So you are ready to take the first step into bettering your life with therapy. Good for you!
Now you have to figure out how to choose a counselor. This may be hard especially if you live in a city where there are hundreds of therapists in your area. Where do you start?
Here are 4 things ideas to think about when looking for a therapist.
1. You are the boss
I encourage potential clients to see looking for a therapist like hiring an employee. You are the boss and the therapist is your employee. Often times, new clients are too quick to hand over their authority to the therapist. As a customer, advocate for what you need, and what you expect from therapy. A competent therapist would also be trying to see if you are a good fit for them. Many therapists have specialties and niches, and quality therapists try to make sure they operate in their strengths. If a therapist think you would be a poor fit, don’t take it personally. Often it is not because of your issue but rather the therapist has a specific niche that they enjoy working with. Think of how doctors have specific specialties. Would you want to go to an neurosurgeon for your thyroid condition?
That means that it is important that you shop around and be willing to talk to multiple therapists. Some therapists have free phone consultations while others will even offer a free consultation session. Take advantage of these to see whether the person is a good fit or not. Ask be prepared to interview the therapist as if you are hiring something. That means asking questions that are important to them.
2. It can Feel like Dating
Therapy has unique challenges compared to finding other professionals say a doctor or a plumber. The requirements for choosing those professionals are simpler. For example, you probably want a professional that is technically competent in what they do. You may want a professional that is an expert in the field. The results are usually very tangible such as a problem being fixed, or an expected outcome. While outcomes and expectations are important, there are many different nuances that can make finding a therapist for an uninformed individual difficult. For example, in hiring a plumber, how nice the plumber is or how they make you feel doesn’t affect the quality of their work. Nor does a emotionally available doctor affect how they prescribe medication. But in therapy, some intangibles like how you feel or behaviors that they do can be deal breakers.
As a result, finding a therapist is more similar to dating. What is a good fit for one person is not the same as another person. Similar to dating, there are also a bunch of intangibles that makes for a quality therapy relationship. This could include the therapists personal background, or simply their style that makes them work for you. It’s these intangibles that can make or break a therapeutic relationship. This means approaching your first few sessions as a trial run for whether the therapist is a good fit. That also means trusting your guts and feelings about your therapist. How do you feel during the session? Does the therapist make you feel safe or does he make you feel anxious? How connected do you feel with your therapist? Like in dating, these questions are important to ask yourself when deciding on a therapist. These questions hold substantial weight because they will gauge what the quality of the therapy relationship will be like.
What makes finding a therapist so difficult because finding the right “fit” can be the difference between success and disappointment. A common occurrence is when a person new to therapy chooses the first therapist that is available to them. They have a mediocre or bad experience due to a poor fit and as a result, they write off therapy all together saying that its not useful or therapy doesn’t work for them. I find these experiences heart breaking because the client misses out on a valuable opportunity just because of one bad experience.
3. The relationship is important
Substantial research shows that the most important factor in successful therapy is the relationship with the client and the therapist. It provides the foundation for you to feel safe and initiate change. If you don’t like your therapist to start off with, chances are you will be less likely to be vulnerable and more likely to ignore suggestions or feedback. Going to therapy will feel like a chore and eventually you will realize that paying someone hundreds of dollars per session is a waste of money. I know from personal experience that seeing a poor fit therapist for a long time can often leave a bad taste in your mouth and can make you dread going to counseling. The last thing you want is to be in a place where counseling becomes the thing you least look forward to during your week.
Another reason why this is a high priority is because therapy is where your vulnerable parts will come out. This might include parts that you find shameful or unlovable. The last thing you want to do is to come out sharing with someone you are not comfortable with. Even worst is when you become vulnerable and end up being hurt by your therapist. The therapeutic relationship is the foundation for all the progress you make.
You want to find a therapist where seeing that person is one of the top things you look forward to during the week. Therapy should be one of those things you do to take care of yourself, not a chore to do. Afterall, you will be spending hundreds if not thousands of dollars on therapy, why not make sure you get the best experience possible?
4. Ask for your needs
Therapists can’t read your mind. I learned the hard way that not stating your needs in therapy can lead to frustration and wasted time. This may be the hardest thing as a client to do due to the perceived power difference between the therapist and the client. This also means setting your own goals rather than relying on the therapist to set them for you. For example, if you do not want to talk about your parents but would rather work on gaining coping skills for depression, make that clear. A good therapist should always be open to feedback so that they can provide the best service possible. This also means stating when you felt hurt in session, or when you feel uncomfortable. A quality therapist can take your feedback and it can lead to deeper healing and growth for you. If done well, this could deepen your trust with your therapist.
This is something that is important if you are thinking about changing therapists. Often time, we don’t ask for our needs and the client ends up being frustrated and bitter. This can lead to the end of the therapeutic relationship and a waste of time and money. If asking for your needs is something that is hard, bring that up with your current therapist and make sure you have a therapist that can be sensitive to that.
Finding a therapist can be a bit tricky. But in keeping these tips in mind, you will find greater success in having a positive experience in therapy. It may seem hard, but a positive experience in therapy can be life changing. Remember, you are worth it!
Alex Ly is a Registered Associate Marriage and Family Therapist under supervision by a licensed clinical supervisor. He provides services in Fremont, Los Altos, and Sunnyvale specializing in young adults and teens. Learn more about the services he provides.
Disclaimer: Any material written is not intended to be clinical advice or professional counseling. If you need support, please see a professional for help.