stinks. We love good therapy and do our best to make sure that we’re doing the best we can, but we also recognize that some counselor-client fits are better than others.
What do I do when it does go bad?
Therapy can be the most enlightening and empowering experience you’ve ever known, but it can also be a flop. Before you completely give up hope on your therapist, there are some things you can do to try and improve the relationship without quitting cold turkey (although there are times when quitting cold turkey is the right move).
It might be helpful to set aside some time to think about what went wrong. Reflect on questions or feelings you had during and after the session. Were you not feeling heard? Was your therapist not interesting? Did they remind you of someone you didn’t like? Were they too pushy? Many things can lead to an unpleasant experience, unfortunately. It’s important to understand why you didn’t have a good experience. If you understand what went wrong, then maybe you and your therapist can do something to fix it.
If you are new to therapy (or returning from taking a break) then you may have many questions. It may feel like the way your therapist interacts with you is indifferent or strange. It maybe helpful to ask questions about the therapy process. Clarifying what is happening and the purpose may make the process feel less anxiety provoking and strange. It may normalize your experience and realign your expectations. Some questions could include what is the purpose of your (therapist) questions? Why are we not talking about what I want to talk about in the intake? Is it wrong to joke during session?
Give it some time
Give therapy three sessions (at least) before you make a decision to stop or continue. Therapy’s foundation is built upon a relationship. Although the therapeutic relationship is unlike any other relationship, there is one common thing between the therapeutic relationship and all others: time for the relationship to develop. Allowing your therapist time to get to know you will also allow the relationship to deepen. Maybe the feeling of dissatisfaction is because your and your therapist have not had enough time to get to know each other. Also, therapy is not an over-night process. Sometimes we want things fixed right away (I mean all the time!) but it may take a while for you to see or feel the results. Hang with it, it will work.
Allow for mistakes
Your therapist attempts to understand you and your whole life in a matter of an hour each time you see them. There are bound to be misunderstandings and mistakes. Therapists are human and make mistakes too. If your therapist makes a mistake, give them the chance to apologize. If they are unaware of a mistake they made, then you may have to let them know. Mistakes occur in all relationships including the therapeutic one. When you clarify the mistake, this allows your therapist to know you want to keep working! It also gives you the chance to feel better about working with your therapist.
Negotiate the relationship
Sometimes therapy is not what you expected. When you enter therapy it’s for you- not what the therapist wants. If your therapist is not structuring the therapy sessions the way that feels most beneficial, you may want to negotiate how to spend the time. For instance, if your therapist spends a lot of time talking about how you felt as a child and you think that the here-and-now is more important. You may need to tell them that your childhood experiences don’t feel so important and you would like to spend the time talking about what is happening right now. Again, the therapy is for you. You are putting in the hard work and no one knows you better than you.
Talk to your therapist.
One common factor in all these hints is that you have to talk to your therapist. Talking to your therapist sounds obvious, right? But it can be very uncomfortable to say that you are not happy with their service. Therapy is supposed to be a time where you can be completely open and honest with yourself. It’s hard to be open and honest if you are uncomfortable with the other person in the room. There may be many barriers as to why you don’t want to talk to your therapist about your bad experience. Maybe you want them to like you. Maybe you are worried they will be angry at you. Perhaps you think that they should already know. You may not even be able to say what it is that is dissatisfying about the encounters. Whatever it is, you need to communicate that with your therapist. The reality is, although your therapist may feel like a mind-reader at times, they can’t read your mind. If your therapist is unaware that you’re not getting the most of your session, they can’t help you fix it. Tell your therapist that you need to check in with them to let them know how therapy is going.
Time to find something different
If you have taken these steps and you are still not feelin’ it, it may be time to find something different. Ask your therapist for a referral. Different clinicians are trained differently. Not only are different clinicians trained differently, there are hundreds of different theoretical orientations clinicians can choose to operate from. It is good to keep in mind that just because one therapist does therapy one way doesn’t mean that all therapy will be the same. What is important for you to do when trying to work with someone else is tell your new therapist what you did and didn’t like about your last therapist. This will let your new therapist know how they can best help you.
In summary, there are many things you can do if your therapy sessions are not going how you’d hoped. Spending time reflecting and talking to your therapist are going to be the most helpful. As in any relationship, time and forgiveness of mistakes are needed in order to build a solid foundation. If you and your therapist have tried these suggestions, then maybe it’s time to consider terminating the sessions. But don’t stop there! Ask your therapist for referrals. Not all therapy will look or sound the same. You are worth continuing your road to self-healing.
about the author
Molly Lyons- Intern
Molly is currently in her final year of the Master of Science in Clinical Counseling at Central Methodist University (CMU) and is a student intern at The Counseling Hub and Boone County Mental Health Coalition, where she will assess and provide mental health interventions and resources for individuals and groups in Boone County schools. She obtained her Bachelor of Science in General Psychology with a minor in Child Development from Central Methodist University directly before enrolling in the counseling program. Prior to pursuing her counseling degree, Molly received an Associates of Science in Early Childhood Education from Moberly Area Community College.
Molly has experience in the Counseling Center at MACC's Columbia campus, providing counseling services for students around the topics of identity crises, school-related stressors, depression issues, and coping with anxiety. Molly has co-facilitated Safe Zone trainings which introduce its members to the LGBTQ+ community terminology and basic information. Molly has also completed on online course in LGBTQ+ Counseling Competencies (College and Career Readiness) through the American Counseling Association (ACA). Molly is an active member of both the ACA and the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development (AMCD).
Molly enjoys working with diverse populations and seeks to always be open to new learning experiences. She works best with individuals who are trying to discover who they are and how they relate to their world, as well as others in their world. Molly believes that a person’s external factors can provide both barriers and resources towards growth and that one must discover these in order to thrive.