Why, How, and What to Look for In a Therapist
If you’re suffering from unresolved conflicts or need to get a handle on some reoccurring issues that just won’t go away, you may have come to the realization that you could benefit from seeking out a therapist to help you navigate the challenges you are facing.
If you are not sure and are still wondering if therapy could work for you, that’s ok. Here is an article I wrote on the subject that may be helpful.
Of course, finding the right therapist is obviously going to be very important. If you’ve been in therapy before, it may or may not be a big deal to reach out to a therapist because you’ve had some experience with what may or may not work for you.
If this is your very first time even considering the idea of therapy, you may find yourself questioning, “Why even go at all?”
Here’s the best answer I can offer you. If you find that you are perpetually stuck on one or more issues in your life and being stuck is impacting your ability to function at home, at work, or in school, then it is probably a good time to consider asking for help. That may answer the “why” question for the vast majority of people I see.
If you’ve been thinking about it and you want to go, find the courage and make it happen. It’s a big step. It may even be scary for you. It could also make a tremendous difference in your life. It’s an opportunity to learn about yourself; to be vulnerable in a safe environment; to be heard at a deeper level; to learn how to better express yourself; explore your inner challenges and deal with problems that many of us keep to ourselves; and more often to discover that you have much greater potential for happiness than you may ever have known before.
Having said that, just thinking about counseling can be daunting. I get it. Long before I even contemplated becoming a therapist, I remember the first time I even thought of picking up the phone to ask for help. In fact, you may not even know where to start, which is why I have created a few tips to help you find the right therapist for you.
Here are some basic things to consider. What kind of a therapist are you looking for?
What’s the difference between a counselor, therapist, psychologist, psychoanalyst, and psychiatrist?
There are specific differences between each one. However, in general, they all have committed to graduate school and extensive hours in training with a commitment to make a difference in people’s lives by clarifying clients’ feelings and helping them make life decisions.
Generally, therapists and counselors include psychologists, psychiatrists, marriage counselors, life coaches, and social workers. There are a number of degrees which include a variety of disciplines from Ph.D., Psy.D., LMFT (Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist), and M.D. Saying that one is a therapist, or a counselor is a broader term.
A psychologist can diagnose a mental disorder and determine what’s best for the client’s care. A psychologist often works in tandem with a psychiatrist, who is a medical doctor and can prescribe medication if it is determined that medication is necessary for a patient’s treatment. Psychologists can do research, which is important if one is interested in academic pursuits.
A psychoanalyst is a very specific kind of psychotherapist – a licensed practitioner of the methods of Sigmund Freud. Many find that Freud’s method is the groundwork for the study of psychology, but that there are many other schools of thought that can be beneficial to helping individuals.
There are also some therapists who have more than one or more advanced degrees within the field of psychotherapy and are also licensed in different areas of specialization. For example, I have a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology and my license is a Marriage and Family Therapist.
How do I go about even finding a therapist?
Here are a number of tips that many people use in their search for a therapist that is a good fit for them.
Ask friends, family, and co-workers
If you feel comfortable asking, word of mouth is always a great way to get a referral. Find out what they like about their therapist and how long they have been going (if they are willing to share). Don’t worry, therapists follow a code of ethics that values confidentiality. In order for you to feel safe about the things discussed in their offices, they must vow to keep what is shared in therapy confidential. There are a few exceptions that you can find here.
Those that follow that code of ethics belong to the American Psychological Association (APA) and you can use their Find-A-Therapist search engine for local therapists. This is, by far, the most popular search tool when looking for a therapist.
You can also search Google, Facebook, or Yelp for therapists in your area.
Ask Your Primary Care Physician for Assistance
Your private physician often hears about challenges that his or her patients are facing. Quite often their patients may benefit from counseling and can offer referrals. When physicians refer their patients to me, it is a great honor and I am always grateful for the confidence they place in me when they do. Your personal physician will likely be very thoughtful about who to refer you to, and this can be a great place to start your search.
Consider Using Your EAP
Another great resource is your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or your insurance company. Not all companies or health insurance covers mental health, but it’s worth the time to investigate to help offset the cost. While many therapists do not accept third-party reimbursement, there are those that still do. If this is an issue, your EAP or insurance company may have a list of providers for you.
Do Some Research – Pick Up the Phone or Send an Email Inquiry
Once you create a list of a few local in your area, do your own investigation. Check out the therapist’s website or Facebook page. Look for testimonials. Can you get a good sense of the person they are and what they are committed to in working with their clients?
In order not to waste your time (or money) see if the therapist is willing to have a 15-minute consultation. In the conversation, share what your presenting concerns are and if they have experience in addressing these kinds of issues.
This initial phone conversation is one of the very best ways to get a sense of a therapist. You can learn a good deal about how timely they respond to your call, and certainly by hearing their voice during that first personal contact.
What should I ask the therapist? How can I evaluate if they are legit or not?
As a place to start the conversation, inquire about the following:
- Find out if they have an advanced degree and their area of study. Do they have special accreditations? Are they licensed in your state? How long have they had their practice? It also may be helpful to ask what they like about the work they do or their favorite kinds of clients. Get the therapist talking to see if you can connect in any way.
- What are their theoretical orientations? However, it’s important to know that research shows that no particular psychotherapy was necessarily more effective than others.
- How long has the therapist been in practice? Experience is key.
- Does the therapist have experience in the area you want help with?
Degrees and resumes are great, but having a good rapport is equally, if not more important. How you feel about the person sitting across from you is probably the most significant factor when choosing a therapist. From your initial conversation, do you feel like this may be a good fit? If so, schedule an appointment and see where it goes from there.
Remember, there are a lot of choices out there so find what works for you. It’s totally fine to shop around if you don’t feel like you can trust the person or that they are kind and respectful, then it’s not a good fit.
If you like what you hear, then consider the following tips during your first appointment or consultation when moving forward:
1. During the session, find out if the therapist is devoted to helping you improve the quality of your life. Do they have experience helping their clients develop better life skills including enhanced communication, better problem-solving and conflict resolution, identifying short and long-term goals, and offering different perspectives and insights?
2. Do you sense that they are genuinely empathic? Do they genuinely care about your well-being? Are they locked into just one approach to therapy or do they utilize more than one treatment approach to adapt to your specific needs? Are they helping you come out from behind that mask that so many of us feel we need to protect ourselves?
This is vitally important because if we stay hidden behind our masks, we are seriously jeopardizing our ability to enjoy life in a meaningful way. Being more open with who we truly are – what we truly think and feel – is the very best way to live a full life. It’s also scary so you want to be with a therapist who understands this basic human dynamic.
3. Do you trust the person across from you? Do you feel understood? Do you believe that they can help you? Research also shows that therapists who have these qualities tend to help their clients achieve better outcomes.
4. A therapist who has had their own therapy has much more credibility than one who hasn’t. Ask when in their life they sought their own therapy and also, what inspired them to decide to become a therapist themselves.
5. An effective therapist places a great emphasis on obtaining a good personal history both at the beginning of therapy. Early experiences in life can often have an impact on the current issues we are facing. Is your therapist interested in your personal history? You don’t need to necessarily dwell on it, but it is often a great idea to at least get a picture of where you came from.
6. Is the therapist flexible in their approach? The effective therapist will adjust when new information is presented. That’s why it is also helpful for you if a therapist is cross-trained in more than one modality of treatment. The more tools a therapist has at their disposal, the better your chances of getting a desirable outcome.
7. A good therapist is courageous and encourages clients to face issues that may be initially difficult to deal with. Therapy isn’t always so easy. Expect to be challenged. A proper therapist will challenge you to think differently and “try on” different approaches that you likely haven’t tried before. And yes, sometimes it may be a bit uncomfortable.
8. The best therapists do not “work on” their clients but rather, they seek to form a strong working alliance with their clients so that they can work together with their clients.
9. Pay attention to your feelings during your appointment. Take a moment a few days after and check in with yourself. Do you feel like you can be vulnerable, and completely honest when sharing your thoughts and feelings? Do they help you to feel safe even when you are scared?
10. And if you don’t click in the first session, that’s okay. It’s your money, time, and issues to resolve, so make sure you feel comfortable. No need to feel guilty if it didn’t work out with the first one. If you don’t like their style or don’t feel like it’s going to be a good match, move along.
11. Remember, you are hiring the therapist. It’s important to note that some problems may take more or less time to resolve than others. Some issues can be resolved in just a few sessions. Others can take much more time. Learning about yourself doesn’t always happen overnight. However, at some points, it is going to be a good idea for you and your therapist to monitor how you are feeling about your therapy, and how you are progressing.
12. If you notice absolutely no change within the first few months, or never did feel the rapport with your therapist that you hoped for, you may want to reconsider who you are seeing. If you notice that you are making progress and that you and your therapist have a good rapport, even if it is difficult at times, then I would recommend continuing.
If you are seeking support in life changes or help in any way, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me for a free 15-minute phone consultation to see if I am a good fit for what you need. While no therapist can ever guarantee an outcome, in over 25 years in private practice, I have helped countless people on their own journeys to happier, healthier, and much more fulfilling lives.