Red leafed trees with dark trunks

Red Flags in Counseling

I often joke that counseling is like dating. You don’t always ‘click’ with every counselor, and when it comes time to say goodbye, it can feel like you have to artfully construct a breakup. Sometimes it’s awkward, sometimes it’s painful, and other times it’s mutually for the best. But my experience in breaking up with counselors, (3 of them, to be exact), was critical in my mental health journey, and eventually led to me finding “the one.”

I want to encourage you that if you are in need of help and have not found the right counselor, keep trying. Take a break if you must, but don’t let the wrong fit in the short term keep you from finding the right fit in the long term. Finding a counselor is about finding someone that will walk with you through the hardest parts of your past, present, and future so that you can heal, grow, and thrive.

I was so blessed to have a couple in my life to walk alongside me as I tried multiple counselors, and they repeatedly affirmed that it might take time, they might not be the right fit, and that I am not beyond help. I am here to do the same for you. And just like they listened and helped me see red and green flags, I want to share what I have learned so you can identify them too. Some red flags are obvious, and other things are a bit more ambiguous/subjective, which is what we’re going to talk about. Along with each flag, I’ve offered thoughts and examples that will hopefully help bring them to life and help you see them (or hopefully, not) in your own life.

The Red Flags

Not Feeling Heard

Oftentimes a counselor will echo what you’ve shared, to clarify, validate, and follow along. This is the classic “so what I hear you saying is…” and despite it sometimes feeling cheesy or redundant, I have found it valuable to know that I am understood. It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t seem to matter until it’s ‘off’.

With one counselor, in particular, there was a consistently incorrect echo that started creating hesitations and distrust. It was things like referencing events we had talked about but getting major details wrong, skipping over things I had specifically asked for help with, or assigning me emotions I “must feel” even when I had already clarified I didn’t feel that way. It felt like we were speaking different languages. After several weeks of fighting to be properly understood, I began to realize I no longer trusted her understanding of anything I shared and therefore was resisting her help overall. Not ideal, obviously.

Sustained Stalled Progress. 

This is a tough one because of how wildly progress can ebb and flow. Even now that I have found the right counselor, there is variety. Some weeks are packed with high-intensity moments, sudden revelations, or significant breakthroughs that leave me wishing we had more time to keep working through things. But sometimes the conversation stays easy, with a relative lack of impact, and wondering if I still even need counseling. I would highly suspect that if you’re in counseling, eventually, you’ll face the same dilemma. But just because a session (or a few sessions) didn’t seem to have impact, it doesn’t mean you don’t still need support. And yes, the time may come when monthly appointments are more helpful than weekly, or maybe a few times a year is all you might need. But feeling stalled is not a reason to quit altogether.

So when I say “sustained stalled progress,” I mean exactly that. I mean that it’s not helping, it hasn’t been helping, and there is no sign of change ahead despite a continued need for active support.

Despite seeing impressive progress with EMDR in the first few weeks in my experience with one counselor, there were still many things I needed help working through. The complexity of my needs surpassed my counselor’s ability to help, and the result was weekly appointments that landed somewhere on the range from barely therapeutic to quite triggering. As time went on, I began to realize that instead of a helpful coach, she was more of a supportive bystander. Her office was certainly a safe space to process, but week after week I did not see a change in the inner chaos, nor my ability to handle it. It wasn’t that I was beyond help – it was that I was beyond HER ability to help. It’s an important distinction, and one that is not a fault but rather a fact.


Counselors are human, and it is reasonable for them to have different strengths and comfort zones when it comes to methods of counseling. But one thing I have learned to appreciate is an appropriate level of certainty. Sometimes the counselor is absolutely right, and their firm grasp on the situation, despite my lagging enthusiasm, is critical to working through something and finding healing. In my favorite example, I firmly asserted, “Nothing we have done so far today is helping!” during a crisis. My counselor (who is experienced in trauma) rephrased, but didn’t back down. After a lengthy amount of back-and-forth, it finally clicked for me, and to this day, that session is one of the most important turning points in my journey. It was a moment that firmly established the trust and respect I have in him and his expertise. It was the moment I realized he can see things in me that I simply cannot see, and is willing to bear with me until we get where we need to go.

But as much as holding their ground can indicate expertise, inflexibility can also be a major red flag.

I worked with a counselor who was very committed to one method of therapy. Unfortunately, the exercise was unhelpful and triggering. It actively caused worsening symptoms both while I was in her office and while I was at home, and I was struggling greatly. I knew that things often get worse before they get better, but it was excessive and I was not able to handle what was exploding to the surface. After several requests to shift gears and try something else, I was told that this is foundational, and may not be changed. Additionally, when asked if there were any coping tips she could give me to deal with the avalanche of inner chaos, I was rebuked and told the goal was healing, not coping, and the way to healing was through what we had been doing.

I continued forward, determined to give it an honest try, but I was in crisis. The following week I offered two or three ways that we could remove the triggering aspects while keeping the integrity of the exercise but was immediately shot down. In the following minutes, I was eventually told (verbatim), “Sometimes you have to be re-traumatized in order to heal.” I paused. I then told her I was done, and would not be coming to further appointments. I was desperate to try something, anything else if she was willing to walk me through it, but she was not willing to yield.

Sometimes counseling hurts. It pokes at unhealed wounds, it digs out painful splinters, and sometimes you are not going to understand the exact reason for certain things.

But inflexibility that results in unapologetic harm is not ok. Period.

Showing Frustration. 

The deciding factor here, is what the frustration is aimed at. This matters. A lot.

A counselor showing appropriate frustration at the harm of the innocent, the lies the devil crams down our throats, and the impact of the broken world can be so healthy. For example, seeing my counselor get rather upset at the crafty lies of the enemy and use some harsh phrasing was a pretty big wake-up call for me in a season when I was too weary to care. It reminded me that there is a battle for truth, and it is to be fought and won. The frustration was clearly targeted at the problem (the lie), not the person (me).

On the other hand, inappropriate frustration is a quick way to destroy trust and create shame. On one occasion, I worked up the courage to tell my counselor I was still having panic attacks despite the progress we thought we had made, and the change in demeanor and frustration that greeted me was deflating. After a lengthy lecture on the coping techniques we had discussed, and reminding me that, had I only followed the template of praying, supplicating, and giving thanks, I would have peace and not panic attacks, I felt like garbage for my apparent shortcomings and inability to have enough faith. On a similar but separate occasion with another counselor, I was reproved for not having used the breathing techniques “that we had talked about.” After several minutes of confusion and heated discussion, she still asserted that she had directed me to try the technique and that I should have utilized it. After a minute of searching through her notes, she apologized and said it looks like that must have been a different client. She then proceeded to explain the exercise. Not only did I feel I was being blamed for my lack of effort, but in the end, I hadn’t even been told about it in the first place. Both examples ultimately contributed to anxiety and guarded honesty.

In sharp contrast, I feel complete safety in admitting my shortcomings to my current counselor. He is a decidedly “safe person.”

I realized this, of course, after ‘letting him down.’ I braced myself for guilt, but as I admitted to not having done any of the homework, he met me with grace. “It’s ok. Next week let’s start with just one of the things we talked about instead of all three. Does that feel doable, or is there something else that is keeping you from doing the exercise?”

At first, I didn’t really know what to say. The level of effort I had contributed deserved an F. But instead of the expected, “Why are you coming to me for help if you don’t do what I ask?”, I received compassion. And it has been contagious. More than ever I am growing in my ability to borrow his gentle tone and use it towards myself. When I neglect important tasks, I ask myself how I can break it down into easier steps. I ask myself if the task needs to be done or if there is something bigger getting in the way that needs to be dealt with first.

Similarly, after a week of particularly poor coping, he began to remind me of the specific things we had talked about to help me deal with the emotions and symptoms. I apologized and was embarrassed that he had to remind me for what seemed like the third week in a row, and promised to try and do better at remembering the tools he had given me. He encouraged me, saying, “I will remind you this week, and every week after if that’s what it takes. I don’t expect you to get it all right away, it might take time to get in the habit of using these tools.”

That, ladies and gentlemen, is compassionate grace.

On to the Green

Developing a relationship with a counselor takes time, grace, and flexibility. It may not look the way you thought it would, or they may not get you right away. Committing to a month of seeing one counselor is a good way to give yourself space to engage in the sessions, weigh the impact, and sort through the flags before making an impulse decision based on awkwardness, difficulty in sharing, or weariness. Red flags are important to note, but so are green flags. Check out my next article, which talks about healthy counseling interactions and how I’ve seen them in my own experience, titled Green Flags in Counseling.


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