Finding a good therapist is a lot like shopping for a good pair of pants. You’re going to have to try a few on and maybe even make a few alterations before they start working for you and help you feel great about yourself. Science tells us that psychotherapy works just as well if not better than medication, but unlike a pill, your therapist is a human. This means that personalities can clash, misunderstandings can occur, or occasionally people can just be outright weirdos. But once you get started, how do you really know you've found a good therapist?
I know the first time I went to see a counselor, he told me to tap my shoulder blade three times and say out loud that I loved myself. Then he expected me to write him a $200 check for his oh-so-random nonsense. Rather than see someone else, I shied away from the idea. It wasn’t until I considered the profession as a career for myself that I began to see how talking, processing, and strategizing with a professional can be an invaluable resource. Because sometimes having someone with skin who can actively root for you and shine the light on new insights is better than any self-help book.
If you’re ready to shop around for a good therapist, here are seven signs that your butt has landed in the right chair.
1. They don’t sound like a TV character.
You know the therapy catchphrases. “Tell me more about that,” or “What I hear you saying” will work for a TV show, but fictional therapists barely have their own lives together. They're usually doing really dumb stuff like sleeping with their clients or breaking confidentiality. When I teach new mental health counselors, I make sure that those corny phrases are the first training wheels that get dropped. So if your new therapist is nothing but a string of catchphrases and no substance, you might want to look for someone who talks like a regular human.
2. They give more than advice.
If therapy were all about the quick fix, then why spend the money? You could just as easily get advice from a sketchy Yahoo answer thread. “5 Easy Steps!” is a great hook, but most real and lasting change is really freaking difficult. Your therapist should be ready to roll back his or her sleeves and gather lots of information before they help you craft a strategy. And above all, they know that you know yourself better than anyone, so they put you in the driver’s seat.
3. They’re up-to-date on research.
Because you’re entitled to have your secrets kept confidential, therapy is a contractual relationship. And part of that contract says you have the right to know what theories and techniques your therapist uses. A good therapist is up to date on what techniques are backed by research, and which ones are less effective. So don’t be afraid to ask about your therapist’s orientation and the evidence to back it up.
There are breakthroughs all the time when it comes to the field of mental health and neuroscience. A good therapist also should be interested and engaged when you’re wondering how to cut back on your smartphone use or get better sleep at night, and they should be able to point you in the direction of good science that can guide your behaviors. So if you ask for extra reading to take home with you, they should be able to provide you with instant references.
4. They aren’t trying to be your friend.
It’s human to want people to like you. But if your therapist’s focus is on seeking your praise and approval, then they’ll lose sight of the goal. Also, you’re not paying them to cry with you about the last 20 minutes of that Game of Thrones episode. So if you feel like your therapist is playing the buddy card, you might want to try a new one. He or she might occasionally share personal experiences to provide examples or insight to the work, but if the session feels more like Sunday brunch with your friends, then you might want to speak up. You’re the one paying, so the session should be about you — and there should be boundaries to your relationship.
5. They give good homework.
As a counseling professor, I teach future therapists not to do more work than the client. A good therapist can shine the light on room for improvement or behaviors that need changing, but you’re the one who has to pick the torch and run with it. If you leave your appointment feeling energized, with clear tasks for the week or month ahead (even if it's just things to think about), then you’ve got someone who’s going to help you get yourself in gear.
6. They listen to your feedback.
A good therapist wants you to speak up when you feel uncomfortable or a strategy isn’t working. If your doctor prescribed you a medication and your nose fell off, you’d say something, right? Therapy shouldn’t feel any different. Not every technique works for everyone, but your therapist won’t know unless you give them good feedback. If they seem a little hurt by your words, then that’s their problem, not yours. Find someone who likes a good challenge and isn’t afraid to change directions when you need them to do so.
7. They seem genuinely interested in listening to you.
Psychologists debate what truly inspires change in individuals, but I’m certain of this: curiosity is the driving force between significant self-improvement. The more fascinated we are with our behaviors and emotions, the less likely we are to feel overwhelmed by them. And your therapist is no exception. If they’re just phoning it in after their 7th client of the day and are more focused on their evening Chipotle burrito than your recent breakup, then they’re not right for you. Find someone who gets excited about the challenges and nuances you as a human present to their work. We’re fascinating creatures, which makes therapy quite the journey.
Of course, there are many more components in a good therapeutic relationship than these seven. What’s most important is that you speak up if something doesn’t feel right, and be an advocate for yourself. If you want someone who has special experience working with persons of your race, ethnic background, culture, sexual orientation, etc., then don’t be afraid to ask! A good therapist knows that sometimes referring a client to a colleague is in your best interest. And remember, you’ll encounter duds in any professional, so don’t be discouraged if your first experience isn’t ideal. Somewhere out there is the encourager who can help you be your best self, so keep looking and keep asking for what you want.
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