What a Therapist Should and Should Not Do in Therapy

Updated on November 20, 2018
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I am a marriage and family therapist with a master's degree in marriage and family therapy.

When you went to see your doctor or dentist for the first time, you may have been told, or asked, what to expect. You heard about what the process will be like and what the doctor will do when you got there. There is an expectation of getting quality service when you, the patient/client, are paying for those services. The same is true when going to therapy. You should ask what to expect, what happens when you go, and what to look for in a therapist.

This article will help give you a good idea of what quality therapy should be and what should be expected of the therapist when you go see them.

The Stigma of Therapy

There is a stigma of being "weak" or "fragile" if you go to a therapist. However, therapy is crucial for your overall mental and emotional wellbeing. In fact, it could be argued that seeing a therapist is as important (if not more important) than seeing your doctor or dentist.

What to Expect When Going to Therapy

If you are going to therapy for the first time, the therapist will ask you a lot of questions about you and your life. The goal is to figure out what the problem is and assess the circumstances surrounding that problem. Therefore, it is important to be open and honest. Therapy should be a safe and positive environment in which you can share anything without fear of judgement or rebuke. The therapist should be there to listen to you, empathize with your situation, and help you resolve any problems you may be having. The better they understand your problem, the better they can help you with it.

That being said, not all therapists are equal. That's why it's important to know how to tell a good therapist from a bad one. Use your first therapy session to assess your therapist and make sure you're getting the help you're paying for. Here is a list of what a therapist should and shouldn't do in therapy.

How to Find a Good Therapist

What a Therapist Should Do
What a Therapist Shouldn't Do
Create a safe space
Be judgmental
Be accepting and non-judgmental
Be aggressive
Be positive friendly but professional
Be too friendly or flirtatious
Ask both open- and closed-ended questions
Interrupt you
Stay present with you in the moment
Doesn't pay attention to what you're saying
Stay focused on your issues and concerns
Go off-topic or ramble
Empathize
Talk about themself
Be objective
Be angry or yell at you
Be consistent
Disagree with you or minimize your feelings
Keep this list in mind when you go see your therapist for the first time. If they do most of the "should dos" and none of the "shouldn't dos, then you know you've found a good therapist.

What a Therapist Should Do

Create a Safe Space for You

Your therapist should make you feel safe with them in a private room where no one else hears your private conversations. Generally, there should be a warm atmosphere—with low lighting to help you relax; a comfortable place to sit and talk with your therapist; and a kind, patient therapist sitting across from you, putting you at ease.

Be Accepting and Non-Judgmental

A good therapist does not pass judgment on their clients. Your therapist should be accepting of you as you are—where your current state is, where you are in life, what your thoughts/opinions/feelings are, and your goals. A good therapist views their clients as good people who are in a rough situation in their lives.

Be Positive and Friendly but Remain Professional.

Your therapist should keep an optimistic and positive attitude towards you. When you express sadness or anger, the therapist will of course empathize with you, but they will act as a "thermostat" and try to lift the mood and keep things positive.

Your therapist should also be welcoming, talking in a slow, soft, and simple manner. They should be approachable, which helps build a good rapport with you as the client since you can feel comfortable sharing anything with them.

Ask Open- and Closed-Ended Questions to Explore What Concerns You

Both kinds of questions help the therapist better understand your concerns as they explore (and help you explore) the circumstances surrounding your problems.

Open-ended questions prompt discussion and allow you to drive the conversation. What is going on for you right now? Why do you think that is? How do you feel about that? These types of questions can't be answered with just a yes or a no.

Close-ended questions are more specific and generally prompt shorter answers. Do you blame yourself? When will this take place? Is your daughter upset about what happened? The types of questions are usually easier for the client to answer and is often used when exploring sensitive topics that the client may be reluctant to discuss.

Stay Present With You in the Moment

They should be focused on you and what is happening to you in the moment. In addition to listening to what you're saying, your therapist should use your eye contact, body language, behavior, and tone of voice to help them assess your situation, thoughts, and feelings. They may even address these more subtle cues to help you recognize your thoughts and feelings. How do you feel when you talk about your mother? Have you noticed this before? Why do you think this is? A good therapist is 100% dedicated to you during your time together.

Stay Focused on the Issues/Concerns You Bring Up

Therapy is a treatment—it is focused. You are not two friends chatting over coffee together. What brought you into therapy (e.g. depression, family issues, marital concerns, etc.) is what the therapist should focus on in the time you have together. The therapist may ask you a variety of questions, and you may share stories about your life, but all of these should ultimately work to help you address the concerns that prompted you to go to therapy in the first place. An efficient therapist will stay on track—and help you stay on track if you start to veer off.

Empathize

As a client, you want to get a sense that the therapist truly cares about you and your wellbeing. One way to assess this is to see if and how well they empathize with you. Are they relating to you? Do they understand what you are going through? Empathizing is understanding your feelings and sharing them with you—almost as if they are in the same situation as you.

Note that this is different from sympathy, which is feeling for someone, like your therapist feeling bad for you. Sympathy is almost like pity, in a way. With sympathy, the therapists’ perspective may be different from yours. When your therapist empathizes with you, they'll try to understand where you're coming from and why you're feeling the way you do.

Be Objective and Neutral

A therapist should give their professional opinion and analysis without any bias. They should be objective, looking at situations from an outside view and forming opinions based on the facts rather than on their personal thoughts or beliefs. Your therapist will analyze and explore scenarios, thoughts, and feelings to find a resolution that works best for you.

Be Consistent With You

A therapist should be consistent in their views, attitudes, and advice. This plays a big part in your ability to trust your therapist. If they constantly change their mind or let a bad day change the way they talk to you, you're not really getting the help that you paid for. This also plays into creating a safe environment. You should be able to rely on your therapist for unwavering support and kindness.

What a Therapist Shouldn't Do

Be Judgmental

You should not feel that your therapist is judging you. They shouldn't be suggesting that your ideas are bad or wrong, or that you shouldn't be feeling a certain way. Your therapist should make you feel comfortable with being yourself and expressing your true thoughts and emotions.

Be Aggressive

No therapist should be overly aggressive and make you feel small and insignificant. They can give suggestions and guide you in the right direction, but true change comes from within you. Your therapist shouldn't be forcing you to change. You should feel inspired and empowered going into therapy. You want to find your goal, not be told exactly what to do.

Be Overly Friendly or Flirtatious

Yes, the therapist should be friendly, but in a professional manner. But there's a fine line between being warm and inviting and becoming your pal. The therapist-client relationship should always remain professional; after all, you're paying for a professional service. You and your therapist shouldn't be chit-chatting. Your therapist should be working with you to create clear goals and treatment plans.

More importantly, the therapist should never be suggestive and flirtatious with you. Inappropriate language, gestures, and behaviors are all red flags.

Interrupt You

Cutting you off or interrupting you essentially minimizes your thoughts and inhibits growth and change for you as the client. Part of being a good therapist is being a good listener—an active listener—and you should always feel like you're being heard. How can they learn more about you if they don't let you finish what you have to say?

Doesn't Pay Attention to What You're Saying

Again, active listening is such a key part of being a good therapist. It is a major skill that everyone—especially therapists—should have. It keeps the conversation going and moves the session in a positive direction. They should be letting you take the lead and exploring topics that you bring up. This leads into the next thing good therapists shouldn't do.

Go Off-Topic or Ramble.

They shouldn't be asking random, irrelevant questions. Some questions may seem random at first, but ultimately, they should lead back to the concerns you brought in with you. The goal of asking questions is to understand what you are going through in order to help you resolve your issues. If you sense that they are going off on a tangent or rambling, they're probably not worth your time.

Talk About Themselves

Therapists should leave themselves and their lives out of their sessions with you. They also shouldn't draw from their experiences to help you. Everyone's situation is unique. Again, the focus should be on you and what you're going through. Unless you ask the therapist to disclose something about their life, they should not make relate situations back to them.

Get Angry or Yell at You

There is a difference between pushing and challenging versus getting angry and yelling. Your therapist should never become angry at you or yell at you. Sure, there are situations where a little tough love is needed to help you change or grow, but there should never be any malice behind it. There is no excuse for a therapist to verbally or physically abuse a client out of anger.

Disagree With You

At the end of the day, you know yourself best. You know your thoughts, feelings, and emotions best. Your therapist is there to help you interpret those thoughts and feelings. They shouldn't be telling you that what you're feeling is wrong or unnecessary. You shouldn't need to justify how you're feeling. If you feel that your therapist is minimizing you or not validating you, it is time to find someone else.

If you've gone to therapy before, do you feel that your therapist was effective or helpful?

See results

This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

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