There are many articles out there that cover the basics of finding a therapist–search the web, ask your insurance provider, ask a friend etc. That information is readily available, but what is a bit harder to discern is how to find the right therapist for YOU. This article is assuming that you already know about the logistics of finding a therapist—and that you are looking for the right therapist for YOU and your issues of concern.
First, you definitely want to acknowledge that there are a wide variety of personality types that come to find themselves in the position of being a therapist. When people close their eyes and visualize what a therapist is—each person will have a different vision. Luckily, there is someone out there for everyone! The important thing is to KNOW that—and search for what YOU are looking for. What is important to you? A sense of humor? Someone who is serious? Someone who is direct or someone who delivers messages to you gently? Someone who actively talks with you and asks questions, or someone who primarily listens? A true professional in business attire, or someone who might greet you wearing jeans? Consider those possibilities, and then ask and answer the following questions:
Why am I going to therapy and what am I hoping to accomplish?
What do I hope my therapist is like?
You having a clear idea of what you are looking for will help guide you to the right person, who will meet the standard of what you are looking for. The single most important thing you can do when it comes to finding the right therapist is to decide what you need in order to feel comfortable and secure in order to share your story.
Each therapist has a different method for that first contact with clients. Most offer a phone number and/or an email as the starting point. Some therapists will have a receptionist, and some will field their own phone calls. This is more about what kind of business they are a part of. For example, a small business owner will likely call you back themselves whereas a larger practice will likely have a receptionist calling you back. This isn’t a difference that indicates whether a therapist is skilled or successful, this is more a reflection of the therapist’s business style.
Once you make contact with your therapist, feel free to ask any questions you might have. Even if you think they might be strange or silly questions—ask away. That phone call or email exchange is the first opportunity you have to get a feel for who the therapist is and how they might approach your issues.
You will also see a lot of information about what theories a therapist might use. This can be very confusing when you don’t know what those theories are. There are SO many different approaches to therapy that even therapists couldn’t possibly know them all!! There is no way to make this topic brief, so instead I will say that many of these theories address a particular need. If you are looking for help with issues such as self harm, dealing with past trauma, personality disorders, suicidal ideation or serious mental health issues like Bipolar or Schizophrenia—then you will want to look for a therapist skilled in those particular areas and ask a lot of questions about their approach to make sure it will work for you. If you are looking for therapy to work out some issues in your family, address anxiety/panic attacks or just excessive worry, or to better yourself by feeling more positive then you will still need to ask questions, but are more likely to find a therapist skilled in those issues as they don’t require specialization and extended training.
It is important to note that not every therapist is trained to deal with every mental health issue. It is quite common to be referred from one therapist to another, if your current therapist identifies that your needs are greater than what they are trained to skillfully address. It is also good ethics for a therapist to recognize that they are not trained to address your particular issue, so if a therapist refers you to someone else, keep in mind that it isn’t personal.
All of this information is important—but what it really comes down to is the right fit. Once you are seated in your therapist’s office—the real work begins. And sometimes, it’s so much work to get to that part-you have jumped through so many hoops with wading through a huge number of therapists online or via insurance directories, reaching out to many of them, and rearranging your schedule to make the time work—and then, uh oh. You don’t like them. But—you just did all that work! ‘Maybe it’s not so bad…maybe this is what therapy is like’ you say to yourself…but that’s often not it. Sometimes, it’s just the wrong fit. Plain and simple. If you have the feeling it is not a good fit—it’s probably not. It might be a simple fix. It might require changing therapists—either way it’s better to speak up than to say nothing and keep going along with it. Speaking up gives your therapist a chance to hear what you need instead of trying to guess at it. Speaking up gives your therapist an opportunity to change in order to fit your needs. Or, it gives them a chance to say “I’m sorry. I can’t meet your needs, but I bet I know someone who can.”
Most therapists are trained to know that sometimes the fit just isn’t there—it’s not personal. It is much worse for us to not realize we aren’t meeting your needs, and then have you just go away, than it is for you to just lean over the couch and say “Hey now! I really need you to do more than nod! I would really appreciate some verbal feedback.”
I often say that being a therapist is like trying to put together a puzzle—without the box cover. I have no idea what the puzzle looks like once it’s put together. What I have is several pieces in front of me. Enough to see that maybe it’s about kittens—but sometimes when I put it together I see that it was actually LIONS, not kittens. And since we can’t read minds, it is so very important that you, as the consumer, feel empowered to speak up and say what it is that you need. There are so many personality types in the world, with so many different hopes and needs and ideas about how therapy SHOULD be. Taking the time to figure out what you are looking for in a therapist, and speaking up about your needs will give you the best chance of finding success in therapy.