A few years ago, when Cate was riding the subway into Manhattan for a therapy appointment, she received an unfortunate, accidental sext. It was from her therapist. Although it was an obvious mistake not intended for her, the content was still a lot to process, let alone right before a session. “It was so raunchy,” she recalls.
When she got to his office, her flustered therapist made things worse by blurting out, “Of all my clients, I’m so glad it was you.” They both powered through the awkward session, but she never returned. Not that it was an easy decision to make. She’d been seeing him for about two years and had made real progress. She also knew that therapists are people who have sex and make mistakes, too. But she just couldn’t get past the big, horny elephant in the room. “It was so reckless of him,” she tells me.
While many therapist red flags are clear-cut — e.g., violations of privacy and confidentiality, lapses in licensure or any romantic or sexual advances — a lot more are like what Cate experience: deeply orange ones that can range from a lack of professionalism and being too judgmental, to asking for favors and talking too much.
To help you decide whether or not you should cut bait in such situations, below a few experts share their thoughts on some real-life clinical offenses that don’t necessarily inspire an immediate, “You’re fired!” but also don’t inspire much confidence either.
The Therapist Who Forgets Basic Information
Michael already wasn’t thrilled when his therapist pointed at him, snapped and asked, “You’re the teacher, right?” Even though it was a correct guess, the 43-year-old had complained about his stressful job several times over the course of the four previous sessions he’d attended. To Michael, it just felt like this guy wasn’t listening. But to make matters worse, his therapist started packing up toward the end of the session so he could rush out when it concluded. His behavior upset Michael enough that he never returned.
For marriage and family therapist Ashera DeRosa, forgetting a client’s occupation is more of an orange flag, since it was early on in the therapeutic relationship, and “it might be hard to remember all the details for the first couple sessions.”
Still, Michael felt like it wasn’t the details as much as not being heard. Fortunately, the experience didn’t turn him against the idea of therapy; instead, it motivated him to find a better fit. “I’ve been with my current therapist for seven-and-a-half years,” he says. “She knew my name and everything after my first session.”
The Therapist Who Has Questionable Taste in Celebrities
Christian’s therapist practiced neuropsychology, and she loved to describe how the brain worked in sessions. During one such session, she was attempting to explain how the amygdala influences the reward system when she accidentally let it slip that she was a fan of Kid Rock. “I’d found her fairly helpful up until that point, but it was hard to take her seriously after that,” Christian, 55, tells me. “I think I saw her once or twice more.”
DeRosa laughs this one off: “Therapists are people, too, and we have guilty pleasures like everyone else.”
The Therapist Who Tells You to Stop ‘Trauma Dumping’
Jamie, 29, was telling her therapist about her toxic ex-boyfriend and her pattern of surrounding herself with people who drain her emotionally, when her therapist told her she was “trauma dumping.” She immediately stopped talking — and seeing that therapist. After all, if you can’t trauma dump in therapy, where can you?
While it was a poor choice of words, psychotherapist Patrick Turbiville has heard of this happening before. “If they’re attempting to tactfully address a possibly problematic pattern in a client’s personal relationships, and it wasn’t taken well, I’d feel empathy for this therapist trying to communicate a difficult thing,” Turbiville explains.
But there’s a big difference between clumsily pointing out a pattern of “trauma dumping” and using it as a way to shut down a topic. If it’s the latter, that’s a red flag. “[A good therapist should] let the client dump,” Turbiville recommends. ”If the client has lots and lots of trauma, it would be harmful to give a message that even their therapist doesn’t care to witness it.”
The Therapist Who Sobs Uncontrollably
When Matt returned to therapy after a trip to visit his family, the 24-year-old told his therapist about an emotional moment with his aunt that brought him back to a time in his childhood when he felt very isolated and abandoned. “He must have had kids around the age I was at the time, or something personal that made it hit close to home,” Matt recalls. For whatever reason, though, his therapist lost control of his emotions. “I’m not gonna say it was a Kim Kardashian ugly cry, but he wasn’t able to have a conversation,” says Matt, who tried to move on and get through the session. He did, however, cancel his next appointment and never rescheduled.
To psychotherapist Laurie Singer, “shedding a tear or showing some emotion is okay. But sobbing uncontrollably tells you the therapist has unresolved issues they themselves need to work on,” which is a red flag and a nonstarter as “they won’t be able to help you with your similar situation.”
The Therapist Who Thinks Your Mom Is Right
Kaytlin, 35, remembers walking out of her first session with a therapist after she told him a story about her complicated relationship with her mother and a recent argument they’d had. “He scoffed and said, ‘Sounds like she was being a mom,’” she tells me. “This was in the first 30 minutes. I just went numb.” She didn’t feel comfortable explaining to him why, and just walked out.
DeRosa backs up her decision. “That’s a red flag from me,” she says. “I do a lot of family of origin work, and there’s a way to shift that narrative without making a client feel that you’re aligning with an abuser.”
Singer agrees: “Taking the side of an individual, particularly one who was abusive to you, isn’t being empathic, caring or giving constructive feedback.” She does add, however, that instead of bailing, “It’s important to let the therapist know how you feel about what they said.”
The Therapist Who Talks About Their Relationships
It wasn’t unusual for Tracey to talk to her therapist about her problems with her boyfriend, but about a year into their regular sessions, her therapist started comparing their relationships and told her “everything about her broken marriage.” This ultimately escalated to her therapist admitting to cheating on her husband. “She’d show me texts with her boyfriend and ask me if I thought he liked her,” says the 37-year-old, who kept going for a few more months before accepting that she was only really getting gossip out of the sessions.
To Turbiville, the only reasonable context in which a therapist might discuss an affair is if it was a previous relationship and it was brought up “to offer perspective to a client who is currently struggling with involvement in an affair,” he says. This could be useful in the same way “someone in recovery can help someone with an active addiction. Apart from that, it feels inappropriate and potentially predatory.”
The Therapist Who Begs You To Stay
When 38-year-old Michael, who felt like his therapist generally talked too much and didn’t give him enough feedback, tried to end the therapeutic relationship, “she borderline begged me to come in for one more session.” When he did, “she spent the whole time telling me how much I meant to her and how my weekly appointment was such a staple in her life.”
Since anxiety was something he already struggled with, he froze and watched her implode. “I responded by being too freaked out to go back to therapy for two years,” Michael tells me. “My new one is great and balanced — doesn’t challenge me much but has boundaries.”
Singer warns that such behavior is extremely unethical because it puts a client in a position to question their own intuition, when many people come to therapy to learn how to trust themselves. As a result, it’s an offense that has the potential to significantly damage a person’s relationship with therapy. It’s basically clinical gaslighting. “My strong advice is to leave and not go back,” Singer emphasizes.
The Therapist Who Tries to Sell You Something
There were a few orange flags with Lynn’s therapist. For starters, she used the doorman of her building as her receptionist, and had clients wait in the building lobby. Sometimes, the doorman would inform Lynn that her therapist was “at the gym next door.” But she’d never been to therapy before and wasn’t sure what to expect. Then, about a year into their therapeutic relationship, her therapist tried to sell her a vibrator from a filing cabinet.
“I didn’t realize when I started going to her that she was also a sex therapist,” Lynn tells me. “I was talking to her about some relationship issues but didn’t expect her to try to casually sell me sex toys.”
Sex therapist or not, trying to sell clients anything is almost always a red flag. More often than not, Turbiville sees this with therapists pushing supplements onto clients, but even when it comes to recommending books and psychoeducational resources, if the therapist is peddling them, a line has been crossed. “The potential for a client to think they’re letting you down by not buying what you’re selling could be coercive, given the inherent power differential in the therapeutic relationship,” Turbiville says.
Lynn eventually found “a really great therapist who has never tried to sell me a vibrator.” Still, she admits her vibrator therapist did help her. Which is the thing about bad therapists — like a broken clock, they’re occasionally correct, making it incredibly difficult for an already vulnerable person to trust their instincts when their therapist does something wrong and/or alienating.
But Turbiville says that’s exactly what you should do. “Practicing trust in yourself, especially when you’re bad at it, is the most valuable thing to do, even if you end up being wrong,” he explains. “You don’t need some grand transgression to justify dumping your therapist if you feel like that’s what you need to do. This act of self-protection can be incredibly empowering.”