A skilled therapist who gets you can transform your life, but sadly, we’re not taught how to recognize when a therapist isn’t the right fit for us. And because highly sensitive people like you and me process things deeply, working with the wrong therapist can leave us more emotionally wounded than when we first walked into their office. While some people can easily move on from a bad therapy experience, HSPs may ruminate and blame themselves over why things didn’t work out.
Of course, you would assume that all therapists are open-minded, unbiased, and empathetic experts. Just like any profession, there are competent therapists and therapists who are ineffective. This article isn’t intended to bash the entire counseling profession or discourage you from seeking help. In fact, many HSPs report that therapy is a life-changing and healing experience for them.
There are a lot of well-intentioned therapists who genuinely help clients overcome their struggles. But not all therapists are the right fit for an HSP. Read on to see what red flags to watch out for.
Signs Your Therapist Isn’t Right for You
1. Your therapist judges you on multiple occasions.
You might think that being shamed is just a normal part of therapy. No matter what you say in your sessions, good therapists are supposed to be non-judgmental. It doesn’t matter how many mistakes you’ve made or how many bad experiences you’ve had. A therapist should never judge you.
It’s your right to have a therapist who treats you with warmth and empathy. Your therapist may challenge you at times, but they can still communicate with tact.
Words matter in the counseling relationship. A therapist being insensitive and patronizing can undermine a client’s progress. Even if someone has good intentions, the negative impact behind the words can worsen an HSP trying to affirm their self-worth.
2. Your therapist has poor boundaries.
Your therapist is responsible for maintaining professional boundaries to help you feel emotionally safe. A therapist isn’t meant to act like a friend or a romantic partner — and especially not a micromanaging parent.
Examples of poor boundaries from a therapist are:
- Dominating your session by talking about their personal problems or accomplishments — and then you’re the one who has to give them advice!
- Pushing you to talk about things that you’re not ready to talk about, such as your sex life or the details of past trauma
- Gossiping about other clients to you
- Inviting you to hang out at their house
- Telling you that they “love you” — or other strong, inappropriate words of personal affection
If you’re uneasy in therapy, don’t second guess your perceptions. HSPs read others well and generally have strong, accurate intuition — especially when it comes to people. Clients have told me, “I knew something was off, but I thought that the therapist knew better than I did.”
3. You feel obligated to stay loyal to your therapist, even when you have your doubts.
Here’s where some people will object. They’ll ask, “If your therapist wasn’t good, why did you keep going to them? Why didn’t you stop and find someone else?” That’s not an easy question to answer, but the power dynamic between an authority figure and a client can leave someone not knowing when to end a therapeutic relationship.
If you people-please and find conflict exhausting (many HSPs do), you may worry about hurting your therapist’s feelings. You may overthink your instincts telling you, “I should give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe I shouldn’t be so judgmental.” Some clients feel pressured by their therapist to stay in treatment. Other clients cling to a therapist because they feel like they have nobody else to turn too.
The bottom line: you’re not responsible for how your therapists feels. Most therapists know that they’re not going to be a great fit for every client that walks into their office. You aren’t obligated to keep paying a professional that you don’t want to see anymore.
4. Your therapist doesn’t REALLY listen to you.
Therapists are trained to be present with you. They’re trained to offer their undivided attention. If someone doesn’t pay attention to what you tell them, how are they going to help you find solutions that actually work?
Good therapists not only listen to what you’re saying, but they also read between the lines of what you’re not saying. Therapists who don’t listen jump the gun by making assumptions about you that are usually wrong. They may miss important details and nuances about your life. They lecture you, as if they know you better than you know yourself. This leads to clients feeling misunderstood and not being seen for who they are.
Acknowledging what a client says helps a therapist offer new insights. If your therapist frequently says things that doesn’t resonate with you, there’s a chance that they were NOT fully listening. It can be exhausting to correct and defend yourself to someone who’s not listening. Listening is a mission-critical skill for a therapist to have.
5. You sense that your therapist is inauthentic.
When therapists model authenticity to their clients, clients find it easier to discover their own true and best self. Since many highly sensitive clients have been abused, mistreated, and lied to, it’s completely fair to want an honest and reliable therapist. When your therapist has a “I know it all and am never wrong” attitude, of course you would struggle to fully trust them. A therapist who’s willing to be themselves and admit their mistakes can be healing — especially for HSPs, who tend to crave authenticity.
HSPs go through life reading people like open diaries. Your intuition is finely tuned to a therapist’s eye contact, body language, tone of voice, and their vibes. Don’t ignore what you’re picking up about your therapist. If you suspect they’re being inauthentic, you’re probably right.
Colleagues have told me, “If a client has more than two therapists, that’s a red flag,” or “Maybe the client isn’t doing the work.” I couldn’t disagree more. Not getting positive results in therapy isn’t always the client’s fault. Like dating, it may take checking out several therapists before you find the one who suits you.
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Success in therapy significantly depends on how well you and your therapist connect with each other. As an HSP, you’ve probably been misunderstood for most of your life — so you shouldn’t waste money and energy on a therapist who re-traumatizes you. If you’ve had some bad experiences in therapy, take heart: If you’re aware of what a bad therapist looks like, you can use this knowledge to find a therapist who can offer you the same level of compassion that you naturally give to others.
Are you looking for an HSP-knowledgeable therapist? Dr. Elaine Aron has a comprehensive guide, by state and country, here.