You’ve decided it’s time. You’re not loving the way you are relating to your world right now. Your relationships need some help, your work isn’t very fulfilling, you are feeling sad or stressed or angry more than you’d like to be – whatever the reason, you’ve decided you’re done waiting. What you’re doing isn’t working and you want to try something different.
You look online and do a Google search for a counselor or therapist in your area. Maybe you throw in some keywords for what you’re struggling with. Probably you stumble onto a Psychology Today page. Then you begin to browse through the blur of faces, names, and words greeting you.
It’s overwhelming. Maybe you send out an email inquiry or call the number listed. Maybe you decide to come back to it later instead.
But let’s suppose you reach out to someone, make an appointment, go in for your first session, and maybe you even meet a few times. How do you know if this is the right therapist for you?
HOW TO KNOW IF YOU CHOSE THE RIGHT THERAPIST
- They have specialty in what you’re wanting help with.
Most therapists work with a little of everything but you really want someone skilled in their art. If you struggle with anxiety, find someone who dedicates a full sentence to anxiety in their bio. If you are worried about postpartum depression or need to process a challenging birth, look for someone trained in perinatal mood disorders (check out Postpartum Support International for a list of trained providers).
If you are looking for a couples therapist, seek a counselor whose bio reflects their passion and expertise in couples work. Therapy is an art but not all of us are terrific artists in every medium – we each have our favorites. Keep this in mind while you’re browsing. If a therapist spends time and space to talk about something, that means they’re interested in it. And they’re going to be a better therapist for things they’re interested in.
2. Something about the way they represent themselves resonates with you.
Either by reading their short Psychology Today bio or checking out their website, you like what you’re reading. Something stands out to you or you feel connected to something they’ve written. You might even be excited to hear back from them.
Oftentimes you may not know what all the theoretical approaches they mention mean. Know that you’re welcome to look these up and become a more conscientious consumer.
3. Your first session feels mostly comfortable.
Therapy can feel real weird. I know how uncomfortable it can be to sit on a couch in front of a stranger and start talking about your life. It can feel really artificial.
In order for therapy to be most effective, it has to be relational, honest, and intimate. You need to feel comfortable and at ease so that you can build trust over time.
Unless you regularly feel uncomfortable and awkward with new people, or you experience a tremendous amount of social anxiety, you should be able to relax and loosen up (at least a little) with your therapist in your first session. It’ll still likely feel unfamiliar and strange but overall hopeful and encouraging.
4. You get a gut feeling after 3-4 sessions that this is definitely the right therapist for you.
People don’t give their gut feelings enough credit. Our intuition is incredibly powerful. After 3-4 sessions with your new therapist (or sometimes sooner), you should be able to know if it feels like a good fit or not.
Either way, try doing some self-reflection about your experience. Ask yourself questions like:
How does it feel to come to this office? Is my body tense and tight? Is the environment helping me relax? Does it feel safe here?
What is it like to sit here and listen to my therapist talk to me? Am I just waiting for them to finish? Does their input feel insightful? Does it relate to me?
What is it like to talk to my therapist? Does it seem like they are invested in what I’m saying and feeling hopeful for me? Are we able to laugh together? Do I feel accepted by them?
Do I look forward to our next session?
You might think this last one won’t apply if you’re seeking therapy because you’re somewhat in crisis – either personal or relational.
But let me tell you a secret:
All of my clients who have come to me in serious trouble (and made tremendous progress) have been able to both laugh and cry in our sessions. They also regularly tell me that they look forward to our next appointment.
Even the really painful appointments.
Think about it.
5. You interview more than one therapist.
I’m not sure all of my colleagues would agree with this one because they might not love the idea of their client comparing them to another counselor. But it’s not about them – it’s about you, the client, doing what is best for you.
I think this step is incredibly important, especially if:
-You have never been in therapy before and aren’t sure what to expect
-You’ve had negative experiences previously with therapists (probably partially due to a lack of fit)
-You aren’t feeling completely confident in your choice of therapist
Go ahead and tell your prospective therapist that you’re meeting with a few different counselors to find the best fit. Their response to this can be extremely telling of their character. If they accept it, encourage it, and respect your process – great start! If they seem competitive, discouraging, or negative, this could be indicative of not jiving well with you in other areas, too.
WHAT THE RESEARCH TELLS US
Are you thinking all of this seems a little too emotional? You wanted a list of keywords to look for? You’re not alone. Most people think area of specialty, theoretical approach, type of intervention, or even type of degree are the most important factors in choosing a therapist.
If you do your trusty Google search, you’ll even find some webpages listing off “factors to assess a potential therapist” including: ease of access, location, availability, credentials, demographics, and areas of expertise. These lists mention intuition as an afterthought – implying it isn’t very important.
But the research is telling us something different.
According to a meta-analysis of 24 studies measuring the impact of therapeutic alliance on psychotherapy outcome, it was found that a quality relationship between client and therapist was a better predictor of good therapy than type of intervention used.
WHAT TO DO IF IT IS NOT A GOOD FIT
I thought about naming this section: How to Break Up with Your Therapist… but that actually isn’t always the goal.
If your therapist doesn’t feel like a good fit for you (again, you’ll usually get the gut feeling before the 4th session), it doesn’t necessarily mean you need to cancel all your appointments and restart the search.
When clients of mine are working with another therapist (meaning I’m seeing them for couples work and they have an individual therapist as well), I like to ask how it is going. If they tell me it’s “going” – or they just plain aren’t excited, confident, or raving about their experience, I know something is off. If your therapist fits you, you’ll be confident about it.
If your therapist doesn’t seem like a good fit, I’ll tell you the same thing I tell my clients:
Talk to your therapist about it.
If the therapeutic process isn’t moving as fast as you’d like, you don’t like your therapist’s approach, you don’t know how to start the sessions, you aren’t looking forward to your next appointment, or you just plain don’t think it’s working – talk to your therapist about it.
These conversations are almost always the most powerful moments in therapy. They are real-life practice moments for clients to learn to advocate for themselves in a safe space. They help the therapist become a better therapist by being able to perhaps step out of their hum-drum technique and meet the needs of the client. They provide excellent information regarding expectations and experience of the therapeutic process.
Oh, and they strengthen the therapeutic alliance.
If you are not liking the strict goal-oriented approach they are taking and you want your sessions to feel a little less rigid, or maybe you need more structure and want some homework between sessions, telling your therapist can help both of you work together to create a process that will help you thrive.
Most therapists might be a little surprised to hear you be so direct, but usually this leads to some great work and builds trust between you.
Some therapists won’t respond as lovingly. If your therapist gets defensive, hostile, or dismissive, they are likely not the right therapist for you. I encourage you to try one more time by kindly letting them know you’re disappointed by their response.
But if they continue to find it difficult to listen to your experience of your sessions together, it might be time to let them go – and maybe leave them a copy of The Gift of Therapy so they can learn to be a better therapist. Also pick up a copy for yourself to get a feel for what you’re wanting in a therapeutic relationship.
I know how awkward it can be to tell your therapist you’re not loving the vibe. I wish more professionals in my field would initiate that conversation for their clients.
I honestly can’t think of anything more respectful than inviting the client to share their experience of our time together.
If you’re thinking it’s not worth it to confront any of these things with your counselor, consider that meta-analysis of 24 studies we discussed earlier. Those researchers found that not only was alliance a strong predictor of successful therapy, but more specifically, the client’s perception of the relationship was more important than the therapist’s!
Oh, and they measured alliance by feeling of “personal attachment” and “collaboration and desire to invest in the therapeutic process.”
Having a real conversation with your therapist about your experience seems like a great way to build more attachment with them. And if they respond well and adapt to your concerns, you’re truly collaborating and investing in the process together.
Now that’s good therapy.
If you’re still not sure you’re ready for therapy and are just planning ahead, I put together this list of 13 crucial times to seek out couples counseling. Subscribe to email updates so you don’t miss the article on how to know when you need counseling individually, too.