Therapist Drift: What It Is and Why You Should Care

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Therapy is a complex, deeply personal journey that can be both transformative and healing. But what happens when the journey seems to meander, leaving you feeling lost or ungrounded? In the realm of therapy, a concept known as “therapist drift” could be a potential explanation. It’s not commonly discussed outside professional circles, but it’s crucial for clients to understand. Find out why it’s so vital for clients like you to be aware of therapist drift.

What is Therapist Drift?

Therapist drift is a phenomenon where therapists diverge from evidence-based protocols, whether unintentionally or intentionally. Evidence-based protocols are instructions on how to perform therapy created through academic and practical research. This drift can occur for numerous reasons, such as a desire to incorporate new methods, personal biases, or simply feeling overwhelmed by the rigidity of the therapeutic model. The crux of the issue is that these deviations can sometimes lead to less effective treatment outcomes, leaving clients feeling dissatisfied or like they are not making progress.

Implications of Therapist Drift

Therapist drift has several implications, most notably its potential to diminish the effectiveness of therapy. Evidence-based protocols have garnered their status due to extensive research affirming their effectiveness. Straying from these protocols, therefore, risks undercutting their demonstrated efficacy.

Therapist drift can also muddy the waters for clients looking for a clear path forward. If a therapist continually alters their approach, it can create a sense of instability and uncertainty. Therapy is fundamentally about helping clients navigate challenging emotional landscapes; drift can exacerbate the very problems it seeks to remedy by injecting additional uncertainty into the process.

Why It’s Important for Clients to Understand

You may be wondering why it’s essential for you, the client, to be aware of it. Here are three compelling reasons:

  1. Ensuring the Quality of Care: Understanding therapist drift empowers you to take an active role in your therapeutic journey. By being aware of the concept, you’re better equipped to recognize if your therapist begins to drift, enabling you to address it in the therapy room or even consider looking for a new therapist if needed.
  2. Building Trust: Being aware of therapist drift helps build trust with your therapist. If your therapist talks about it openly, it shows their commitment to transparency and adherence to evidence-based protocols. It signifies their dedication to your well-being and their professional integrity.
  3. Promoting Active Participation: Knowledge of therapist drift encourages you to participate more actively in your therapy. It fosters dialogue and can inspire you to ask questions about the methodologies being employed and the rationale behind them. This active engagement can enhance the therapeutic alliance, a critical factor in successful therapy outcomes.

Tips to Navigate Therapist Drift

Recognizing therapist drift is only the first step. Here are a few tips to help you navigate it effectively:

  • Open Dialogue: Feel comfortable discussing any concerns about the therapeutic approach with your therapist. Therapy should be collaborative, and your voice matters.
  • Informed Decision: Educate yourself about different therapeutic approaches and their evidence basis. This will help you discern whether a change in approach is evidence-based or a drift.
  • Seek a Second Opinion: If you feel uncomfortable addressing the issue with your therapist, consider seeking the help of another trusted mental health professional, such as a clinical psychologist, to discuss your concerns.
  • Trust Your Instincts: Therapy is a personal journey. If something doesn’t feel right, trust your instincts.

Final Thoughts

Therapist drift is a subtle yet impactful phenomenon that can influence the course of your therapy. As a client, understanding it not only empowers you to advocate for yourself but also fosters a deeper understanding of the therapeutic process. In the therapy journey, you are not a passive passenger but an active participant steering the wheel alongside your therapist. Armed with the knowledge of therapist drift, you can ensure your journey is focused and effective and leads you towards the growth and healing you seek.


  1. Waller, G. (2009). Evidence-based treatment and therapist drift. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 47(2), 119-127.
  2. Castonguay, L. G., & Beutler, L. E. (Eds.). (2006). Principles of therapeutic change that work. Oxford University Press, USA.
  3. Webb, C. A., DeRubeis, R. J., & Barber, J. P. (2010). Therapist adherence/competence and treatment outcome: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 78(2), 200.