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20 'Harmless' Comments Therapists Said That Actually Hurt Their Patients

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Therapy is a big part of healing for many who’ve struggled with mental health in their lives. And as people who have been in therapy know, it can be an incredibly vulnerable and scary experience. I mean, when you think about it, you’re confiding the deepest, darkest parts of yourself to a complete stranger — usually while hoping they won’t judge you or think you’re being “too much.”

So when that highly-trained stranger makes a seemingly “harmless” — but actually invalidating and painful — comment, it leaves a mark that is often hard to erase.

Maybe your therapist suggested trying a diet to help with depressive thoughts — without realizing you’ve been struggling with harmful dieting and disordered eating for years. Maybe lack of experience with your particular diagnosis led them to make a sweeping and harmful generalization about people with your condition. Or maybe lack of funding and resources caused your therapist to let you go as a client — triggering feelings of being undeserving or “past help.”

And while we should absolutely acknowledge therapists are only human and recognize everyone’s needs in therapy are different, it’s important we talk about the harmful things therapists have said to patients, because the reality is, the way professionals talk to their patients can affect the way that patient seeks help for the rest of their life.

We wanted to know what “harmless” comments therapists said to their patients that actually hurt their mental health, so we asked our mental health community to share one with us and explain what it felt like to hear it.

If you have been mistreated or invalidated by a therapist, you’re not alone. Good therapists are out there, and even when mental illness makes it hard to seek out help, we encourage you to not give up on therapy, and keep fighting for your recovery — because you deserve support and healing.

Here’s what our community shared with us:

1. “You don’t look very depressed.”

“‘You don’t look very depressed. Your hair, your makeup, your outfit — I can see you take good care of yourself.’ Thanks. My anxiety and desire to blend in with society help me put on my facade every day. I don’t remember the last time I took a shower or brushed my teeth. But I’m glad you think I look happy.” — Laura J.

2. “I can tell you are depressed just by looking at you.”

“‘I can tell you are depressed just looking at you: the clothes you are wearing, no makeup.’ I was wearing athletic clothing and a ball cap (because I had just worked out ). I was meeting counselor for the very first time as my then-husband has just been arrested for domestic violence and counseling for us both was mandated by the legal system. This was the appointed counselor who was supposed to help me process the trauma and instead she indicated that my apparent depression caused my ex-husband’s violence toward me… I walked out of there and never returned.” — Jenn C.

3. “Isn’t 25 a bit too young to be retiring?”

“I was letting her know I was going to be getting everything set up to go on disability for my health and she cuts me off and asks me, ‘Isn’t 25 a bit too young for you to be retiring?’ Then [she] proceeded to try and tell me how I felt and it wasn’t that bad and I overreact when it comes to my memory issues. I had electro-convulsive therapy (ECT). She has no idea about the treatment… Two-ish years later, my memory is still messy as hell and I’m still fighting for help.” — Valerie R.

“‘There are plenty of bipolar people who work and are successful. So why can’t you?’ I ask myself this all the time and felt even more worthless.” — Lisa B.

4. “I’m always excited to see you because you have interesting stories to tell.”

“I had a therapist who said she was excited to see me because I always had interesting stories to tell. It made me feel like my issues were a source of entertainment for her.” — Lacie J.

5. “We don’t have the resources to treat you.”

“‘We have limited resources so our funding would be better spent on treating someone who has a better chance of recovery.’ [This is] what eating disorder services said to me before discharging me for being ‘too severe’ and not responding to treatment.” — Laura B.

“‘We don’t have the resources to help you. Good luck.’ [I was at an] utter loss for words. I had never felt so failed by the mental health system. That my mental health issues were too much for help. Where is the line drawn between those who can and can’t be helped?” — Taliah Y.

“When I confided in the school psychologist that my suicidal thoughts had come back in full swing, she told me, ‘we aren’t trained to handle that’ and sent me home alone, where I contemplated suicide for the rest of the day.” — Ryann M.

6. “If you have borderline personality disorder, we can’t help you.”

 “‘If it turns out to be BPD, there’s really nothing we can do for it. It’s a personality defect and there’s not really much information about it.’” — Christopher B.

“I approached a therapist about a personality disorder once. She said, ‘There’s no way it’s a personality disorder because you’re responding to treatment. People with personality disorders can’t be helped.’ I told my next therapist that and she was appalled. It’s simply not true. At all.” — Tara S.

7. “Have you been praying about it?”

“‘You should pray about it’ and ‘Have you tried praying about it?’ While I recognize that some people find comfort in faith, I’m not one of those people. And even if I was, when I go to a therapist or psychiatrist it is for medical treatment, not spiritual guidance.” — Mary M.

8. “I’m not convinced you really have anxiety.”

“‘You seem to be doing fine. I’m not convinced that you really have anxiety.’ I have worked hard to come up with ways to cope and function with my anxiety so I can lead a normal life. That doesn’t mean my brain isn’t going a million miles a minute and my stomach isn’t tied up in knots when it kicks in, even if I’m good at keeping a straight face.” — Meagan B.

9. “You can’t have BPD because you aren’t cruel or manipulative.”

“After getting my diagnosis he told me, ‘You can’t have borderline personality disorder — you don’t seem cruel or manipulative at all.’ I’ve struggled with self-loathing and poor self-worth my entire life. I left convinced my diagnosis made a terrible human being.” — Rene S.

10. “Maybe if you lost weight, your depression would get better.”

“‘Maybe if you did lose the weight your depression would get better.’ [I heard this] after we discussed my body dysmorphic disorder and obsession with my weight and how it might be impacting my major depressive disorder as well. And I’m thinking, ‘Great all of my problems are because I’m fat and everyone else also thinks it’s because I’m fat.” — Melina A.

“When I went in for a med review, I told my psychologist I was gaining weight and I thought it was the meds I was on and he said that weight gain wasn’t one of the side effects and that I just needed ‘self-control’ and to ‘eat less food.’ I have struggled with my relationship with food since I was a child, so hearing this sent me into a crazy exercise kick and I stopped eating.” — Haley D.

11. “You need to look for the positives.”

“I could be having the absolute worst day and all I hear from my counselor and psychiatrist was to ‘look for the positives,’ and ‘try some dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).’ Sometimes it does more good to just feel my feelings and have them validated (in other words, be told told it’s OK to have these feelings) than to try to put the blame on me for not being positive.” — Jennifer M.

12. “You’re too pretty to be suicidal.”

“After my first suicide attempt, I’m in the paper gown, they’d taken all my stuff. The therapist comes in to interview me. Asks me if they let me out, would I try to harm myself again. I answered affirmative. He says these words: ‘It doesn’t make any sense. You’re young and very beautiful.’” — Nolwazi P.

13. “Why can’t you just yell ‘stop!’ to your thoughts?”

“I have OCD and intrusive thoughts. Thought-stopping is actually a compulsion and can send you flying 500 steps back from recovery.” — Bethany M.

14. “That’s not something to worry about.”

“‘Oh, that just happens sometimes. It’s not worth worrying about.’ This was said about a traumatic event that happened to me as a child, which I kept secret for 20 years and had only just found the courage to admit.” — Angela M.

15. “You’re so strong. You will be able to get through this with willpower.”

“I struggled with self-harm and thoughts of suicide and not being able to get out of bed for years before I made the jump to see a therapist. It was a big step physically, mentally and financially. After one session, the therapist told me, ‘You’re a lot stronger than most of my clients. You will make it through this with your own willpower.’ Then gave me a list of self-help books. I was so confused and didn’t know what to say, so I went out and tried to ‘help myself’ for years after and am still trying to figure out the right treatment. Sometimes, you can’t do it on your own, and that is OK.” — Emily A.

16. “I am no closer to understanding your mind now than I was the first day I met you.”

“At the age of 17, after almost 18 months of seeing a psychologist three times a week, he said, ‘I am no closer now in understanding how your mind works than I was the first day you walked in here.’ I left and never went back. For me, it was confirmation of what I always felt — that I was born ‘broken’ and couldn’t be helped.” — Adele S.

17. “I’ve never dealt with this before. I need to do some research before we continue.”

“My parents died together fairly horrifically, and the first therapist I saw literally sent me home about five minutes into our appointment. She told me that she had ‘never dealt with anything quite like this, and needed to do some research.’ Thanks. Because I hadn’t already felt horribly alone enough before I walked through your door.” — Sarah B.

18. “You need to stop throwing pity parties for yourself.”

“My old therapist told me if I wanted to get better, I would [need to] actually try. She also said I needed to stop throwing pity parties and do something about it (like it’s easy). And that I am using my suicidal thoughts and self-harm for attention (when in truth I don’t tell anyone and they’re not visible…) It really hurt and made me feel invalidated and now I’m afraid to open up about my problems and feel like it’s my fault.” — Christina S.

19. “You couldn’t have really had ADHD if you made it through college and went to grad school.”

“This was a psychiatrist who was supposedly specializing [in ADHD]. This was 20 years ago. People were so skeptical of an ADHD diagnosis for a woman who wasn’t hyperactive back then. But I was struggling so much through all of it. And hating myself, making poor choices, etc. I finally got help years later but only after a lot of damage was done.” — Eileen S.

20. “It could always be worse.”

“I know this. And I always focus on this and it makes me feel so horrible and guilty. I know things can be worse. Things can always be worse, but pain and suffering is relative.” — Rowan K.

If you’re feeling unsupported in therapy, check out these seven signs it might be time to find a new therapist. While finding the right therapist sometimes takes work, it’s worth it.

Getty Images photo via vadimguzhva

Originally published: March 16, 2018
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