Finding a therapist who’s available and affordable can feel like such an accomplishment that, once it finally happens, calling it quits might seem like a waste of time and effort.
But research consistently shows it’s essential to have a good relationship with your therapist if you want to see results. And like any partnership, not every match will be the right one. That’s why mental-health professionals suggest paying attention to warning signs that your therapist isn’t a good fit—and then speaking up instead of sticking it out.
“You’re going to be in a vulnerable position and sharing things with this person,” says Traci Williams, a clinical psychologist in Atlanta. “The nature of the relationship requires you to feel safe and secure.”
Sometimes when an issue arises, you and your therapist will be able to work out a resolution, and the situation will improve. But it’s also okay to walk away, Williams says. You can approach your exit a few different ways: If you don’t feel comfortable discussing why you’re terminating the relationship in person, you could notify your therapist via e-mail that you won’t be returning. If you feel up to it, “it’s helpful to have a debrief about what happened,” she says. Doing so can be valuable for the therapist, and practitioners are often happy to offer referrals to providers who might be a better fit.
Here, mental-health experts describe seven red flags that your therapist might not be right for you.
1. They dismiss your reality of racism, sexism, ableism, fatphobia, or homophobia.
Your time and energy at therapy “should not be spent proving your experience is valid,” says Kate O’Brien, a licensed therapist in New York. She offers this example: Imagine a Black person tells their therapist they felt like they were being closely monitored in a store—which could indicate racism—and the therapist responds: “Oh, I’m sure that person didn’t mean it that way.”
If your therapist brushes off your experiences in such a way, defends the offender, or shifts into victim-blaming mode, it’s time to move on, O’Brien says. You’re not obligated to provide any explanation—“educating other people isn’t your job.” But if you do, it could prompt the therapist to engage in some overdue self-reflection, she adds.
2. Your therapist doesn’t have the relevant skills.
Depending on why you’re seeking therapy, it might be helpful to work with someone who has specific training, experience, and expertise. Williams recalls a recent TikTok video in which a woman explained that she has complex post-traumatic stress disorder, often abbreviated to c-PTSD. After reviewing the woman’s paperwork, a potential new therapist said, “They put a ‘C’ before your PTSD diagnosis. I’ve never heard of that—it must be wrong.” Clearly, the two weren’t a fit.
There’s sometimes a misconception that therapists are generalists, like primary-care physicians, says Sarah Rollins, a therapist in Michigan. And while it’s true that most practitioners can treat mild depression, anxiety, or stress, she notes, some conditions and symptoms require more specialized training. Forgoing that “is actually a disservice to you as a client, because now you’re going to be in therapy longer, and you’re going to get frustrated because you’re not getting better,” she says. You can seek out a therapist with relevant skills by applying specific filters in online directories, like the one run by Good Therapy. Most therapists also note their specialities on their website.
3. The focus isn’t on you and your needs.
It’s not self-centered to expect sessions to focus on your own feelings and experiences, Rollins says. “A therapist’s job is to support you, listen, and provide tools to help you heal.”
But she hears about the opposite—therapists who only talk about themselves, their marriages, their financial stresses—more than you might expect. “It happens all the time,” she says. “It’s one of my biggest pet peeves.”
If it’s one of yours, too, Rollins suggests broaching the subject like this: “Would it be OK if we focused more on me, rather than what’s going on in your life?”
4. They push their own agenda.
Suppose you tell your therapist that you’ve decided to cut ties with your toxic family, and he or she immediately squashes the idea and says that’s the wrong move. Take it as a sign that it may be time to seek care elsewhere. As Rollins points out, a therapist’s job isn’t to dispense advice—that’s one of the things that distinguishes them from life coaches. “A therapist is supposed to help you determine what’s best for you,” she says. “You bring everything to the table, and they don’t say, ‘Well, based on what you said, I think it’s best that you break up with your partner.’” Keep this tenet in mind: A good therapist will provide you with the tools to figure out a path forward, rather than unilaterally telling you what to do.
5. You don’t feel like you’re making progress.
Instant results aren’t realistic—therapy doesn’t work overnight. As Rollins puts it, you wouldn’t expect to get six-pack abs from one or two stops at the gym.
That said, if you don’t feel like you’re making progress after a few months, talk to your therapist about what might be getting in the way. Ask them about their expectations and goals, and make sure you’re in alignment. Stalled progress “could mean that the therapist isn’t right for you, or that there are other stressors getting in the way,” Rollins says, which is why it’s important to discuss.
6. Your therapist always cancels—or is chronically late.
Sessions will inevitably need to be canceled or rescheduled at some point along the way. But if your therapist is consistently a no-show, it could interfere with your treatment, Rollins says.
Address the situation by letting your therapist know you were hoping to meet weekly, or at some other agreed upon frequency. Then say, “I’m noticing that isn’t happening. Is there a way we can get more consistent appointments?” Rollins suggests. That will likely be more productive than explicitly calling them out on canceling, which could make them feel defensive.
Similarly, if your therapist is always running late, bring it up and see if the situation improves. Mention that for the last three sessions, you arrived 15 minutes before they did, and since you value your time, you hope they’ll do the same.
7. He or she crosses a line.
Ethical violations are unacceptable. That includes a therapist asking to see you outside a session, texting you frequently and casually from their personal phone number, touching you, and making comments about your body or appearance, Williams says.
“If your therapist is starting to feel more familiar to you than a professional relationship, there’s probably something going on there,” she adds. “Those things happen more commonly than people know,” and may require filing a formal complaint.
Violating confidentiality is also unethical. As O’Brien points out, therapists working with adults are required to keep sessions confidential, unless the client could be an immediate danger to themself or others. “You should feel comfortable that your therapist isn’t sharing with other people,” she says. “And if they are, that’s a huge red flag.”
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