How to Tell If Your Therapist Is Really Helping You

Not sure if you're getting the most out of therapy? Here's how to recognize when it's time to move on

You decide to rebuild a room in your house, so you hire a professional, only to find out half way through construction he's terrible. It's a waste of time and money, right? Working with the wrong therapist is of kind of the same thing: If you're going to invest time, money and effort, you should be getting what you need.

Linda Edelstein, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, professor and author of What Do I Say? The Therapist's Guide to Answering Client Questions, says a good place to start is to establish some goals from the beginning, "I'm always in favor of knowing where you want to go. But I do not believe in stringent benchmarks. Therapy needs to include the adventure of discovery and that cannot happen with a rigid plan." Within your first few appointments, you and your therapist should outline how to recognize if you're making progress.

So what are some possible signs of growth? "You notice that you think, feel and act differently, and others notice the same," says Jeffrey Kottler, Ph.D., professor of counseling at California State University, Fullerton and author of On Being a Therapist. Adds Edelstein, "Your life might feel more manageable, you are more confident, you are moving forward, and you believe that you understand more about yourself and your life. If you are working behaviorally [trying to change a behavior], you ought to see some behavior changes."

Because therapy is a partnership between patient and therapist, a lack of progress is not one-sided. "Sometimes clients perform like trained seals, saying at the end of the session that it was amazing. But they continue the same behavior and are just good talkers in the session," says Kottler. If you're being honest and open during your sessions, but still not feeling like you're making any headway, then it's time to look at your therapist. Signs of a sub-par counselor include:

  • He or she doesn't listen
  • He or she talks more about him or herself than about you
  • Sessions are erratic (no set structure) or there aren't any boundaries (the therapist doesn't reign in constant tangents)

Also, says Kottler, "I try to push clients to ask themselves at the end of every session, 'Did I get my money's and time's worth?' and if not, then what we [therapists] need to do [is be] more responsive to your needs."

If any of this sounds familiar, the first step is to talk to your therapist. "People may not want to hurt the therapist's feelings or they think it's their fault," explains Kottler. "It's an amazing breakthrough when clients have the courage to say 'this isn't working,' rather than just cancel and not show up anymore." Edelstein recommends saying something to the effect of: "'I would like to talk about my therapy. I feel like we are struck and want to hear your take on it.' Or think about what would help you and say, 'I've been thinking about the type of help that I need from you and want to talk about it.'"

If nothing changes, then it's time to move on. "But remember to ask yourself honestly, 'How hard am I working on my problems?' No one else can change your life; we can only help you to do the work," says Edelstein.

"Just like other jobs, be it lawyers, writers and plumbers, there are bad therapists, good therapists and extraordinary therapists," says Kottler. "The client can help the therapist be the best for them by providing genuine feedback of what's working and what isn't. We all need different therapy based on who we are, our problems and background."

Once you've tried talking through and working with your therapist, if you still feel it's a bad fit, you can either ask for a referral or find someone new on your own. Always keep in mind that working with the right therapist is essential to making positive progress toward your goals.

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