How to Select a Good Therapist

Choosing a therapist can be a journey in itself. You've decided to go to therapy, now what? You scour profile after profile of therapists on different websites as if you were looking through dating profiles to find a future partner. Afterall, this is an important new relationship.

Will this one understand me?

This one has a kind smile...

That one has terrible grammar...

I think I get a good vibe from this one...

Once you've decided who to meet with, making sure you're a good fit to work together can be a whole other issue. I want to help make this easier by filling you in on 5 common mistakes people make when choosing a therapist.

Let’s learn how to choose a therapist you’ll like who’s also a good fit for you!

Mistake #1: Choosing a therapist based on location.

As you're deciding how to choose a therapist, you might pick one located close to you. Makes sense! But, selecting a therapist conveniently located near you as the only criteria overlooks the opportunity to learn about their expertise. While it’s helpful to make sure location is close enough, the therapists in your area might not be able to help you. This is where online therapy can be helpful, because you can choose a therapist from a larger geographical area and make sure they're a good fit.

You might prefer the privacy and atmosphere of being in a therapist’s office, and that’s totally OK. Searching for a therapist who is close to another area that you frequent is one way you can find a therapist who is located close enough. Maybe there’s an anxiety therapist who does somatic work near your dentist, or a trauma therapist who lives near your cute little nephew, who you love to visit.

Is it important that your therapist is located near you? In the grand scheme of things, I would say no. Online therapy allows you to find a good therapist from a larger catchment area and work from the convenience of your own home. In the days when I worked in person, some clients said that traveling for therapy was part of their personal time and even created a sense of accountability. Driving across town for therapy can be coupled with a trip to that cute café for a treat as you reflect after a session.

*     *     *

Mistake #2: Not reading their profile.

There are many great databases to look for a therapist. Make sure to read each therapists' profile carefully because they'll identify the population they work with and their areas of expertise. Just because you like the look of a therapist or the sound of their profile doesn’t mean they will be a good fit.

Bonus tip: see if they have a website and check it out! The About Me page will often have a lot more info as profile listings usually have character limits.

Why should you work with a therapist who has expertise in your area? There are so many reasons including legalities and liability and not wasting your time and money! If you're unsure if you could be a good fit from a profile but you like the therapists' vibe, see if you can book a consultation.

*     *     *

Mistake #3: Taking a referral at face value.

I’m so grateful that many of my clients have been referred to me from someone who worked with me as a client or a colleague in the past. A referral is the highest compliment. A referral says that the person who knows the therapist likes them. It doesn’t necessarily mean you would be a good fit to work together.

Tip: Google the therapist's name! Read their website and listen to podcasts they have been a guest on. See what they're about.

Scheduling a is another way to see if you are a match.

*     *     *

Mistake #4: Judging your therapy experience based on one interaction.

While a consultation can provide you with an opportunity to interact with your potential therapist, it’s usually very brief and not therapeutic so you won’t get a sense of what working with them is going to be like exactly. The way many of my clients have described it is that they get an intuitive sense we would work well together. If that isn’t the case, find another therapist to meet with until you find someone you feel comfortable talking to.

Because therapy is about growing, this means feeling uncomfortable at times. There might even be moments or sessions that feel difficult, even from your earliest meetings. When you start working with a therapist, give it 3 to 5 sessions before deciding if you want to truly switch. Your therapy breakthrough maybe just around the corner, and you're just getting to know you were therapist in these first , and vice versa.

*     *     *

Mistake #5: Selecting a therapist for trauma work who doesn't indicate trauma experience.

This is a little tricky, because as a trauma-informed therapist, I recognize that all therapy is trauma work in some form.

So let’s say you're experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and you come across the profile of a therapist who says they like to help people feel more connected with themselves. But they don’t indicate anywhere on their profile or website that they do trauma work. Trauma recovery is very delicate work and you want to make sure that your therapist is well trained to help you navigate your situation appropriately. Any ‘ol therapist is not likely to have the advanced training skills that this requires.

Read therapist profiles and websites carefully to make sure they indicate some form of trauma training and/or trauma expertise.

Selecting a therapist is an important stage in your therapy process. You might have several therapists over your personal growth journey based on your needs at different times. And that's completely normal. Knowing how to choose a therapist based on your needs can reduce the stress of getting started.

How to find a therapist (pop these into google!):

BCACC Counsellors
Psychology Today Find A Counsellor

Your Body & Your Worth

If you've ever struggled with your body image, you are not alone. Body image and worthiness are among the most common topics among millennials in my therapy practice. It's also a controversial topic. Check out the comment section of any photo with a body in focus and you'll see praise... and critique.

Toxic ideas about weight loss and weight gain were all over popular TV shows that we watched as kids like Saved by the Bell & Full House. The impact of diet culture brainwashing on self-worth has been taught since grade-school for many, and even since childhood for some individuals.

Diet Culture and Development

There are many ways that worthiness and body image creep into our lives. Caregivers can have internalized ideals about body that they teach their children. Some people can remember being bullied by a family member about how their body looked... And some people can remember hearing negative comments from a caregiver about their own body. Rules around food and ideas like earning a treat and food restriction are other common ways that diet culture creeps into our lives early childhoods. (And let's be real, this is so normalized in adulthood!)

It's a sad that parents can become a child’s first bully when the caregiver(s) internalize the thin ideal. I can confidently say that for my clients who struggle with body image the most, one or both primary caregivers made comments about their bodies from a young age.

In adulthood, romantic relationships can be a source of worthiness trauma when a partner makes comments about their partners' body. Friend groups can normalize dieting, fixation on body shape and size, and even encourage a cult-like accountability to restricting food, dieting and over-exercising.

Let's not forget about societal pressures from diet culture… (Have you been to a grocery store lately? The magazine stand at the check out always has several diet/food magazines staring you down as you place your snacks on the conveyor belt.) Every client in my practice can relate to the pressure to conform to an unrealistic standard.

Your Body & Your Mood

The impact of body image on mood is so clear. Normal effects hormone cycles and eating include becoming bloated, which can lead to individuals feeling poorly about themselves, and even depressed. This is the stuff I hear from clients who struggle with body acceptance, whether they are in a season on wanting to change their body composition or not. If your worth is tied to the number on a scale or your ability to please your inner bully (which has internalized negative ideals about body image), it can be such a rocky road.

Body Image & Relationships

Preoccupation about body image can also affect your closest relationships. In the therapy space, clients share about feeling uncomfortable being undressed in front of their partners and wearing a t-shirt over swimwear. I also hear stories about rejecting messages of acceptance, praise and love from others because the person doesn't feel it themself. If this sounds familiar to you, it's because this is more common than you might think. The internal struggle for body acceptance can spill over into poor mental health and compound stress on relationships. It's a painful experience to have such internalized negative beliefs, and thankfully, there are ways to overcome these hurdles.

Therapy for Body Image

There are several ways to work with body image and worthiness in therapy. Let me introduce you to some that I use…

1. Talk therapy. In talk therapy sessions, we can identify negative beliefs and generate insights based on your unique experience. We'll uncover what influenced your thoughts and explore new ideas to replace the old standard.

2. EMDR. EMDR can be used to process and emotionally resolve painful memories relating to body image and worthiness. In EMDR therapy, we find pinpoint experiences and process the painful memory to a healed, factual memory. The effect is generalized across any related ideas, and you can begin to heal your relationship with yourself.

3. Lifespan Integration. Lifespan integration therapy looks at the whole life narrative. We'll uncover painful memories and other events and turn them into "memory cues" on your time line. Repetitions of the time line allow us to process these points and create an integrated sense of self, and increase self-compassion.

That’s the tip of the iceberg, really. Treatment will vary for each person in my practice depending on the area of greatest need, like emotion regulation skills, current stressors and memory processing.

Dismantling Toxic Ideals
Tips for Cultivating a Healthy Body Image

I'm going to be honest, dismantling toxic body image ideals on your own is tough, and support is recommended. There are plenty of things you can do on your own without starting therapy first.

  1. Daily self affirmations
  2. Listen to a guided gratitude practice, such as a meditation
  3. Avoid the scale. Weight really is nothing but a number and gives you absolutely no information about your health. The number on the scale says nada about value or worth. The idea that your weight number is important is the brainwashing messaging we want to divorce ourselves from. 
  4. Unfollow accounts on social media that you notice you're comparing yourself to in a negative light. Shame doesn’t encourage anyone to do anything. Comparison can move you away from your goal and reinforce toxic ideas.
  5. Wear clothing that you feel comfortable and confident in. If you’re wearing baggy clothing and you feel frumpy, change it up! Also, get rid of clothing that doesn't serve you anymore. You’re not happy to own clothing that doesn't fit, and the clothing isn’t happy to be unworn. (That’s some Marie Kondo for you.)
  6. High-five yourself! Mel Robbins spoke about her experience of high-fiving herself in the mirror and the positive impact on self-esteem. I encourage you to cultivate an inner cheerleader voice and give yourself a compliment when you stand in front of the mirror. (My cheerleader is JVN and we have a GREAT relationship.)

As for final thoughts on this topic... I have an ever-evolving approach and understanding of this complex topic. Having compassion for folks healing their relationship with themselves and learning how to facilitate this healing is one (big) part of my practice.

How EMDR Helped my Flying Anxiety

EMDR is a powerful technique that can help with phobias.

You might have read my first blog about flying anxiety. I wrote about practical strategies for flying anxiety and how I used a tv show to help occupy my mind during short exposure flights. EMDR played a big role in helping to resolve my fear of flying.

Read my first post about flying anxiety

I'm certain that I couldn't have resolved my flying anxiety without therapy. I tried to do it alone with medication for flying and exposure, but my attempts didn't resolve the fear. I learned that sleep through a flight was the most pleasant experience, but it didn't cure a thing. For me, it was only a bandaid. The way I had major gains in reducing my fear was through a mixture of EMDR and then gradual exposure with flying. (This is called the in vivo practice part of EMDR.)

EMDR for Phobias

The EMDR process for phobias involves learning how to self-regulate and then desensitizing the feared stimuli. Unlike exposure-based therapies like CBT, in EMDR treatment you reprocess experiences associated with the phobia. This can include processing the first experience, your worst experience, your most recent experience and ancillary experiences. (You can learn more about EMDR here.) People who have used EMDR report feeling a sense of confidence, calm and positive belief. By now I've had plently of client testimonials in my own office.

Learn about EMDR in my practice

Titrating Fearful Imagery

Titration is a technique used in EMDR where you imagine some distance between yourself and the feared experience. For example, you might image the scenario as a black-and-white image, as a photograph, or on a tv screen. In my EMDR therapy, I imagined a polaroid photo of myself sitting in a seat on a plane while doing eye movements with my therapist. Once this reduced in intensity, I played a mental movie of arriving to the airport, boarding the plane, sitting in my seat (the polaroid image), taking off, flying, experiencing turbulence and landing. Projecting this future movie helped me imagine any scenarios that might cause anxiety and desensitize those too.

Where I'm at Now: *An Update*

The COVID-19 pandemic changed my level of comfort with flying for some time. I had multiple trips planned in 2020 and as the world closed down, I honestly felt pretty uncomfortable with it opening back up again initially. As fate would have it, some great opportunities came up for me to travel by plane several times when mask mandates and PCR testing were required. I thought of these as opportunities to practice in vivo exposure once again. Armed with my turbulence affirmation ("waves in the ocean") and my mask, I set off into the skies and tested my comfort.

Flying with a mask was better than I imagined it could be (isn't is usually that way with anxieties...) I was concerned about if others would fuss over the rules, if they would wear it properly and if my face would feel too hot if I got anxious. I used to get a sore throat most times after flying from the mix of the oxygen and overhead air, lately I don't. So now that the mask requirement on planes is lifting, I'll likely keep mine on for all the benefits I experience. It's my cozy little mouth and nose cave while I fly, and I can easily add some calming essential oil or sniff my Vick's stick when I need a refreshing blast. Have I had anxious moments in the air? A few. Turns out that it depends on the plane more than anything. I had a dreamy-but-turbulent flight (seriously!) on an airbus that was as smooth as riding my paddleboard on the river. As I'm in the clouds, I remind myself that I experience anxiety and I've been okay every time so I'll be okay again. That seems to do the trick. (Plus enjoying the time to focus on the latest book or tv show I'm watching!)

Do you have a fear of flying?

Let's work together.

The Soft Start-Up Communication Skill

The soft start up is an essential communication skill for couples. The idea behind this technique is to introduce a conflict without attacking, blaming, or interrogating your partner. And it's one of the best ways to diffuse defensiveness.

More couples & relationships blogs

What is Soft Start-Up?

The soft start up is a guide for how to talk to your romantic partner (or anyone really) that can reduce the likelihood of an argument. Arguments often start from blaming, judging, criticism, and having an aggressive, accusatory, or passive aggressive tone.

One of the main effects that I've noticed between a harsh start-up and soft start-up is that the harsh start-up migth send your message quicker, but it's often full of offensive language. A phrase like “why is the sink full of dirty dishes when you’ve had the day off from work, are you a slob?” certainly gets a message across, butit’s jampacked with accusation, passive aggression, criticism and contempt.

On the other hand, the same statement said with a soft start-up might go something like, “when I come home to a sink full of dishes at the end of my workday I feel frustrated because it’s helpful to have the space clear when I am doing meal preparation. Could you please make sure the sink is clear of dishes on your day off before I come home from work?” This gets the point across and it’s even more personal as the speaker shares their vulnerable feelings. And honestly, it might take some getting used to.

Book a Couples Therapy Session

Rules for Soft Start-Up

Here are the rules for a soft start-up:

Complain, don’t blame - This is the antidote for criticism. Complaining is a way to state your emotion and frustration without putting responsibility on the other person.

Blaming: "You are so lazy!"

Complaining: "I'm really bothered that the sink is full of dirty dishes before dinner."

Use “I” statements instead of “you” statements - "I" statements share your feelings and make a specific request without blaming your partner or using the word “you.”

"You" statement: "You don't seem to care about how I'm doing!"

"I" statement: "Let's put a date night on the calendar. I'm feeling emotionally disconnected."

Describe instead of judge - Speak objectively rather than targeting your partner (criticism or contempt).

Judging: "You never help me clean the home!"

Describing: "It seems like I've been doing most of the cleaning this week."

Be specific instead of general - Make a specific request instead of a general comment.

General: "The bathroom is a mess!"

Specific: "Would you be able to clean the countertop and bathtub this week?"

Be polite instead of aggressive - Speak with a polite tone rather than an antagonistic tone to diffuse defensiveness.

Aggressive: "What's your problem?"

Polite: "You seem down today. I'd love to hear what's on your mind."

Use an appreciative instead of entitled tone - Use appreciation to encourage behaviour that you want to have repeated. An entitled tone signals passive aggressive and contempt, which is damaging to the relationship.

Entitled: "How come you never..."

Appreciative: "I loved when you used to prepare lunch on the weekends. Could we have a picnic with tea sandwiches on Saturday?"

By following these guidelines, you can learn to have affective conversations that get you what you want and avoid relationship wreckage. Even if your partner is not receptive, keep trying to use the soft start-up. Introducing this new habit has the power to change the way communication happens in your relationship. It's a win-win!

Suggested reading:

The Four Horsemen of Relationships
Online Couples Therapy

The Gottman Institute

Ready to learn this skill?

Book your appointment today.

5 Tips to Manage Anxiety

Anxiety is a completely functional driving force. It’s called adaptive because it helps species survive. Animals develop quick reflexes, the ability to turn their head nearly 360°, eyes on either side of their cute little bird skulls to search for prey, the ability to run fast, jumps high distances, scream at the top of their lungs. All this can be fueled by anxiety and helps species survive.

paint swatches of many colours with the caption: if you're like most people in North America and you are a millennial, you probably say "busy" more often than you say "relaxed."In my years as a therapist, and my many more years as an every day person, I have tried to reduce anxiety and then keep it down. It turns out that one of them is easier than the other depending on where you’re at in the anxiety remission journey. If you already have high anxiety, the safeguards and defense mechanisms that help you survive might also make it difficult to take actions to reduce your anxiety. But if your anxiety is already moderate to low, I find that it’s easier to reduce anxiety. Regardless of where you’re in your journey, all of these tips will be helpful to reduce your anxiety.

View all blogs about anxiety

Tip #1: Cut Coffee

Coffee is a magical bean that stimulates the nervous system and creates a sense of mental alertness. It also mimics so many symptoms you can experience when you’re feeling anxious. Feeling keyed up, shaky, increased heart rate, dizziness, lightheaded, muscle agitation, irritability, headaches, heartburn, frequent urination, diarrhea and upset tummy… Could be caffeine or anxiety. It’s for this reason that I recommend clients to cut coffee in addition to call another lifestyle changes and adding antianxiety strategies.

Coffee can be a deeply ingrained ritual and there caffeine withdrawal headaches can have you reaching for a cup of joe. If you experience withdrawal headaches, start by switching your morning coffee to a half-caffeine-half-decaf mix for a few days. Then switch over to full decaf. There are trace amount of caffeine in one mug of decaf coffee. A regular cup of coffee has around 150 mg of caffeine, while decaf has only around 30 mg.

General tips for caffeine and anxiety:

  • Start your morning with a glass of water instead of a glass of coffee. This can give you a sense of invigoration.
  • Don’t drink coffee (any kind) on an empty stomach! Drink your coffee with a meal, light meal or snack.
  • Don’t drink coffee after 3 PM to help your body digest and help any burn through the caffeine half-life.

Tip #2: Reduce or Eliminate Alcohol

anxiety management skills

So far I’m not the bearer of good news, am I? If you’ve ever felt extra anxious or depressed after drinking alcohol, the reason is because of your alcohol intake. Alcohol inhibits the production of GABA (gaba aminobutyric acid) in the brain. GABA is the chemical messenger that helps to regulate the speed of impulses in the brain. There is no magic number of ounces of alcohol a person can consume so that they don’t experience a dip in mood the next day. Each person has a different level of tolerance and some people metabolize alcohol differently than others. Alcohol can also interfere with many medications, including meds that help with anxiety and depression. Some people can also experience anxiety when drinking alcohol as they notice changes to their body symptoms and cognition as alcohol intoxication disrupts the regular operating functions of the body. If you’re experiencing disruptive anxiety, reduce your alcohol intake until your anxiety drops to a manageable level. Then slowly re-introduce alcohol in moderation.

Tip #3: Stop Your Guilty Habits

I debated whether to make separate tips dedicated to tobacco use, cannabis use, and sleeping habits. But I think it’s summarized best by stopping habits you feel guilty or shameful about. In my experience, people generally know which of their habits are helpful and which are harmful. Let’s look at two habits I commonly see in therapy.


Just like your cell phone battery, we can’t run on empty. We operate best with a full battery at the beginning of the day that can slowly reduce in time to lie down and recharge at the end of the day. If you end your day with doom scrolling or watching a murder mystery movie, you might have racing or intrusive thoughts before sleep, and dreams with violent and scary themes. The general rule of thumb is to avoid screen time 60 to 90 minutes before bed. So what can you do instead? Read a book, listen to a podcast or guided visualization, extend your wind-down and evening self care routine. If you don’t have an evening wind-down and self care routine, take the opportunity to make one.


tips to manage anxiety

While cannabis and CBD in particular might help to induce sleepiness, there is also a potential negative effect. Reliance on cannabis to fall asleep can create a dependence on drugs to fall sleep. You can replace the word cannabis with melatonin, over-the-counter sleep aids, or any other aid you take to fall asleep. With cannabis in particular, there is also a link between cannabis abuse and increased anxiety and depression symptoms.

A handy rule of thumb: if using cannabis decreases your overall motivation for the day or is used to numb feelings, you’re likely to have dependence and could benefit from examining your relationship with cannabis.

*The relationship with cannabis use for medicinal and recreational purposes varies from person to person. Explore this with your medical provider and therapist.*

Some other guilty habits that can interfere with sleep and increase anxiety include electronic distractions, attempting conflicting resolution before bed, and fighting with your partner. I’m sure a full list would be much longer, but this gives you the idea.

Tip #4: Make Relaxation a Ritual

How often do you actively engage in intentional relaxation? Take a moment right now to think about that. If you're like most people in North America and you are millennial, you probably say “busy” more often than you say “relaxed.” A ritual of relaxation can look like incorporating any activity that helps you to feel calm, grounded, relaxed, and centered. This can include meditation, painting, guided visualization, reading a book, walking in nature, playing with your pet, listening to music while doing nothing else

I’ll be honest, it can be tricky to avoid “hacking” relaxation by doing something relaxing while completing a task. I for one have listened to relaxing music while cleaning pet for off the floor. You can bet that I felt more energized than relaxed. The intention with the relaxation ritual is to do at least one activity for one hour per day dedicated just for your own enjoyment. You may need to play with this to experiment and pinpoint what is truly relaxing, and that’s OK. Make a list or look at suggestions online and start your relaxation ritual ASAP.

Tip #5: Nourishment

The definition of nourishment is “the food necessary for growth, health, and good condition.” Applying this to anxiety, nourishment looks like eating regular meals to provide your body with the energy it needs to complete tasks throughout the day. And if you have a day without tasks to complete, nourishment serves the purpose of continued growth and maintenance of well-being. With the elimination of caffeine from your morning, a nutrient-filled smoothie or breakfast meal will give you a boost of energy through the morning to mid day. Snack if you need to! Tummy gurgles and feeling lightheaded indicate the need for more nourishment. With this in mind, you should reconsider intermittent fasting and other restrictive diets if you plan to reduce anxiety.

Note: “Health” is a tricky word considering that many people live with chronic illness and disease. I encourage folks to shift their definition of health to consider the nutrients required for survival.

These 5 tips to help you manage anxiety can make a significant positive impact in your life. Keep a reminder of these tips by writing the following words on a sticky note and posting it to your mirror or monitor: coffee, EtOH, sleep, alcohol, relaxation, nourishment

Suggested reading:

Grounding Exercises
Anxiety: False Alarm or Real Threat
Negative Automatic Thoughts

Need anxiety support?

Let's get started.

Counselling and MSP

Counselling is still an unregulated profession in the province of British Columbia. Read this blog to learn  the latest updates about how counselling is covered by Medical Services Premium (MSP).

MSP Counselling Coverage

Current to April 2022, MSP does not cover private counselling services. Individuals, couples, and families who work with a counsellor pay out of pocket and can be reimbursed through extended insurance.

Low cost counselling is available through select counselling clinics. These services should be provided by supervised graduate students who are training in an accredited counselling program.

Psychotherapy is only covered by the government when you have been referred through a hospital psychiatric program or mental health team. This is often after hospitalization for psychiatric reasons.

The government and government affiliated agencies provide free programs and mental health mobile apps. is a free online program for BC residents that includes a one-on-one coaching component for managing mood. Other free resources include:, REACH Medical Clinic, DIVERSECity Community Resources Society , Moving Forward Family Services, Deltassist Family and Community Services, and Family Services of the North Shore. The Canadian Mental Health Association provides free mental health resources online. has a free mobile app, MindShift CBT and an extensive library of free resources on their webpages.

More resources are available on the Government of BC website on the virtual mental health supports page under the Mental Health & Substance Use page. 

Why You Should Care About Counselling Regulation

Because there is no provincial registry, provincial standards, or system to enforce standards and codes of conduct for mental health professionals in BC, anyone can claim they are an "interventionist," "coach" or "counsellor." We have seen examples in the news of how clients can be taken advantage of or psychologically harmed by supposed mental health professionals who are not trained or associated with a regulatory body.

The professional licensing body in BC for mental health counsellors has rigorous standards and codes of conduct. Ask your therapist what their qualifications are and research the letters that follow after their name to make sure they are legitimate.

As a reminder, an RCC is a Registered Clinical Counsellor licensed with the BCACC (British Columbia Association of Clinical Counsellors). A CCC is a Canadian Certified Counsellor registered with the CCPA (Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Assocation). These are the most prestigious and recognized regulatory associations for counsellors in BC.

Advocating for Government Regulation

The BCACC is seeking to have counsellors included among professionals considered under the  new Health Professionals Act (HPA). Their primary goal right now is to seek regulation of BCACC members under this act to better protect the public from people who use the title of counsellor but whom have not received the same credentialed training. Regulation of existing BCACC counsellors under the HPA would provide increased protection and more transparency to the general public. 

The BCACC is currently in consultation with existing health regulatory colleges in BC (e.g., the College of Psychologists), past members of the Regulatory Modernization steering committee, and government officials who are engaged in regulation to learn about how BCACC standards can reflect the standards under the HPA. It is believed that the process of regulating counsellors under the HPA could take 2-4 years.

Learn More

You can learn more about the BCACC and Registered Clinical Counsellors at


How Often Should I Go to Therapy?
Therapist Approved Mental Health Apps
Counselling and Insurance
Canadian Mental Health Association

Learn how you can benefit from counselling.

Book your counselling session or consultation today.

a picture of horses with a caption "the four horsemen of relationships"

The Four Horsemen of Relationships

You might have heard of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, a biblical reference signaling the end of times. In his research on long-term satisfying relationships, John Gottman and the Gottman Institute identified for communication patterns that signaled the end times for couples. Those are the horsemen we will explore here.

View all blogs about couples

Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, Stonewalling

The four horsemen are: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. Let’s look at each of them more closely.

Criticism - This is defined as attacking your partner's personality or character. This is usually done with the intent of making someone right (you) and someone wrong (them).

Examples of criticism: "you always," "you never," "you’re the type of person who," "why are you so…"

Contempt - This is described as attacking your partner's sense of self with the intent to cause insult or psychological harm/abuse. Contempt is felt as resentment. Passive aggressive communication can be an expression of contempt. 

Examples of contempt:

- Insults and name-calling: bitch, bastard, wind, stupid, slob, lazy...
Hostile humour, sarcasm or mockery: dark humour with poor timing & veiled threats, backhanded comments, mimicking or parading your partner in a high pitched tone and copying their mannerisms, expressions like “here we go again.”
Body language & tone of voice: sneering, rolling your eyes, curling your upper lip, conveying disgust, heavy sighing, inappropriate laughter, high or mocking pitch, mock crying, using a baby voice

Defensiveness - Defensiveness is almost always a signal that the other partner is being critical or is perceived as being critical. When a person is being defensive, they see themselves as a victim or they are warding off a perceived attack. The purpose of defensiveness is to deny blame and sometimes to deflect responsibility or counter-attack.

Examples of defensiveness:
- Making excuses such as blaming external circumstances beyond one’s control and denial of responsibility or behaviour
- Cross complaining by meeting your partner's complaint or criticism with a complaint of your own and ignoring what your partner has said
- Disagreeing and then cross complaining, such as denying and then rationalizing or blaming the other person
- Yes butting (rationalizing) where you start off agreeing but end up disagreeing: "yes, but..."
- Repeating yourself without paying attention to what the other person is saying. This can also come across as contemptuous/resentful
- Whining “it’s not fair”

Stonewalling - Withdrawing from the relationship as a way to avoid conflict. Often someone will think that they are withdrawing to be neutral although sometimes it is used as punishment. Stonewalling conveys disapproval, icy distance which creates a sense of insecurity, separation, disconnection, and can come across as being smug.

Examples of stonewalling: stony silence, monosyllabic mutterings, changing the subject, physically removing yourself from the situation, giving the silent treatment

Couples Therapy Myths

Important Notes

Experiencing any of these are as unpleasant as they sound. There are some important points to make about these different types of communication. Firstly, your style of communication during relationship conflict is often times going to be similar to what you experienced in your family home. If indirect communication is often used, you might be more prone to passive aggression or even submissiveness. From a biological standpoint, male bodied people are more likely to demonstrate stonewalling than female body people and this relates to both sociological factors and biological factors which the Gottman's describe in their research.

Resolving Conflict: The Antidotes

There are plenty of ways to resolve conflict including taking a break at the first signs of temper rising, and practicing self-soothing through progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, breathing techniques, and physical exercises. Here are the antidotes to each of the four horsemen:

Criticism: Complain without blaming.

Learn to state your needs using eye statements to make a specific complaints and request without blaming your partner or using the word “you.”

Contempt: Express your feelings and needs.

You can also protect your relationship from resentment by building a culture of appreciation and gratitude. Understanding and speaking your partner‘s love language and apology language can be helpful here.

Defensiveness: Take responsibility.

Even if you fully believe you are not to blame, and even if this is objectively true*, it will help your relationship to take responsibility for even 5% of your contribution to the conflict. Own up to raising your voice, rationalizing, denying responsibility or cross complaining. Don’t do this in anticipation of your partner taking responsibility in turn, because that’s not guaranteed.

*Habitual conflict, criticism and resentment can indicate a verbally abusive relationship. If you experience frequent conflict, speak with a neutral third-party with your partner. This could be a couples therapist, a pastor or priest, or a mutual close friend. These relationship patterns have an opportunity to be resolved if you are both willing to work on the relationship and make some changes.

Stonewalling: Do physiological self-soothing.

Go for a walk, do an intentionally relaxing activity, engage in exercise to burn off adrenaline, play with a pet. Make a list of your favourite relaxing activities that you can use when you need to self-soothe.

Suggested reading:

Online Couples Therapy
Mental Health Apps that are Therapist Approved

The Gottman Institute (Gottman Handout)