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Therapists Spill: 8 Ways Clients Spoil Their Progress in Therapy (& How to Change That)

Therapy can be tremendously effective.

But sometimes as clients, we can stand in our own way. In fact, we might unwittingly hinder the therapeutic process and spoil our progress.

Below, clinicians share eight actions that typically prevent clients from getting the most out of therapy — and what you can do.

1. A poor fit between clinician and client.

It’s common — and recommended — to try out several clinicians before making your decision. According to Ryan Howes, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and professor in Pasadena, California, “It’s important to check a potential therapist’s license and credentials, their areas of expertise, the logistical factors [such as] cost, distance [and] insurance, and then test drive a handful of therapists before selecting one.” While it might feel uncomfortable telling a therapist you don’t want to work with them, remember that the right fit is important for your progress. “If you don’t feel safe opening up to this person, you’re not likely to meet your goals,” Howes said.

2. Not asking questions. Do you know what your diagnosis means? What your goals are in therapy? What you need to do in between sessions? Many clients don’t ask their therapist questions, Howes said. “[Clients don’t ask] because they feel intimidated, or believe it wouldn’t be polite, or can’t get a word in edgewise,” he said. “Instead, they go home and ask their friends what the therapist meant when she said ______.” Howes encouraged readers to ask questions any time you need clarification.

3. Being inconsistent.

“Therapy is hard work,” said Alison Thayer, LCPC, CEAP, a psychotherapist at Urban Balance, LLC. And there are many obstacles and responsibilities that can easily get in the way. But consistency is key in therapy, she said. “Clients must understand that therapy is going to take time and commitment, and in order to maximize the benefits, they need to make sessions a priority,” she said.

4. Not doing the work outside of sessions.

Change doesn’t just happen in session. It happens outside the therapist’s office. But “some clients seem to leave the session, get swept up in the busyness of the week, and then show up a week later having spent no time thinking about our work together,” Howes said. “Progress is slow to none at this rate.” What does promote progress is when therapy lasts all week, Howes said. In other words, “you’re applying what you’ve learned in therapy on a daily basis and you’re noticing topics you’d like to cover in the next session.” Thayer added: “While the sessions are important, so are the clients’ efforts to reflect [on] therapeutic content and make changes in their lives.”

5. Ditching therapy because of discomfort.

At times therapy can be unpleasant, Howes said. “The subject matter you’re discussing, the blockages you’re working through, or challenges within the therapeutic relationship can make you wonder why you’re dedicating time and money to this unpleasantness,” he said. Such discomfort can lead clients to consistently arrive late to sessions, said clinical psychologist John Duffy, Ph.D. Or some clients simply “cut and run,” Howes said. Rather than leaving, however, Howes suggested sharing your feelings with your therapist. “Together, the two of you might find a different pace or approach that isn’t quite as painful,” he said.

6. Expecting a quick fix.

“Sometimes, clients may have a preconceived idea that they want to resolve an issue in a certain number of sessions,” Thayer said. But this kind of thinking can limit your experience in therapy, she said. “Because every client and presenting issue is unique, there is not necessarily a set, prescribed number of sessions that can guarantee positive results,” she said. That’s why she suggested clients keep an open mind about how quickly they improve.

7. Expecting the therapist to do all the work.

“Therapy is an active process and requires work on the part of the therapist and the client,” said Julie Hanks, LCSW, a therapist and blogger at Psych Central. “Clients who expect their therapist to work harder or invest more in treatment than they are willing to invest in themselves usually don’t get the maximum benefit of therapy,” she said.

8. Reenacting the same patterns.

“Clients will generally use the same defense mechanisms and tactics in the therapy process that led them to seek therapy in the first place,” Hanks said. For instance, a client who has a tough time asserting her needs and puts others first might be habitually late to sessions, thereby depriving “herself of getting her own needs met in therapy,” she said.

Therapists Spill: 8 Ways Clients Spoil Their Progress in Therapy (& How to Change That)

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). Therapists Spill: 8 Ways Clients Spoil Their Progress in Therapy (& How to Change That). Psych Central. Retrieved on August 9, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.