For someone who’s never been in therapy, trying to find out what makes a good therapist can feel harder than finding a good doctor. After all, who wants to go into a room and strip one’s emotional clothing, not to mention spend money, on someone who isn’t going to be able to help you feel/get better?
While there are many things to know about counseling, here are a couple tips in deciding on a therapist:
- What kind of work do you want to do?
Therapists tend to hold to different points of view on therapy and sometimes specialize. For example, many therapists hold to Cognitive Behavioral Theory—which basically operates off of the idea that change comes through working out core lies, and behaviors follow your thoughts. Other therapists hold to Psychodynamic Theory—which works out of the presupposition that “what’s wrong” is buried deep inside your story and subconscious, and finding what’s going on beneath the initial crust can take years. Others hold to Somatic Experiencing, that looks to how trauma and emotional dysregulation is held in the nervous system. What you’re wanting to work out, and your personal approach to life, might change what type of therapy you want.
- Do They Hold Their Own and Respect Your Boundaries?
A key difference between a therapist and a friend is that it’s a “professional relationship.” What that really means is our interaction is limited to the office for the purpose of you feeling safe to share intimate information and not be judging every move you make, either for you or against you. The goal of objectivity is to help you sort out what feels too big to carry and in order to have that strength, we need space to meet you well that one hour every week.
On the other hand, you need space too. You have the right to say, “I’m not ready to talk about that.” While a therapist is there to help you grow and change, they need to respect your space. If a therapist makes you uncomfortable, or especially makes you feel like they’re “coming on to you” emotionally or physically, they aren’t the right person for you.
- Do You Feel Safe and Connected
Whether emotional or physical, SAFETY is a top priority in therapy.
If concerns for boundaries mentioned above are listed, this will impact safety. On the other hand, most therapists entered into therapy because they care and they care about you and your wellbeing. Motivations should be clear, fairly quickly. When you first step into their office, do they treat you “like a person” in that first meeting? Even if it’s an “off day” do you sense respect for your individuality and boundaries getting started?
An element to emotional safety comes in personality and a “match” of sorts. Do you feel like this is someone you want to know, or someone you’d rather not spend time with? Just because they are a professionally trained individual who might be perfect for your neighbor or another personality does not mean that therapist has to be YOUR therapist. See if you sense a connection, if you feel like you’d want to share your heart with this person. The sense that you can feel safe, emotionally honest, and relationally present with your therapist are the most important pieces to therapy.
Most therapists fought long and hard to be in a seat where they can sit with people in their painful moments. They worked hard and long to be in a place of support and if you are looking for a therapist, don’t think they don’t want to meet with you. Nor, are they so limited as to assume they are always the best fit.
If it takes a few tries, that’s okay. But don’t walk away from therapy after a session or two just because it’s awkward. We try hard at life to walk alongside of you, but we also have our own hidden pains, tears, and moments of exhaustion. Most therapists don’t sit from a “better than thou” position, but with the question, “what can we do together to make life a little bit more whole for you today.”
With a sense of model, boundaries and safety, try out a therapist for 4-5 sessions, then check back in if they aren’t a good fit. Tell them if you want to go slowly or quickly. Be open about if you don’t feel comfortable. Don’t waste your money on someone who isn’t helping you, but also don’t avoid seeking help just because someone MIGHT not be a good fit. Ask friends for referrals, check out websites to see if people look friendly, and know that therapists are human too.
Jennifer Hunter | Intern