The pursuit to find a therapist can be both exciting and overwhelming, often leading to giving up the quest or choosing a therapist just to choose. The endless searches, therapy jargons that are sure to confuse you even more, and built in anxiety around even starting therapy often contribute to the defeat clients feel.
As a therapist myself, I often hear clients’ portrayals of the process that has finally lead them to sitting in my office. In best cases, this is a good fit and we can begin therapy.
In worse cases, I am informing the client that I am not a good fit for their needs and they are yet again back at the drawing board. Except, I would never leave a client alone on their search if I can provide any insights into who specifically I would recommend or what to consider when finding a new therapist. Research validates that finding the right therapist for you and your needs has a robust influence on the outcome of treatment (Flückiger, Del Re, Wampold, & Symonds, 2011). My hope is to shed a little light into a few items to consider while looking for the right therapist for you.
1. Be considerate of what it is that YOU want from therapy
One of the first questions I ask clients is, “what brings you to therapy.” This question is quite simple in form, yet complex in its own regard. Frequent responses are desire for happiness, because family/friends/partner told them to come, or because there is something in their life that is not working the way they hope. I like to prompt further-Why do you want to feel happy? If someone else wanted you to get therapy, what lead you to the decision to actually come? What’s not working and why do you want to change it? It’s important to know what you’re hoping to get from therapy so you can be sure any therapist you work with is going to support your goals and is willing to do the work with you.
2. Ask family and friends
There are hundreds of therapists, especially in the Chicagoland area, and sifting through all their profiles is unrealistic and time-consuming. Asking family and friends if they are in therapy and if they would recommend their therapist or practice can help eliminate a lot of busy work. Family and friends can also be helpful in sharing how they found their therapist and what they find important in their treatment.
3. Consider demographics that may be important for you to have in a therapist
The therapeutic space can be quite vulnerable and a carrier of many thoughts and emotions. Connecting with your therapist will foster the growth of this experience, which makes it important that you are working with someone who you feel can support you in the best way. Be mindful of any race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, religion, etc you may definitely want in a therapist. While these factors may not guarantee goodness of fit or outcomes, therapists understand that matching with a therapist in a particular demographic can greatly influence the therapeutic alliance and experience.
4. Theoretical Orientation and Specialties
Remember the statement above regarding therapy jargon- this is the section where I’m really going to bring them out! CBT, DBT, ACT, ERP- psychology LOVES a good acronym (almost more than a good therapy metaphor). What does all of this mean and why is it important to consider? Most jargon and acronyms you see will be in regards to the therapist’s approach to treatment. If you’ve never been in therapy before, it is expected you will have no idea which approach will be right for you and I would recommend adding this to a list of questions to ask providers. If you have been in treatment before and have a sense of what worked and what didn’t work, I would take this into consideration while looking for a therapist. Some approaches are more focused on processing while others are more experiential in nature and skill-based. If you have an idea of what may feel most supportive for you, ask what the goal of their approach is. Most importantly, if there are any specific reasons you are going to therapy, please make sure the therapist specializes in that area. Examples may be: eating disorders, substance use, self-harm, chronic pain, and so forth. Not working with a therapist who specializes in your needs may lead to the behaviors worsening or limited progress in treatment.
Most therapists, if not all, will have a profile you can view with an attached picture. The reason therapists and practices do this is to be sure the client gets a sense of who the therapist is and how they approach therapy. Some may use humor, holistic approaches, or are more conservative in their approach. By reading their profile and getting a glimpse into who they are, clients may be more willing to attend an initial appointment rather than play roulette with a stranger. Their profiles may also speak to their theoretical orientation and specialties so be sure to check it out!
6. Call and ask them questions
Therapists typically will allow for a brief phone conversation for new clients (about 15 minutes) to be sure, upon initial discussion, it is worth the client coming in for a full initial session. I strongly recommend using this time to share what it is that is bringing you to therapy and ask all those questions recommended above. If you also know you have certain availability, be sure to verify the therapist can accommodate that for you as well.
7. Trust your gut
I’ll resist my urge to discuss the neuroscience of gut instinct (save that for another article!) and just encourage you to listen to your gut! How did you feel during your first session? How did the interaction feel between you and the provider? How are you leaving session- anxious, excited, hopeful, confused? Did this therapist validate, normalize, and respect you during the session? If you have any doubts this therapist may be a good fit or if you want to return to therapy, you have a few options: 1. Schedule a follow-up appointment and see how you feel now that you are a bit more familiar. Sometimes nerves can impact how we experience other people or situations. 2. Mention this to the therapist and see how they respond- perhaps they were having an off day or were communicating in a way that felt dismissive yet their intention was to be supportive. 3.Therapist shop- sometimes the most helpful way to know what therapist is best for you is to meet with several and see what you respond to. Whenever I meet a new client who I can tell is unsure, I will always recommend this and emphasize this is their treatment and it is important they are working with someone they aren’t unsure about.
My hope is that these tips provide a sense of relief and ease as you begin or continue your journey to therapy. It is not a perfect science, however a pivotal part of your journey to well being. Congratulations on making the courageous decision to participate in therapy and I wish you all lots of growth as you embrace this opportunity.
By Lindsay Buval, LCPC
Flückiger, C., Del Re, A. C., Wampold, B. E., & Symonds, D. (2011, October 10). How Central Is the Alliance in Psychotherapy? A Multilevel Longitudinal Meta-Analysis. Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Christoph_Flueckiger2/publication/51708456_How_Central_Is_the_Alliance_in_Psychotherapy_A_Multilevel_Longitudinal_Meta-Analysis_JCounsPsy/links/02bfe510c06f291cec000000/How-Central-Is-the-Alliance-in-Psychotherapy-A-Multilevel-Longitudinal-Meta-Analysis-JCounsPsy.pdf