Is my therapist overly critical?
October 25, 2015 8:23 PM   Subscribe

I like my therapist but feel that she is a bit too critical and it stresses me out. Am I overreacting?

I've been seeing this therapist for about 3 months now. I mostly like her. She's intelligent, insightful, and often gives me a different perspective on what we talk about.

Something we talk about a lot is my weight and just being healthier and exercising more in general. She pushed for me to go on walks for a few weeks but I couldn't find the motivation. Three weeks ago I started a gym membership. I set it up online and before I got a chance to go I had an appointment with her. When I told her she almost immediately said how just having a gym membership doesn't count, going does. She said it with a smile, but it felt condescending. I told her I planned to go the next day, and I hadn't that day because my tire was losing air and I didn't want to drive too far. She started pushing me to get the tire fixed right after the appointment and then go to the gym that night. It was kind of annoying me, to be honest. She said she knew I was coming up with excuses not to go in my head and asked me to share them, probably to shoot them down. When I told her which gym, she was bothered that it was 20 minutes away (it was the cheapest and closest one I liked). She asked about closer gyms, even though I told her I didn't mind the drive. And it was beside the point because I'd already started the membership.

By our next appointment a week later I had gone three times and was feeling good. She asked what exercises I did. I said I was nervous and didn't feel comfortable exploring the other equipment yet, so I stuck to the stationary bike. She told me I had to start using different equipment and lifting weights. I was planning on doing it, I just wanted to build some endurance and get comfortable first.

When we talked about how I had been going out with a couple friends and socializing more she quickly brought up that I hadn't been meeting any new people and that I should be going into the city. She came up with a bunch of ideas of what I could do, who to go with, where to go, etc. This is despite the fact that I've told her in the past I feel overwhelmed and guilty when she throws a bunch of ideas at me at once.

I know that it's a therapist's job to help improve your life, and she was providing practical advice but it feels like every step of progress I make is immediately followed up with how I could have done more. It's like I can't stop to feel good about myself at all. These are just a few examples, but I often feel judged by her. I usually dread going to appointments because I worry any good news I share will be barely recognized before she moves on to picking it apart.

I do tend to be hypersensitive to criticism, sometimes even constructive criticism. Do you think that is the case here? Should I talk to her about this? How would I start that conversation without it seeming like I'm criticizing her? Or does feeling judged by your therapist mean it's not a good fit? I've been contemplating not seeing her for a month now. I know it would be beneficial for me to be able to talk this out with her, but I'm not sure that it's worth it.

Thanks for any advice!
posted by blackzinfandel to Human Relations (26 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I would stop seeing a therapist that said something like "Getting a gym membership doesn't count. Going does." That's something your passive aggressive toxic friend says, and your therapist tells you to drop them because life is too short.

Also, why is your (mental health?) therapist weighing in on your (physical health?) exercise regimen? She most likely does not have the qualifications to advise you which exercises are best for you to be doing right now. Mostly she just sounds judgy, which a good therapist -- even someone who is qualified to weigh in on medical issues -- should not be.
posted by Sara C. at 8:34 PM on October 25, 2015 [44 favorites]

Best answer: Therapists (despite common misconceptions to the contrary) should not be giving advice.

The Best Advice a Therapist Could Get? Stop Giving Advice
My wanting to give advice as a young therapist was more about me than the person in therapy. I feel like I need to be strongly on guard with respect to any kind of paternalism in my role. If I give you advice—even great, smart advice—I need to make sure I’m not taking away your growth in your own decision making. Sure, I can let you know if I think something is a really bad idea, but unless there’s a major safety issue, my main job is to guide your thinking (and feeling) through the situation. Someday, you’re probably going to not be in therapy. Am I preparing you for that?
I'm a therapist. In my experience as both a professional and as a client, therapists who give that much advice foster dependency (because you feel like you can't make a decision without her input) and/or "resistance" (because you justifiably balk at being told what to do, even if it's good advice) that keep clients stuck. I would absolutely just change therapists. You can tell her why you're leaving if you want to give her a heads-up that she's being inappropriate, but I would not consider this a "Talk it out" situation. Giving that much advice is just the sign of a bad therapist.
posted by jaguar at 8:35 PM on October 25, 2015 [70 favorites]

Oh, yes, and what Sara C. said! Therapists don't have training in physical therapy. It's inappropriate for her to be giving you specific exercise instructions or recommendations.
posted by jaguar at 8:36 PM on October 25, 2015 [12 favorites]

Whoa. I can't say I necessarily disagree with her actual suggestions, but I have to think giving advice on lifting programs would have to be beyond her scope of practice. (And wrt the effect of exercise on mood, which I would think would be her main point of interest here, cycling is fine, if you like it :/ ) I suppose it's good that she's encouraging you to be active, but she's not supposed to be micro-managing you, or acting like a life coach or accountability person.

Why are you seeing her? What are your therapeutic goals? What the approach she said she was going to take with you? I'd probably drop her too, tbh.

On preview, what Sara C and jaguar said.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:36 PM on October 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

She seems a little too intense. Might be that the type of therapy I need has been more about other things, but even though I always go home with "homework" it's always little things that I can be sure to get to. Whenever I have to work through tougher things I always feel like skipping an appointment or two. But I never feel judged or criticized, can't imagine going to therapy to be made to feel like a failure for xx things I did or did not do.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 8:36 PM on October 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: And:

This is despite the fact that I've told her in the past I feel overwhelmed and guilty when she throws a bunch of ideas at me at once.

Most people feel overwhelmed and guilty when other people throw out a bunch of ideas for solving their problem, because it's almost always dismissive and condescending, because the underlying message is, "You are too stupid to have thought of these things yourself and I am therefore smarter than you." Which is exactly why therapists should not be doing this shit. (I mean, nobody should, but especially not therapists.) Feeling overwhelmed and guilty when this happens is not a sign that you're broken, and in your place, I'd be extremely worried that my therapist's actions were making me think my healthy responses to her behavior were pathological.
posted by jaguar at 8:46 PM on October 25, 2015 [33 favorites]

Best answer: So, my feeling here is that this is a pattern you tend to get into often (feeling like someone is criticizing you, trying to please them instead of setting boundaries, and then avoiding them). Therapy has a tendency to be a place where we recreate our interpersonal problems, but that can also make it a productive place for working on them. Here are a few ideas:

1) Tell her that you think she's being critical, that you feel like you have to try to please her and it's stressful, and that you are thinking about quitting

2) Tell her, in the moment, to back off--instead of justifying yourself to her, say something like "I'm really happy with my progress." or "I'm not looking for advice on this topic." or "Woah, back off."

3) Say something like "You know, you seem to give me a lot of advice. Why do you think that is?"

I think that this could be good practice at setting boundaries, and if that's something you have an issue with, it might be worth dealing with it head-on.

And I do think it might be worth it. If she's a good therapist, being up front with her will help your therapy progress. If she's just kind of an asshole, you've stood up for yourself. I personally think that either of those outcomes can actually be okay for you. What I suspect is that just moving on without discussing the issue with her or setting a boundary will not really feel like progress. That might be okay, too. It is ultimately up to you.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 8:51 PM on October 25, 2015 [17 favorites]

Listen to jaguar. Go find another therapist. Life *is* too short to be with a therapist so insecure she sounds like your mother. I don't know about you, OP, but I'm plenty good at making myself feel shitty. I don't need my therapist to do that for me. In fact, the very best therapist I've ever had (I've had plenty), was warm, supportive, and practical. She pushed me in ways that felt uncomfortable at times, but never in the way this therapist is doing. I mean, giving you shit about your choice of gym? WTF, that is just crazy town. Also, I was in a position once with a therapist in which I felt like I could not make a decision without her input and approval--and that was a nightmare. You do not need this woman's approval. You need another therapist, IMHO. It's not you, really, no kidding. It's her. That happens.
posted by Bella Donna at 8:53 PM on October 25, 2015 [10 favorites]

Hmm. Internet fraud detective squad makes good point. Setting boundaries (or attempting to) with paid professionals can be great practice for life outside of the therapist's office. Good luck whatever you choose to do.
posted by Bella Donna at 8:55 PM on October 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

Also, I am not saying that this is what is going on here, but I definitely can get into a pattern with someone who feels authoritative where I act sort of helpless and solicit their advice...and then get annoyed that they are giving me advice, which feels unsolicited.

I will constantly dangle "tell me what to do" bait and then if they take it, I withdraw and feel like they are being controlling and critical. It's a sort of testing behavior (and a way of avoiding having honest conversations with people about my real needs--after all, see how controlling/critical they are? How could I possibly open up to them?). I then respond by being secretive and evasive. (Of course I have to be secretive and evasive--look how controlling they are!)

It's important to note that I don't think that I am doing anything wrong here, or bad. This is a pattern that used to work for me and now doesn't work for me as well, so when I see it I usually want to do something to get out of it or transform it into something a little more honest and useful for me.

I feel like a more experienced therapist would probably be able to see this pattern and avoid getting wrapped up in it (if this kind of pattern is what's going on) but telling your therapist that it's a problem could very well snap her out of her particular role (and seems likely to snap you out of your particular role.)
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 9:01 PM on October 25, 2015 [11 favorites]

Best answer: Having looked at your past questions, I think it's likely very, very, very important that you find a therapist who makes you feel empowered and in charge, even when that feels scary, rather than one who recreates your past traumas and helplessness, even when that feels comfortable. You might also look into finding a therapist with experience in treating survivors of trauma, even if those are not the issues you're currently working on.

I totally get the idea that attempting to set boundaries with this therapist could be a way of breaking out of past patterns, but in my experience, these types of therapists often don't have the skills or expertise to be able to navigate that type of meta-conversation in any sort of healing way. It's obviously totally your call, but if you do decide to take the risk and say something, and it doesn't go well, please be aware that that may not be your fault.
posted by jaguar at 9:04 PM on October 25, 2015 [17 favorites]

jaguar gives excellent advice.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 9:12 PM on October 25, 2015

This woman is being way weird. It is totally not her fucking business if you lift weights or not. And "just meet new people!!" is not helpful or even really advice, which she shouldn't be giving anyway.

I'd stand up to her and then fire her, probably, if I was in the right mental place. If no, I think dumping her and finding a new therapist could be just as empowering; you knew she was over the line and you simply moved on and did what was best for you. That's just me, though; what's important is that you figure out what's comfortable for you and do it in a way you feel proud of.
posted by easter queen at 9:29 PM on October 25, 2015 [5 favorites]

I wouldn't like this either. Sometimes an excuse (i.e, bad tire) isn't an 'oh, I'm doing everything to justify why I can't do something' and is just what it is - a simple explanation for why it was not possible *today*. But she jumped on you like you were making endless excuses. And even if you were, that's something to work through in therapy; finding helpful strategies to overcome those thoughts rather than just telling you to do something. I hate that, I mean, what does she expect, you'll say "oh, you mean going to the gym regularly is a way to get fit, I never thought of that!"

Friends and family often like to provide advice with the assumption that asker is completetely stupid and living under a rock but a therapist should be empowering you to work on why you find X and Y difficult.

I would cancel any further appointments and if she asks I'd say I didn't like being berated about everything I tried not meeting her needs. But I also wouldn't feel bad just moving on and finding someone better. This isn't just her not meshing with you - she sounds crummy and ineffective and ignorant of how therapy should work. She's basically that really annoying know it all friend /family member you try not to see too often because its exhausting being told that if you just did what she said you'd be happy, skinny, rich and married to a doctor or whatever.

How would I start that conversation without it seeming like I'm criticizing her?

I wouldn't worry about it sounding like you're criticizing her. Frankly it sounds like she could do with some critical feedback.
posted by kitten magic at 10:07 PM on October 25, 2015 [7 favorites]

I know that it's a therapist's job to help improve your life

OK, but she's not helping you improve your life. She's doing things you've asked her not to do, making suggestions with no professional basis (she's a therapist, not a personal trainer), and giving advice rather than providing psychotherapy. You found a gym you like and can afford, and you went and worked out in a way that felt comfortable to you. That's awesome! You've been socializing more. That's also awesome! I'm really concerned to hear that instead of supporting your progress and helping you to identify how you've done it so far and how to keep going, she's treating your important steps forward as not good enough and telling you what to do instead.

I recently graduated with my social work degree. During my internships and as a beginning social worker, it has been tempting to think, "I can help fix all of this person's problems!" and give advice rather than do my job. This is because I'm new to the field, and that's a rookie mistake. And with good supervision and time, I've been able to see that I'm often wrong about how to "fix" the person's problems, and moreover I'm trying to skip past the work that the person needs to do right now, which does my client a huge disservice. I wonder if she's new to the profession, or just not very good at her job. Either way, it doesn't sound like she's a helpful therapist for you. I don't know if it's worth trying to talk this through with her, but I'm inclined to think it's not. You've expressed to her that it's not helpful for her to throw a bunch of ideas at you at once, and she's kept doing it. (By the way, being able to express that? Another awesome thing you did!) That suggests to me that she doesn't respect your needs enough to have a healthy conversation about what's happening between the two of you. That said, you don't need to worry about criticizing her: giving honest feedback on how your relationship with a therapist is working out is totally fine and healthy.

You deserve a therapist who respects you and your goals, and who challenges you in ways that are helpful and thoughtful, rather than discouraging. A therapist who points out, "I notice that for the past several weeks, you've had reasons you can't make it to the gym. What do you think that's about?" and if you hem and haw, says, "I get the sense that you don't really want to go to the gym, and that maybe these excuses are part of that. Could that be true?" is very different from a therapist who says, "I know you're making up excuses in your head. You need to go and lift weights."
posted by Meg_Murry at 10:16 PM on October 25, 2015 [20 favorites]

She sounds more like a (really bad/unskilled) life coach than a therapist, go get what you need, I don't think it's her.
posted by Iteki at 1:39 AM on October 26, 2015 [6 favorites]

what type of therapy is she offering? Are you sure this is not some sort of coaching rather than therapy? Advice is to my mind not the core issue of therapy.
I have seen several therapists in the past decades but the only ones offering very specific advise (eg go to the gym x times per weeek) and exerting pressure I implement it and guilt tripping me if I did not, were those from a religious sect I was part of. Any other therapist since was of the encouraging, accepting, type, and never put me down even if I obviously did not "comply" with any suggestion or goal we were / are working on. Instead we explore why I am petrfied to implement goal or homework (eg my last home work was: do something for myself each day - and report on it. If I had nothign to report, then we talk about what is difficult about the homework of doing something special for myself each day. But definitly no guilt trip.

So I agree with all the others, she does not seem to be what you need right now. Shop around and maybe if you have not done so, look further into types of therapy offered. There is so much you can certainly find a style that suits you, especially if you live in an urban area. Personally I currently see a therapist offering talk based therapy with qualification and experience also in trauma therapy.
Also one thing I beleive is that in general (regardless of type of therapy they offer) the older and more experienced the therapist is, the better for you. I would definitely stay clear of anyone younger than myself and anyone practicing less than 5 years, ideally more with 10 yrs of experience.
posted by 15L06 at 3:01 AM on October 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

She sounds amazingly unhelpful. This is not what good therapists do, and this is not an effective way to help someone with depression, anxiety, shaky self-esteem, or just about anything that people go to therapists for. I keep thinking about how her approach would affect someone with disordered eating (which I struggled with for years and never brought up with my first therapist) and it's just bad news.

Remember: she is not your boss. You are her client, and she works for you. You are a hundred percent entitled to tell her to change what she's doing, and a hundred percent entitled to ditch her if she's not working. And if you don't feel comfortable bringing this up with her directly and would rather silently drop her, that's fine. Ideally you should feel safe bringing up concerns like this with a therapist, but the fact that you don't suggests that she is probably not right for you.

And sure, she needs to learn that her approach is unhelpful. If you're the one who brings it up, it'd be a kind and brave move on your part. But you are not required to do so. She will learn.
posted by Metroid Baby at 3:30 AM on October 26, 2015 [8 favorites]

Print your post and take two copies to your next appointment. Use it to help you say what you want.
posted by Carol Anne at 6:10 AM on October 26, 2015

Response by poster: Thank you all so much. It's true I am often searching for her approval, which I tend to do. Particularly with "authority" figures. It's something I need to work on.. but with a better therapist. Going to the gym is a BIG deal for me, never mind three times in my first week. I was so happy with myself. It was hard to hear her undermine that. Continuing to see her would likely only reinforce my people pleasing nature, and that's not what I need.
posted by blackzinfandel at 7:00 AM on October 26, 2015 [19 favorites]

For comparison: I had a good therapist who, when I brought up that I was making significant diet and exercise changes while seeing her, set me up with a consultation with a nutritionist and explicitly acknowledged that it was outside of her field.
posted by almostmanda at 9:32 AM on October 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

Going to the gym is a BIG deal for me, never mind three times in my first week. I was so happy with myself. It was hard to hear her undermine that.

Any thoughtful and attentive therapist -- and they're out there -- would share your delight over going to the gym on your own terms, and would acknowledge the magnitude of your achievement.* If you found that you were having trouble going back to the gym, and you found that frustrating, such a therapist would help you to explore why you felt that way. Your therapist does not seem to be that kind of therapist.

It's not unreasonable to expect that going to therapy will improve your life, but a therapist should not do that by issuing instructions and chiding you for failing to follow them. There's a lot of good advice in this thread about how to be assertive with this therapist. If, after telling her what you need, you find that she continues to be unhelpful, drop her and look for another one. It can be scary and exhausting to look for another therapist, but you don't deserve to be made to feel this way by a clinical professional.

*And it is an achievement. Well done!
posted by Yesterday's camel at 10:26 AM on October 26, 2015 [7 favorites]

I've heard a phrase several times recently: "Don't should all over yourself." Being told -or feeling - that you "should" do something can be detrimental to progress. It leads to guilt and lack of motivation, often paralysis. Focus on what you have accomplished and be proud of yourself for that. I nth that you should find a new therapist, this one sounds critical and pushy.

And congratulations on your gym-going, it's a fantastic achievement!
posted by bendy at 12:32 PM on October 26, 2015 [6 favorites]

This person sounds like a terrible therapist. More of an anti-therapist: "Oh, so you've been feeling better and steadily working toward your goals lately? Well, hold it right there! I'll tell you what you should be feeling bad about..."
posted by John Cohen at 5:50 PM on October 26, 2015 [12 favorites]

A lot of great advice above. Also consider going to a male therapist. As a male, I have always gone to a female therapist. While I have no data to back it up, I feel like having no shared gender-based experiences allows one to start and then continue with a cleaner slate.
posted by teg4rvn at 12:38 PM on October 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks again everyone. I started with a new therapist recently and we hit it off. He seems like the kind of therapist I need to make progress. I'm looking forward to our next appointment.
posted by blackzinfandel at 10:26 PM on January 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

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