(2 minute read)

You may have seen social media posts or articles about therapy red flags (and green flags) for clients of therapists. People give examples of ‘red flags’ to say: these are the signs of a bad therapist. By contrast, ‘green flags’ are the signs of a good one. It’s an eye-catching and relatable way of discussing what to look for in a therapist.

However, as with many things, therapy is a bit more complicated than a simple bad/good sorting system can handle. Sadly, it’s true there are some unprofessional and ineffective practitioners around – but they are outnumbered by lots of highly-trained and professional ones. After a basic check of their credentials, it’s more about whether they feel like a good therapist for you and for what you want to work on. One approach, and even one individual therapist, can be ideal for one person, and not for another. Here are some tips to try to help you feel confident in your choice…

The highest indicator of a successful outcome for therapy is the client’s expectations, motivation and hope… Therapy can break down if client and therapist have not agreed goals.
(from Couch Fiction, by Philippa Perry)

first things first: is it therapy?

It’s not easy to summarise what counselling, or ‘talking therapy’ is. Let’s say for starters it means going to consult with a mental health professional in a focused and purposeful way, over a decent period of time, to talk about what’s going on for you. You go to your appointments because you want to change something about your relationship with yourself or others, or because you want support while distressed and overwhelmed. The person you choose to see is trained in a specific therapeutic process and that is what they offer. Crucially, they have no other role or agenda in your life. In other words, they’re not also your friend, family, teacher, mentor, religious leader, co-worker or anything else to you. If someone is blurring those boundaries and trying to do both, I would start reaching for my red flags.

Of course, you can also get a listening ear, advice, guidance, emotional support, and transformative treatments from many other sources. Enough of them in the right combination might be enough for you. They are not ‘less than’ therapy – they’re just… not therapy.

But, if you do want therapy, make sure you do get therapy and not something else.

are you seeing a trained therapist?

’Therapy’ and ‘counselling’ are not protected terms. This means people with very different levels of skill and experience can set themselves up as practitioners. If you want to be confident about someone’s training, you need to find a therapist who is registered with a national, professional organisation. These organisations set high standards for the therapists who are registered with them. They have codes of conduct and complaints procedures. Getting registered is expensive and a big commitment – any therapist who does it is serious about professional standards and personal development. You’ll see all our therapists list their registrations on their profile pages.

red flags: are you always searching, never really starting?

It is worth taking time to decide the type of therapy you want to try, and looking for someone who feels like a good fit (click here to read our article on how to find a therapist). But browsing for therapists is not therapy. If some part of you really wants to try therapy, make sure that part is the one making the decisions. The part that’s scared to start might ‘swipe left’ forever 😉

green flags: how do you know if a therapist is right for you?

You might be trying to decide whether a therapist is right for you after an initial meeting, or you still might be wondering after weeks of seeing them. The truth is, I can’t answer the question. However, there are a few decent indicators:

  • you believe in the type of therapy they offer (you might have worries about whether it will work for you, but you believe it’s an interesting, worthwhile and valid process)
  • if they upset you, or there’s something awkward between you, or something is bothering you about the sessions, you can bring it up – and they are open and keen to understand, not defensive
  • even if the process feels scary, you trust the person (there is a difference between ‘this feels scary to do’ and ‘this person is not safe’)
  • you feel they are genuinely curious to know and understand you as a unique individual
  • they work in a professional way – for example, keeping to appointments, protecting your confidentiality, and having clear fees and payment arrangements.

The clearest green flag of a safe practitioner is that they follow their own professional standards. Beyond that, it’s about whether you feel your time in therapy is proving useful.

seeing red isn’t (always) one of the red flags

A strange truth: you may not always like your counsellor. You may become angry with them, or disappointed, resentful, suspicious – any number of difficult and uncomfortable feelings. If you can bring this up with them, this could be the moment where it gets really useful. As long as your counsellor has proved themselves to be a trustworthy person so far, try to stick with it when things get difficult in the relationship, at least for a bit. These might be some of the most illuminating and transformative conversations of your life.

Having said that, sometimes it’s really not a good match and that is okay – it’s your therapy and it’s always your choice whether to keep seeing this person, try someone else, or stop altogether. It’s really useful to realise something is not working for you, and making the choice to change it can be very empowering.

therapy is for you to know yourself better

You don’t have to get therapy – you’re not a faulty machine. You can use therapy to know yourself better, to get free of habits and beliefs that limit you or wear you down, to let go of things that no longer serve you. The therapist is not fixing you like a mechanic – they’re offering to come with you on a kind of internal expedition. They’ve got a metaphorical toolkit, with safety gear for dangerous and difficult terrain. If they feel like a useful person to have by your side, then great – bring them along. If not, that’s okay. Just stay curious about who might be, because you deserve to have enough support.

Therapy takes the time to listen closely. To find entry points so that contradictory thoughts and feelings can surface and be acknowledged, so angers can be heard, disappointments felt, anxieties unpicked. In that hearing, a person or a couple can know themselves, their motivations, their feelings, their understandings of self more deeply.
(from In Therapy, by Susie Orbach)

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~ Kate MacDougall, centre co-ordinator and bibliotherapist
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