October 17, 2019

Can Therapy Hurt You – and How Can You Tell It’s Not Working?

The short answer from a psychologist

Illustration of a man and woman in a therapy session

Psychotherapy is powerful. A good therapist, like a good coach, can safely guide you through the uncomfortable process of change. But some therapists make mistakes, and some mistakes are more harmful than others.

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For example, if you feel misjudged, unduly criticized or humiliated in therapy ― which are some of the things that prompt people to seek help in the first place ― that’s not good, and you’ll need to find another therapist.

Even more serious is when the therapist crosses boundaries ― starts a physical or romantic relationship, or treats you like a friend rather than a client. That is always harmful because the therapist has too much power in the relationship. Crossing such boundaries is unethical, immoral and illegal, yet it can and does happen.

Sometimes therapy isn’t hurtful, but it also isn’t helpful. For example, if you leave therapy feeling better for a few days but are not developing new attitudes, skills or strategies for change, that’s nice support, but it’s not psychotherapy. It won’t help you find more effective and flexible strategies to face the problems of living.

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Therapy will also lead to frustration when you don’t feel a good connection with your therapist or you’re not working toward shared goals. In these cases, it’s OK to say, “This isn’t working for me. Can you help me find another therapist?” All good therapists understand that it’s a matter of finding the right fit. Even gifted therapists don’t work wonderfully with everyone.

Finding the right therapist may take some time. Sometimes you hit pay dirt immediately ― but sometimes you may have to take a couple of therapists for a test drive.

― psychologist Scott Bea, PsyD

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