Is it OK to Change Therapists?
Is it Okay to Change Therapists?
Written by Corry Hawkins, Clinical Director of KPS
It really feels like I should be able to say, “Yes!” and then be done with this post. But, like mental health and therapy, it’s never that simple. There are lots of reasons people start to think about finding a new therapist for themselves or their loved ones. Sometimes it’s for reasons out of your control. Maybe you don’t feel like your therapist is helping you. Or perhaps your schedule has changed and no longer works with your therapist’s availability. Whatever the reason, there are lots of reasons to find someone new.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am writing to you as a therapist. I’ve been the right fit and wrong fit. I’ve helped people find someone new. I’ve been the “new therapist.” I’ve seen change done well and done poorly. My biggest goal for my clients is that they get the support and healing they need, and sometimes they need change. Hopefully these thoughts and suggestions can assist you in making a decision that is best for you and help you move forward in your mental health journey.
Be Honest with Your Therapist
As a therapist, I often encourage my clients on day one to tell me if something isn’t working. I ask kids, teens, and adults to just be honest and tell me if they want to see someone else. Most of the time, they take this to heart… although I do think some people don’t believe me.
What’s pretty nice about the relationship with your therapist is that they are not your friend. I know it sounds cold, but stay with me. Therapy is about the client, not the therapist. So when I say, “Not your friend,” I mean you aren’t responsible for maintaining a friendship or looking after their feelings. It doesn’t matter what is going on in the therapist’s life. You don’t need to wait until after their birthday to break up with them. (Although, you probably shouldn’t approach any break up like that, but that’s a different conversation.)
Being honest about wanting to change therapists benefits you, the client. First of all, it’s an opportunity for you to explore what you need and want in order to work on yourself and reach your therapy goals. Second, it gives you a chance to work through conflict and discomfort with someone who will keep your best interest in mind. Therapy is a safe place because your therapist will support you and your goals, even if that means they need to help you find someone else.
Often this conversation ends in an agreement to try something new first. While this is a shock to some, us therapists cannot read minds. (Even though we try really, really hard.) If we can figure out what isn’t working or what you may want instead, sometimes we can fix it or make changes to make it work for you. But this only works if you’re honest.
Making the decision to change therapists often means you need to have a pretty decent understanding of where you are and where you’re going. Knowing yourself is really the first step in a long journey, but it’s worth making. Honestly, this is pretty exciting for us therapists, so our reaction may surprise you. Just be prepared, because your therapist, while supporting you, is going to ask some tough questions. It’s our job, after all. Which brings us to the next point…
Be Honest with Yourself
Your therapist is a person too, and sometimes you just don’t click. Sometimes the type of therapy they provide isn’t a good fit for you or your needs. Sometimes you realize you will be more comfortable with someone from your cultural background or religion, or with similar life experiences. Sometimes you just need a change. These are all understandable reasons to be out shopping for a new therapist. BUT… be cautious.
I’m not here to reach through the screen and give you therapeutic advice. That’s your therapist’s job. (Which is why you should be honest with them!) What I do know is that lots of people change therapists because things got hard or went in a direction they were not ready to go. Avoidance is a super calming coping strategy for tough times, and therapy is no exception. If you are looking for a “yes man,” therapists are going to let you down. And you probably won’t make the progress you set out to achieve.
Some of the most successful clients I have worked with have told me, “I’m not ready for that.” In that one phrase, they are being honest with me and themselves. That’s a great place to start. We can work with that. Sure, sometimes I might push or bring it up later, but now we can work from a place of honesty and trust. What doesn’t work is not showing up, canceling over and over again, or simply lying to avoid the truth in session. The only person you hurt when you do this is yourself.
Be especially careful if you are looking for a new therapist for a loved one. Whether they are an adult, teen, or child, it’s important to consider why this change is important to you. The best advice I can give is talk to those honest friends or family members who pull no punches with you. Or better yet, talk to your own therapist about the decision and your reasons. The therapist supports their client first, which often leaves families and friends feeling like their needs are being ignored. But that does not mean the client is not benefiting from therapy.
But What if My Therapist is Breaking Up with Me?
First of all, let me just say I am sorry. Whether there is a good reason or not, this is painful for most people and it’s okay to be confused, sad, hurt, angry… in other words, it’s okay to grieve this loss. If you are able, be honest with your therapist (old or new) about those thoughts and feelings. What I’m about to say may not make any of those feelings better, but maybe it will provide some clarity when you’re ready.
Just like clients, therapists function best when they know themselves, including their strengths and weaknesses. While you may like your therapist, they may be aware that their skills or training is not what you need. If they know of a therapist better trained in supporting clients with your needs or goals, they may suggest a change. This does not mean you are a lost cause or can’t be helped. On the contrary, your therapist believes you can be helped faster with someone else. It’s worth considering the importance your therapist places on your well being when they make this suggestion.
Sometimes the change is out of both you and your therapist’s control. Recently, I moved out of state and had to transfer all of my clients very abruptly. This was unpleasant for them and me, to say the least. This resulted in three weeks of tearful and vulnerable conversations about finding a new therapist. Before this, I never would have used the word “break up” to describe this process, but 20+ teens came to that conclusion independently. Who am I to argue?
Whether the break up was planned or unplanned, quick or slow with time to process, changing therapists probably involves some grief. You get used to one way of doing things and miss the banter and rapport. Or you feel frustrated you worked so hard to open up to someone that just wasn’t right for you. Please remember that all the time you spent working on you is time well spent. You can only waste time in therapy if you are not honest, with your therapist or yourself. (And sometimes even that time is helpful… those sneaky therapists.)
Change is Constant… and Sometimes Even Good!
None of us like change. Even us therapists. But the only thing constant in this world is change. I’ve encouraged a lot of my clients to change therapists for that reason alone. Often I have been present for the most trying times in someone’s life. I was the only consistent adult in a child’s life during their parents’ divorce. I was there for the realizations and the tears. I was there for seventh grade. (Which we can all agree is the worst.) But even those hard times pass. I have found that while I can be a reminder of those victories, I am also a reminder of those painful memories. Sometimes changing a therapist helps you change your perspective and view of yourself. Just like you have grown and changed, changing your therapist can be good too!
Questions and Conversation Starters
If you are still unsure, there are some questions and prompts below to help you explore your reasons for wanting (or not wanting ) to find a new therapist for yourself or someone else. Journal about them. Ask your friends. Ask your therapist. Be honest with yourself and let the rest follow.
What are your goals for therapy?
What have you achieved in therapy so far?
What do you think therapy should look like?
What do you think is not working in therapy or with your therapist?
What are you afraid to lose?
What are you hoping to gain?
What might you be avoiding?
What are you ready to take on in therapy?
What do you feel you are not ready to explore more at this time?
What do you want your current therapist to understand or know?