One of the most legitimate fears people have about getting counseling is that they’re going to end up with a counselor who is a quack. The problem is that if you have never been through counseling before (and perhaps even if you have) how will you know quackery when you see it? Below are a list of clues to possible quackery, but before that, a disclaimer: If you are currently in counseling and have a great relationship with your counselor, but he/she has done something on this list, that does not mean you should necessarily sever the relationship and find another counselor. Good relationships are highly valuable. Think twice before you look elsewhere, but be wary. (Of course some of these are relationship deal-breakers!)
1. Beware of the counselor who seems to be labeling or pigeonholing you. This could mean a lot of talk about the “condition you have” or the counselor coming off too quickly like he/she knows you thoroughly. It is one thing to relate and understand. It is another to come off like they are omniscient.
2. Beware of the counselor who talks excessively about him/herself. Self-disclosure is fine, but this is your time, and it is expensive! At the very least, ask your counselor not to do this and see if he/she is open to you. At the same time, allow counselors to occasionally use an example from their own life to clarify something for you. The bottom line is don’t end up being your counselor’s therapist!
3. Beware of the counselor who quickly suggests getting you on medication. Some people will dramatically benefit from meds, but unless you are severely uncomfortable, your counselor needs to get familiar with the details of your situation before considering medication. Maybe counseling alone can do the trick. Maybe you just need more sleep or exercise. Good counselors explore possibilities. They do not jump to conclusions.
4. Beware of the counselor who never does anything. Though there are some legitimate counseling approaches that are so delicate that you might not even realize anything is happening, if you’re concerned about this, ask your counselor about it. Ask him/her about their “theoretical orientation.” You may not know what this is, but your counselor should quickly realize that you are asking him/her to tell you how he/she believes counseling works. When a counselor explains that to you, you should see a connection between that explanation and how they actually act in your sessions. It’s okay once in a while to ask your counselor, “What do you believe is happening in our sessions over the last few weeks?” A good counselor will be able to give you a good answer to this.
5. Beware of the counselor who tries to convert you. If you are religious, beware of the counselor who tries to talk you out of it. If you are not religious, beware of the counselor who tries to talk you into it. On the other hand, your views about God (either way) are a critical piece of who you are. It’s legitimate for a counselor to want to explore this. If you start feeling uncomfortable, say so.
6. Beware of the counselor who wants to be your buddy. Your counselor should not call you for social reasons, or send you a lot of emails initiating contact with you outside of sessions. An occasional check-in is fine, and it’s appropriate to schedule sessions via email, but lengthy email and phone conversations are pushing it. As a client, there might be things you want to email your counselor about before you forget. Depending on your counselor, this might be fine. But he/she should not get into lengthy responses and engage you in this way. That is not appropriate for this kind of relationship. Your counselor should care deeply about you, but you are not “friends.” The ethics of a counselor trying to become your friend on Facebook, or follow you on Twitter, also, are pretty shaky. Incidentally, unless your counselor has a Facebook page or Twitter stream set up for his/her counseling business, you should not attempt to become a Facebook friend or a Twitter follower of your counselor either.
7. Beware of the flirty counselor. Encouragement is appropriate, but flirting is off-limits. If your counselor says something that makes you feel uncomfortable, tell them immediately. Romance of any kind between counselors and clients is completely unethical.
8. Beware of the counselor who seems to be encouraging you to be dependent on them. Good counselors want you to be independent.
9. Beware of the counselor who constantly gives advice. They are there to support, encourage, challenge, and guide you. They are not there to live your life and make your decisions for you. Suggestions are okay, but they should normally be gentle, and not come with the slightest hint of judgment. That’s why you get counseling in a professional office and not in a tree house. But of course, it is okay for you as a client to ask for advice.
10. Beware of the counselor who won’t let you go. Most people don’t need to be in counseling forever. If your counselor always has reasons why you need to keep making appointments (especially if it involves always digging up new issues), ask a few good questions like, “If you were going to tell me tomorrow that I don’t need counseling anymore, how would my life be different than it is right now?”
There are ten signs of possible counseling quackery. But remember, counseling can be an uncomfortable process at times. Don’t ditch a counselor just because they said something you didn’t agree with or didn’t understand. Let the process work.