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Have You Had a Negative Experience with Therapy?

Photo by Maria Teneva on Unsplash

Today I was reading a thread on Twitter on the subject of people who have been hurt or dropped by their therapists. As a therapist, I was horrified by what I was reading.

One of the most common themes in this thread was that people were suddenly being told by their therapists, “I can’t help you.” From my point of view, that’s only the first half of the statement. Why can’t you help? Is it because you lack the necessary skills or knowledge? That’s a legitimate reason. If I believe a person needs more expertise than I have, I will refer on. But that’s another key point: it sounds like a lot of therapists weren’t providing any help to find an appropriate replacement for themselves. I can’t speak for all the helping professions, but as a licensed professional counselor, I’m ethically obligated to provide several appropriate referrals rather than just shake your hand and wish you luck as I escort you out of my office. In addition to referring on because greater expertise is required, I think the therapist needs to share this with the client. Otherwise, as the Twitter thread showed quite clearly, the clients leave feeling and believing that THEY are the problem, that they are basically broken beyond all possibility of repair. And that is just not true. No one is broken beyond repair. They may simply have not found the person with enough knowledge, empathy, and patience to do the work.

Every profession has its bad apples and I’m really sorry if you’ve ever worked with one of those therapists. A significant percentage of my people have come to me after have a hurtful encounter with another therapist. I am angry each time I hear about how poorly they were treated. People seeking help deserve better. And I think it’s incredibly brave and shows great strength and a strong desire to heal when someone who has had a run-in with one of those therapists chooses to reach out and try again. So if this describes you, pat yourself on the back and be proud of yourself.

I want to be clear that no therapist is the right fit for every single possible client. Sometimes it’s just not a good fit between personalities or approaches. And we therapists are human. We make mistakes and we have bad days, too. We have sick children who kept us up all night and circumstances in our lives which cause us to be not at our best sometimes. But even so, I’m thinking of a bad session here or there; I don’t see an excuse for suddenly dropping people who have trusted us with their inner lives.

So I guess what I really want to say today is that people should not leave an encounter with a therapist feeling more broken than when they arrived. (I want to be careful to distinguish this from leaving a session with greater awareness of one’s challenges or the magnitude of the issues, etc., because this can feel upsetting and be painful). That’s one reason I ask all my people to answer 3 quick questions about every session. And my people will tell you that if they indicate anything below an 8 out of 10, I’m going to be asking about how I could have done better or what I missed or how I could make it right. I want to make sure that before you leave my office, you and I have at least acknowledged it if something didn’t go well, even if we can’t do a full discussion until next time. (And believe me, that’s what I’ll start with the next time, too, if necessary.) Recently, for example, I had a couple’s session where one half of the couple felt like I was being less fair to one than the other. I asked if my impression of this was correct (it was) and then I apologized for that and said I would do better. And our next session was absolutely better on all our parts. Asking for this feedback is sometimes scary and I feel vulnerable. But the results are worth it. And, to be honest, it seems pretty fair that I have some vulnerability in the relationship, too.

If you’ve had a bad experience with a therapist, I urge you to try again with someone else. I know skilled, caring therapists are out there because I know a lot of them. If you are considering working with me, I invite you to call me to arrange a free 30-minute consultation so you can get a feel for what it’s like to work with me. I know it can be hard to share the details of your story and this way you know you are comfortable with me before you do.

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