Effective counselling can do wonders for someone dealing with mental health problems, but many of us know someone who felt let down by their counsellor – You might be that someone. Being aware of the warning signs is a good step towards finding a counsellor that works for you.
Why is knowing the warning signs important?
Recognising whether you need a new counsellor can be tricky.
The signs aren’t always obvious, so it helps to know the red flags to look out for.
It’s also natural to experience self-doubt when you are unsure about your counsellor. They’re meant to be the expert, so it’s easy to dismiss hunches that things aren’t quite right. Sometimes an element of discomfort is part of positive change. But pay attention to whether the discomfort is advancing you towards your goals.
Knowing the signs that you might need a new counsellor can give you the confidence to seek further advice.
What does effective counselling look like?
No two counsellors are the same. Counsellors are human after all – they come with unique life experiences and training. It can only be expected that they have differences in approach.
That said, there are certain things all good counsellors have in common.
The Australian Psychological Society Code of Ethics describes three General Principles of proper conduct:
Each of the following warning signs contradicts these principles in some way – or at least doesn’t live up to their full potential.
6 Warning signs that you need a new counsellor
1. They don’t listen
The most important job of a counsellor is to actively listen. If you don’t feel listened to, then it’s impossible to build a constructive relationship with your counsellor.
Watch out for the following:
- They talk about themselves when it’s not relevant
- Their responses don’t address what you’ve said
- They finish your sentences
- They’re impatient when you’re slow to share something personal
2. They forget
Counsellors need to keep up with new developments in your relationship. It’s difficult to make progress if they lack reference points. That doesn’t mean they have to take notes during the session, but they should afterwards unless they have a photographic memory. No counsellor can be expected to recall every last detail, but if you notice a pattern of needing to remind them about core parts of you, that’s a sign you might need a new counsellor.
Watch out for the following:
- They consistently don’t remember what you have already told them
- You feel disoriented in the session – because so do they
- They never suggest picking up where you left off
- They don’t ask how you felt after discussing “X”
- They never suggest returning to a past topic
3. They belittle your experience
Especially when it comes to traumatic experiences, the job of a counsellor is to acknowledge how you feel and guide you towards a healthier relationship with the present, free of shame and guilt. They might suggest new ways to interpret your past, but if you feel like your counsellor doesn’t take your experiences seriously, that’s a clear sign that you should seek help elsewhere.
Watch out for responses like:
- “That doesn’t seem like a big deal”
- “I’m surprised you responded that way”
- “I would never do that”
- “That was never an issue for me”
- “You’re incorrect”
4. Lack of transparency
Your relationship with your counsellor doesn’t need to be shrouded in mystery. When your counsellor is transparent about their approach, it helps build trust. They become someone with whom you feel comfortable sharing.
Great counsellors are not only transparent, but they also consult your preferences. They acknowledge that there are many ways to run a counselling session and accommodate your preferences.
For example, great counsellors have a habit of asking questions like:
- “Is the structure of our sessions working for you?”
- “Is there anything you want to change?”
- “How have you felt about our sessions so far?”
- “Can you tell me how you feel leading up to a session?”
If your counsellor doesn’t do any of these things, you might want to consider finding help elsewhere.
5. They don’t check in with you at the end of a session
Counselling sometimes involves discussing traumatic events from your past. Good counsellors always feel a sense of responsibility for your wellbeing, but they are especially vigilant following any discussion of a traumatic event.
For example, they will say things like:
- “What are you going to do after our session?”
- “Do you have any plans for the rest of the day?”
- “I suggest you take some time to relax”
- “It took a lot of strength for you to share what you have been through with me today”
If your counsellor doesn’t check in with how you feel, especially after discussing a traumatic event, that’s a strong sign that you might need a new counsellor.
6. You feel worse after each session
Perhaps the most powerful sign that you might need a new counsellor comes from your own body. You can’t expect to feel 100% after every session – some things are hard to talk about and sometimes it’s important to have your perspective respectfully challenged– but your counsellor should be there to ease your emotional distress.
If you notice a pattern of feeling worse after seeing your counsellor than before you walked in, that’s a sign you might be better off with someone else.
The same goes if you find yourself dreading every session. Your body is your friend. Listen to it.
What to do if you notice some of these warning signs
If you notice some of these warning signs, consider the following steps:
- Strike up a conversation with your counsellor about your concerns. Let them know what’s bothering you and how it makes you feel.
- Observe their response. A great therapist will be glad that you voiced your concerns. They will see it as an opportunity to learn more about you and improve the quality of your sessions. They may challenge your perspective, but this should be done with utmost respect. If they don’t take your concerns seriously, you can treat that as confirmation that you might be better off terminating the relationship.
- If a counsellor makes you feel uncomfortable about leaving, this is all the more reason to end the relationship. It’s not a counsellor’s job to guilt you into staying when it’s not working for you.
A point of caution
If you or anyone you know has had a negative counselling experience, that’s not a reason to give up on counselling altogether.
While some of these signs are red flags, most counsellors have a genuine interest in your wellbeing. It’s usually just a matter of finding a counsellor that works for you.
Thankfully, there are people there to help you with that process.
What to do if you think you might need a new counsellor
If you think you might need a new counsellor, the next step is to seek advice.
Everyone client deserves respect. It is your right to change counsellors if you feel that respect is lacking. When you find a counsellor that ensures a safe environment for discussion, you’ll make far better progress.
Our team at Life Supports can assist you by hearing your concerns and helping recommend a therapist to better suit your needs. They will be happy to help you find a counsellor that you can trust.
Noah Grundy is a freelance writer with a special interest in evolutionary psychology and neuroscience. Since completing an Honours thesis in Political Theory, Noah has become invested in the intersection of politics with mental health. He is passionate about encouraging both the public and private sectors to consider mental health impacts in their decision-making.