How to Talk to Your Therapist When You’re Not Getting What You Want Out of Therapy

Therapy can be a transformative experience, but it doesn’t go smoothly all the time. The therapeutic relationship is like every other relationship between people in that there will be frustration, misunderstandings, and tension from time to time. That’s not to say that you should feel these things all of the time in therapy! There are times when there isn’t a good fit between therapist and client, but many issues can be worked through in therapy instead of moving to a different therapist. 

Depending on the situation, you might be able to learn a lot from working through a difficult conversation – you may leave with more communication skills and confidence in your ability to advocate for yourself than you started with.  There might be times during the therapeutic process that you feel frustrated with your therapist, or you feel like their approach isn’t working. One aspect of therapy is helping you feel empowered enough to advocate for yourself. That includes advocating for yourself in therapy. Here are some tips to keep in mind when you talk to your therapist about your concerns:

Take some time to ground yourself before you have this conversation

It can be hard to bring up frustration in a therapy session. You might feel nervous beforehand, but that’s normal when you’re anticipating a difficult or uncomfortable situation. Take some time before your session or before you speak to your therapist (in whatever medium you plan to use) and do a quick grounding exercise. Try the 5-4-3-2-1 technique: name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. Make sure to take nice deep breaths while you’re grounding yourself. This way, you can feel more at ease and present instead of spiraling with anxiety or fear. Also, keep in mind that any therapist worth their salt will be able to handle a difficult conversation with professionalism and grace. If you’re afraid of their reaction, remember that they are trained professionals who are used to dealing with tough situations. 

Be direct

Try to be as direct as possible when you bring this up. Say what specifically you have a problem with or why you’re feeling like therapy isn’t working for you right now. Give an example. It’s okay to write things out in advance in case you get nervous or your mind goes blank. 

This doesn’t always have to be done in person (especially during COVID-19). If you are feeling unsafe with your therapist or you don’t feel comfortable having this conversation in person (or over video), you can always send them an email or leave them a message on their phone. Make sure to be direct in whatever form of communication you choose. Don’t beat around the bush, just say what your issue is so that you can work toward a resolution. 

Pinpoint where the frustration is coming from

The more you can tell your therapist about where your frustration is coming from, the easier it will be to work on a solution with them. Some things, like feeling frustrated with something that was said in session or feeling misunderstood might be able to be solved in a conversation. If you’re feeling like the treatment approach isn’t working or that you aren’t getting anything out of therapy, maybe your therapist will have suggestions for how to tweak things or make things more effective. The point is, the more information you can give, the more tools your therapist will have for helping you. Here are some reasons why you might feel frustrated with therapy

  • The treatment approach
  • Feeling misunderstood
  • Upset at something that was said in session
  • Technical issues with telehealth
  • Scheduling conflicts that make finding time for therapy difficult
  • Feeling that therapy is no longer useful to you

Be prepared to talk about this in session

If you decide that you want to work through this with your therapist versus seeking therapy somewhere else, talking to your therapist about the issue in a session will probably come up. This can be a great opportunity to work on communication skills and reinforce the skills you’ve learned to advocate for yourself. Working through difficult situations in therapy can give you practice in working through difficult situations outside of therapy. 

Know when it’s time to move on

Of course, there might be a time when you feel like the issues aren’t fixable and you’re ready to move on to a different therapist. If you’re on the fence, ask yourself some questions like “Do I feel understood in therapy?” “Do we have clear goals for therapy, and do I feel like I am working toward those goals?” “Is my therapist empathetic, competent, and nonjudgmental?” If you answered no to any of those questions, it might be time to find another therapist. Remember, a good therapist will always be professional about this. If they aren’t professional, use that as evidence that you made the right choice. 

Learning how to communicate effectively is really tricky. If you need help figuring out how to communicate more effectively, our clinicians can help. 

-Linday N Sanner, LSCSW, RPT