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Red Flags a Therapist Isn’t Right for You

How can you check the vibe with your therapist to ensure your growth goals are being met? Psychologist Dr. Jamie Hagenbaugh weighs in.

When looking for a therapist, it’s often because you’re going through a hard time, and finding a therapist who is the right fit for you can add even more stress.

We spoke with psychologist Dr. Jamie Hagenbaugh, to provide insights about how to pick the appropriate therapist to address your specific needs.

Set a Goal

To find the right therapist, it’s important to have something you want to work on. “Plan a goal for what you want to talk to them about and look for a provider who can address that need,” says Dr. Hagenbaugh. “For example, if you’re looking for help with a phobia, you’ll want a behavioral therapist. If you’re looking to manage emotions, many can support that, but if it’s more specific, a dialectical, or cognitive behavioral therapist, may be the right fit.”

If your goal is more vague, like overcoming depressed feelings,  your provider can help you by building smaller, more measurable goals. To reach this goal as an example, Dr. Hagenbaugh says your provider could start with having you envision what not feeling depressed would be like. That might mean having the energy to get out of bed five days out of the week at a certain time. That allows for a specific goal to work towards. Dr. Hagenbaugh suggests asking your therapist what they imagine working towards your goal looks like, what they will focus on and if they feel confident, they can help you.

[Editor’s note: for more information on what to expect from the first session with a therapist, read our article here.]

Red Flags That It May Not Be a Good Fit

Availability: Access is the most important part of starting a relationship with a mental health provider. Do you need to see them a few times a week? A few times a month? Establishing a consistent cadence with a provider, based on your needs, is important. A provider recommendation that someone gives you may result in having a therapist who can speak to your goals, but it won’t work out if they don’t have the time to support you.

Feeling Uncomfortable: Recognize your discomfort. “If you’re uncomfortable talking to someone, for example, because they are a white man, that’s a good sign to look for someone else,” suggests Dr. Hagenbaugh. Think about the type of person you are most comfortable speaking with. Maybe you would prefer someone who’s the same gender, culture or is a member of the LGBTQ+ community.

[Editor’s Note: For more information on finding a culturally competent therapist, read our article here.]

“The goal of therapy is to be as open and vulnerable as possible, and if you can’t do that based on the gender or sexuality of the person you’re speaking with, that’s okay,” reminds Dr. Hagenbaugh. Alternatively, you may be meeting with many therapists like you and not getting what you need. This could mean that you need to challenge yourself to meet with someone from a different background. It could be very beneficial.

Your sessions should involve working towards your goal. “Sometimes, if we don’t have a goal, we can get lost in what we are doing,” says Dr. Hagenbaugh. “It’s easy to come up with the problem of the week, and we can manage it, and sometimes that fits our goal. But if we are just managing the problem of the week, we might not be working on the thing that’s really bothering us at the time.”

If the provider offers advice, you reject or suggests tips you aren’t following through with, communicate that these things won’t work for you. If they aren’t giving you advice that you feel you can work with, Dr. Hagenbaugh suggests that it could be a red flag that they aren’t the right fit.

It is one of the biggest red flags to feel like you are telling them enough, but you don’t feel comfortable sharing everything. The point of coming to a therapist is to work with them because of their expertise. You, as the patient, are the expert in the room. You know yourself better than anyone. So, you understand what you are comfortable doing to solve your issues. – Dr. Hagenbaugh

Suppose you are feeling shame, the need to sugarcoat your thoughts or feelings, or feeling like you cannot safely open up about your inner thoughts. In that case, this is a sign that you should continue looking for a different provider, recommends Dr. Hagenbaugh. If there’s something that you’re holding back that’s a big piece of who you are as an individual, you should be comfortable sharing that. Or, if you feel the space isn’t confidential, it isn’t the right fit for you.

How You Should Feel

“First and foremost, you should feel understood and heard. You want to feel like they’re listening, checking in with you, and asking you to elaborate,” says Dr. Hagenbaugh. They should be supporting you while you’re speaking, asking questions, and validating your feelings without making you feel ashamed.

If you are leaving your sessions feeling like you don’t want to go back or feeling worse, this could be an issue, explains Dr. Hagenbaugh. Leaving a session and feeling upset over the things you worked through is normal.

Sometimes you may leave therapy and need to adjust your makeup from crying, but if the days between sessions you stay upset, you should talk to your provider about how it affected you so that they can walk you through how to adjust your care. “It’s on the provider to know that if they open Pandora’s box, they can close it enough to make sure that this person feels okay to handle the rest of their day,” he says. “We don’t want people leaving therapy and not being able to function for the week until they return. Feeling the need to cry or take a deep breath to collect yourself after is normal, and it’s a good indicator that you’re working and allowing the tidal wave of emotions to go through you without being dangerously overwhelming.”

Dr. Hagenbaugh says that the most important thing to remember is that you aren’t locked into a provider because you saw them once. Meeting with them once doesn’t mean that you need to meet with them forever, but also, don’t let one bad experience make you give up. Meeting with them once also doesn’t mean you owe them access to your deepest, darkest feelings. They need to earn that as a therapist. It may take a few tries to find the right fit for you, but if there’s an issue that you’re struggling with, make sure that you’re putting forth the effort for yourself to get what you need out of it.

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