What do you do when your therapist is wrong?

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Having a mental health condition is, by definition, a stressful event or process in our lives.  Realizing we react substantially differently to similar triggers than our more neurotypical friends and family is often upsetting and can cause us to question many other aspects of our understanding of the world.  Sometimes we need to take mind-altering medications in order to better manage our mental unbalance, and we often seek professional advice in the form of psychologists, psychiatrists, or more generally ‘talk therapists’ as we seek to better understand ourselves and the changes that are happening.  These people are hired to help us better manage and understand how and why our perceptions change and help us to better understand ourselves. This isn’t an easy path and it's one where at times we are very dependent on our psychologists and other talk therapists to help us maintain our grip on reality.  We depend on our psychiatrists to properly medicate us to help us regain or maintain a more rational state of mind, and rebalance our chemical imbalances. When it works, this is a great process - they listen and advise, while we think, process, and manage. They ask probing questions, we recognize reality, and over time, we become more functional, better able to manage our stresses, and stabilize.  However, when it doesn’t work, there can be severe emotional or mental damage done, and part of our responsibility as patients is to protect ourselves from such situations. Here are things to think about and be aware of to help reassure yourself that your therapist is helping, not hurting, you.

Does your therapist respect your identity?

Homosexuality was identified as a mental illness until 1973.  Prior to that time, people who had strong same-sex attraction were often considered mentally ill due to this ‘perverse’ attraction.  Society now recognizes same-sex attraction as an orientation identity, and that having same-sex attractions is within the ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’ range of human attraction.  Transgender identity has been recognized in a similar way more recently, as have many other identities over time. Some therapists, though, still may have a bias against these identities and view them, whether consciously or subconsciously as ‘unhealthy’ or abnormal.  As a bi person, I have had multiple bi friends find therapists who simply could not respect that their bisexual identity was, in fact, a healthy identity. They would find themselves, in session after session, defending their bisexual identity as authentic, which also took time away from dealing with the real issues they were trying to get help with.  If you suspect your therapist does not respect or recognize your identity(as opposed to the way you express your identity), you probably need to look elsewhere for good mental health support.

These issues can occur with a variety of non-normative identities, including being part of the kink community, the polyamorous community, or the pagan community.  I know there are other identities as well, but this should give you the idea. If you have one or more of these non-normative identities you want to protect yourself when you seek out a therapist.

Other signs your therapist may be wrong

Even if they don’t indicate discrimination or bias against your identities, there is always the possibility of them not having good judgment or trying to manipulate you in some way.  If the therapist appointments leave you feeling very unsettled or victimized, you want to talk to a friend or two whose judgment you trust to give yourself a reality check about the therapist’s behavior.  One friend of mine found his therapist behaving like a bully and really strongly pushing certain ideas even though he had considered them and found them not to apply to his situation. He felt like he couldn’t make progress unless he capitulated to his therapist’s suggestions, even though he knew that her suggestion didn’t match his reality.  If something like this should happen, you are best served by confronting your therapist about this behavior and seeing if you can come to a good resolution.

There are also times when a therapist doesn’t fully understand an aspect of identity and may jump to an inappropriate conclusion.  Again, confront your therapist as soon as you are able to, and discuss the misunderstanding. You can try to reset the boundaries and clarify your understanding with one another.  The more severe the transgression the more challenging it can be to rebuild that trust, so bring the topic up as soon as you are able to. If their actions are very morally gray or unethical, you would be better served seeking care elsewhere and may need to inform the appropriate authorities of their behavior.

Finding identity-friendly therapists

Most of the larger communities have members who have, at some point, sought out therapists.  To protect yourself, you need to tap into that community knowledge. Check out the sites or groups that celebrate your identity and search for information on identity-friendly therapists.  There are often lists created within these spaces - ‘kink-friendly therapists’ or ‘poly-aware therapists’. This is an indicator that they understand the underlying identity and will be able to listen more objectively to your experiences or situations where your mental health and your non-normative identity meet.  

If you do not have those resources or you have newly started exploring this identity, the other thing you can do is to see if you can find therapists who state that they focus on your identity or a related one.  For example, the therapist I currently see has lesbian and gay issues as one of the identities she has experience with. This helped reassure me that my bi identity was less likely to be an issue.

The interview: testing their acceptance at your first appointment

When you are looking for a new therapist, look at the first appointment as more of a job interview or test.  You want to get to know them and see if they will be able to help you.

So you may want to get all of the potential landmines out and see what happens.  In your conversation, mention each of your non-normative identities and see how they respond.  

Clarifying questions or responses using the community’s language are good signs, anger or blank expressions are generally not.  

If at the end of the session you feel like they have a problem with some aspect of your identity, put them on the back burner and look into other options.  

If, on the other hand, they seem very accepting of your identity(ies) you are likely to be relatively safe seeing this therapist.

Self-protection

Boundaries can be somewhat porous when seeing a therapist, especially boundaries that you are working on. You may be letting your therapist into your mind in more intimate ways than you do with any other person.

It does make sense for you to be managing discomfort when you and your therapist touch on subjects that directly relate to your condition.  Generally, feelings of fear or discomfort may indicate where the problems or challenges lie- the ones you most need to face.

However, if your therapist is doing or saying things that push the boundaries of your relationship, especially lines that you think shouldn’t be an issue given your history, you have every right to do a ‘sanity check’ with your peers.  

This may mean posting in a support group for your condition or talking to friends who seem more grounded in that particular type of intimacy.  

Many people who were abused or grew up in dysfunctional households have at least one or two unhealthy perspectives or actions that were normalized.  

What you need to do in your recovery is recognize what those weak points are for you, and think about friends and social connections you have who you both know has a healthier mindset or experience with that particular life aspect.  

This way if it feels like your therapist is pushing on you in a way that might be unhealthy or strange, talking to your friend(or better, getting multiple perspectives) can help you feel confident that your therapist is still working with your best interests at heart.  

If something your therapist does or says leaves you uncomfortable, you also have every right to confront them on that topic or question their logic or behavior.  Don’t forget to stand up for yourself and do your best to clearly articulate your concerns or fears.

So what do you do if your therapist is wrong?

Never forget that therapists are human, too.  They also generally talk to other therapists to help themselves manage the stresses in their lives, and each person has their own biases and perspectives.

What you need in a therapist is a person who can understand you and work with you while recognizing your identity in a positive light, and help you resolve your underlying mental health issues.

The right therapist for somebody else may not be the right therapist for you, and so I strongly encourage you to search before settling down with a mental health professional.  Make sure that you are seeing somebody who respects your full identity and who has a healthy respect for your boundaries.

If you feel uncomfortable when talking with your therapist, trust your gut and double-check your uncertainties.  Talk to friends or fellow support group members to give yourself a ‘sanity check’ about your experiences with your therapists.  

If reliable friends agree that the behavior is suspect, it’s time to look for a new therapist - and if the behavior is severe enough, you need to report it to authorities.

As a patient, you have the right to change therapists.  You have the right to feel safe and have boundaries with your therapist.  You deserve to recover and deserve to be respected in that process.  Your job is to heal, and your therapist’s job is to help you heal.  If your therapist isn’t doing their job properly, it’s your job to seek out a better therapist!

Written by Alison Hayes.