All licensed therapists have undergone extensive training to become the mental health pros they are today, but that doesn’t mean they can do no wrong. They’re fallible human beings like you and me, for one thing, and just because someone has the right credentials or an impressive educational background, that doesn’t necessarily indicate that they’re right for you. The counselor your bestie raves about may not be as insightful when it comes to your issues, for instance, and even the most qualified-on-paper psychologist can make you feel unheard or unsafe.
What’s more important than the letters after a therapist’s name is whether or not they’re a good fit, Lauren Cook, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of Generation Anxiety: A Millennial and Gen Z Guide to Staying Afloat in an Uncertain World, tells SELF. “There needs to be a sense of trust and openness, and the relationship between a therapist and their client is actually one of the most important aspects of effective treatment,” Dr. Cook says.
Of course, the ideal version of that relationship varies from person to person. Some of us simply want someone to lend a willing ear and offer up expert guidance as we vent our daily troubles. Others are looking for a provider who can help them process and heal from trauma, and make them feel safe enough to do so.
Regardless of your personal preferences and goals, though, there are some things you definitely don’t want in a therapist—universal red flags that any good mental health professional should never wave. The obvious ones include making sexual advances toward you or any form of abuse, but to the untrained eye, it’s not always easy to determine when an expert with a fancy degree is behaving badly.
That’s why we asked two pros to share some of the biggest no-nos to look out for—so you can recognize a therapist red flag when you see one.
They seem judgemental about your identity or issues.
This one probably seems like a duh. I mean, who would feel comfortable letting their emotional guard down with someone who minimizes their struggles, say, or is just a straight-up bigot? Signs of dismissive and discriminatory behavior aren’t always blatant, though.
It’s one (very not-okay) thing if your therapist uses derogatory language when you’re discussing your sexuality, say, or gender identity. But even less flagrant displays, like a subtle jab at your hygiene when you’ve told them you’re going through a rough time and are too unmotivated to do anything, or microaggressions, like reducing your experiences with racism or xenophobia to “no big deal,” can make you feel invalidated. Plus, it only becomes harder to open up when a person you’re supposed to trust seems to be constantly judging you, Adia Gooden, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist and host of the Unconditionally Worthy podcast, tells SELF
“You should feel as if you’re being heard and accepted for your identity, your background, your hardships—whatever they may be,” Dr. Gooden says. “So if you’re hesitating to be your authentic self or feel as though you have to perform or downplay what you’re dealing with, that can indicate you’re feeling judged, or like somebody is trying to change you instead of help you.” If that’s the case, your mental health is better off in another therapist’s hands.
They text or call you about personal stuff after hours.
It’s great—essential even—to feel comfortable and close with your therapist, but that doesn’t mean they should be your BFF. For starters, you really shouldn’t be texting about your (or their) personal life, or making plans together after hours, as fun as that sounds.