By now, many of us know that going to therapy is a great option for dealing with particular mental health issues, getting through difficult life situations, or generally helping us toward a happier, healthier outlook on life. However, we might not realize that not all therapy is created equal. Finding the right therapist for you can help you get to the root issues that might be recurring in your life and disturbing your peace.
I have learned this in my own life: I had seen a therapist on and off since college. I struggled with generalized anxiety, exacerbated by particular life situations from time to time. This anxiety included intrusive, obsessive thought patterns and feeling anxious in friendships and relationships. I would go for a time to various therapists, but nothing ever really seemed to change. I never really got to the root cause of what kept bringing me back to counseling over the years. I learned coping tools and skills, but never got down to the foundational issues and things I needed to work through.
In the winter of 2013, I found myself in a suddenly unstable marriage. I needed to dig deeper into my own issues to help myself resolve the dysfunctional situation I currently found myself in. As I began to recognize that I didn’t want to face this alone, I joined a 12-step support group for wives who found themselves facing the same thing I was facing in my marriage. You see, I was in a relationship that was rampant with multiple addictions. While I knew I needed tools to help me navigate this, I also knew I needed to work on my own baggage.
Knowing I needed to do my own therapy work, I asked the women in my support group for recommendations for good therapists, and interestingly enough, several of the women went to the same therapist. It was this therapist, Mary, who helped me get to the foundational issues I was dealing with. She helped me heal and change in ways I never knew I needed, and to this day I am a better woman because of her.
Finding a good therapist often takes trial and error. It’s often like dating: it takes time, and there is a period of getting to know and trust each other. You might find the right fit right away, or it might take a few different people before you find the one you “click” with.
In my own life, it was definitely a journey and process before I found someone who was the right fit for me. From that experience and talking with other friends looking for a good therapist, there are a few helpful things to keep in mind on your own search.
Use a known therapist as a resource
Do you have a family member, friend, or friend’s friend who is a therapist? Or do you have trusted family members or friends who see a therapist?
If so, ask that therapist for a referral. We might think it’s awkward to ask someone for a recommendation for someone else to do the same job, but, in fact, therapists refer one another all the time, and it is one of the simplest ways to go about finding the right fit for you. Even if it doesn’t feel right to go to your younger sister’s therapist, her therapist could probably give you a couple of solid recommendations of other therapists in your community. Ask trusted people in your life for recommendations as an initial first step, and see where that takes you.
Ask clarifying questions
As you start to gather a list of potential names, make inquiry phone calls to the therapists on your list and ask clarifying questions. Find out if the therapist is familiar with evidence-based treatment for your concerns and issues. Clarify if this therapist has had experience in dealing with your particular concerns.
Some therapists specialize in working with children or adults, anxiety issues, trauma, etc. Some may have lots of experience with the problems you are facing. If possible, find out how much experience they have had with what is bringing you to therapy. Some specific questions about your concerns and issues like these may be helpful: “What type of treatment would you offer for me struggling with _________?” “Do you see much success from clients struggling with what I am bringing to share?” “What are the most helpful tools or resources for someone like me struggling with ______?”
Going to therapy is like dating, it takes time to get to know the other person and build an atmosphere of trust and vulnerability. There is nothing wrong with having a phone conversation to get a better sense of a therapist before you decide to schedule an initial appointment. You are trying to find the fit for a good therapist, and this is one way to help you sort through potential names of various people. Similarly, it’s okay if it takes a few sessions (or more) to know if a therapist is a fit—you’re talking to a stranger about deeply personal matters in your life, and trust can take awhile to build.
Here are some additional questions you may want to ask a potential therapist with whom you are looking to begin a working relationship:
- What is your specialty?
- Have you worked significantly with people with my issues? (You’ll have to share a little bit about what is bringing you to therapy at this time in your life.)
- What is your professional training and/or background?
- What is your fee? Do you accept insurance? Do you ever work with a sliding scale for payment?
Pay attention to how you feel
Notice how you feel on the phone with the therapist or during the first several in-person meetings. It’s unlikely you will have an immediate and overwhelmingly positive feeling during an initial phone call or meeting—these relationships take time to develop and grow. Still, our feelings can be indicators of something deeper going on inside of ourselves.
At your first appointment, notice how you feel when you are in the room with your new therapist. Do you feel heard and listened to when you speak? Do you feel seen and understood? Even if you normally feel anxious and this is in fact something you are coming to therapy for, see whether the therapist helps you to feel more secure while you are in the room. Does this therapist support you, while also challenging you at times when you really need it?
Do you feel free to be yourself? You might not always feel comfortable—but even when your therapist is challenging you, you should definitely feel that she is supporting you in growth.
Remember, you might not decide at the first session if a therapist is right for you. However, if you decide that a therapist isn’t a good match, then you do not need to continue to go back. This frequently happens, and you don’t need to worry about the therapist being offended by your decision.
Choosing a therapist is a very personal matter. There is no one therapist who will work for everyone. It’s okay if it takes some time to find the right fit for your life. The most important thing is that you feel a sense of trust and that this therapist can help you become a better version of yourself.