So, you’ve decided to see a therapist….
You have chosen to take control of your mental health and to surrender to a process that can be enlightening, freeing, empowering, and radically life changing.
Now there’s just one major step you have to take – finding the right therapist to be your trusted ally on this journey.
This may seem like an overwhelming feat – There are so many kinds of therapies, so many styles and approaches, so many degrees and credentials, and how do I know which is which and which is better, and how do I even know what I want and I don’t even know what’s wrong with me and what the hell is “humanistic” therapy and why am I even doing this and thisistoohardIgiveupandBAAAGGHHH!
Slow down. Breathe.
Countless people find themselves here.
Unfortunately, we live in a society that brutally stigmatizes mental illness and does not recognize mental health care as being a necessary and obvious form of health care. So, we aren’t told how to effectively access it.
Luckily, it’s easier than you think. The process of finding a therapist that’s a good fit for you is really about what works for YOU, and is therefore, largely intuitive.
Here are some important things to keep in mind.
In Your Initial Search
1. Check the logistics
Simply put, don’t pick a therapist that it will be unrealistic for you to see on a regular basis.
- How far is the therapist’s office from your home or work?
- How open is the therapists’ schedule and does it work with your schedule?
- How easy it to make an appointment?
- How much does she or he charge and can you afford it?
- What will your insurance cover?
Therapy sessions can be hard. Accessing them shouldn’t be.
2. Learn their background
There are many degrees that prepare someone to conduct therapy, the main ones being MFT, MSW, MA/MS in Counseling, and PsyD or PhD in Psychology.
DON’T focus too much on which degree your therapist holds – all of these graduate tracks more than adequately train a clinician to provide therapy in a variety of styles tailored to a myriad of issues and personalities.
DO make sure they are licensed (or in the process of getting their licensure, supervised by a licensed therapist)!
Licensed therapists are bound by high ethical and legal standards and are guaranteed to have an appropriate level of education, training, and supervised clinical experience. They must pass a clinical exam, participate in continuing education and supervision, and must renew their license regularly.
All you have to do is quickly Google search for your State Professional Licensing Board and look for their name or check with their supervisor.
In addition to licensure, check to see if your therapist has any specialties. Do they have experience with your particular issue? Read a professional bio, or (with a grain of salt) a Yelp review, and see what mental disorders and particular issues or populations your therapist has extensively worked with.
If you believe you have a particular illness, such as an eating disorder, or a want to deal with a particular issue, such as grieving the loss of a loved one, you are most likely to be successful with a clinician who has dealt with these issues.
In Your Session
1. Develop a clear plan
If you have never been to a therapist before, you may have a lot of burning questions. How long will this take? What will we be doing in sessions? Will we be mostly looking into my past or building my future? Will we focus on deeply exploring my emotions or helping me learn concrete coping skills to change my harmful behaviors? Will I have tasks to complete outside of therapy? Will my family or loved ones be involved?
If you have any such questions, ASK! Your therapist should be able to tell you exactly how they work, what the therapy process will look like, and how they can help you achieve your goals. They should be able to tell you what type of therapeutic interventions (for example, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques or somatic experiencing) that they can offer to you.
Therapists are trained to know what types of treatments have been proven effective for each disorder or issue (either through empirical studies or reported successes). They can describe them to you, provide specific options, and will be responsive to you when something isn’t working.
Again, don’t focus too much on names and classifications; most therapists use an eclectic approach anyway. But make sure that they have a plan, that it makes sense, and that it works for you.
2. Make sure there’s a personality match
A therapist that is a good match for you will make you feel safe, comfortable, and heard. Therapists call this “holding the space.”
Pay attention to how you feel sitting with this person. You may start the session feeling anxious, scared, and uncomfortable – you shouldn’t feel this way when you leave!
Even after an emotional session, your therapist should be able to close the session in a way that makes you feel okay leaving the room and safe to return to your life.
- How do I feel working with this person?
- Do I feel safe and in control during sessions?
- Does this person hear me?
- Do they respect my values and goals?
- Do I feel that they are always in my corner?
Sometimes there are particular human characteristics have intense meanings for us that can distract from the therapeutic process.
For example, a young woman who has been sexually abused by a man might find herself uncomfortable talking to a male therapist. An introvert with a trauma history might be intimidated by a therapist who speaks loudly and gestures enthusiastically. A trans person might feel misunderstood by a therapist who is naïve about gender variance.
Maybe you just don’t want someone who looks like your ex!
It’s okay to have preferences! While all good therapists are trained to deal with your experience of them, something they call “transference,” if you are feeling particularly unsafe or uncomfortable, it’s just not a good fit.
3. Work toward independence and not dependence
The therapeutic process should always be working towards independence. Therapists are not people you call or see when you are having a rough day. They are not your emotional support, rather, they help you to set up emotional supports in your life (think “teach a man to fish.”).
A good therapist will give you the internal tools to help you cope with life without imposing their own opinions or telling you what they would do.
A good therapist is constantly curious about your values, goals, and priorities, and will help you to create the life that you want.
This doesn’t mean that a therapist won’t challenge your perspective or behaviors. Therapy is often a challenge! But a therapist should only challenge you when they see that one of your perspectives of behaviors doesn’t seem to working for you or is inconsistent with your stated values. The therapists’ personal values do not factor in.
As you progress with your therapy, you should feel like you are becoming more and more able to incorporate ideas and revelations from sessions into your everyday life and not that you are continually waiting for the next session to deal with something. If you find yourself asking, “What would my therapist do?” instead of, “What would I do, as my healthy, ideal self?” it’s going to be hard to make progress.
Be with a therapist who affirms your strengths and wants you to be empowered and in control of your own life.
Staying Sane in Therapy (pun intended):
1. Surrender to the process
Once you have completed your assessment and chosen a therapist for your journey, STOP YOUR ASSESSMENT and surrender to the process. Trust is crucial to the therapeutic process.
2. Accept that the process will be hard
Maladaptive thoughts and behaviors will be questioned, emotions that haven’t been dealt with in years will be explored, painful family and childhood memories will be confronted, and lifelong patterns will be changed.
It’s not easy. But it’s necessary. Remind yourself that your life is worth it and accept the challenge!
(And if you’re not ready for something, tell your therapist!).
3. Don’t stress over the diagnosis
Diagnoses are a way for practitioners to link your particular set of issues with a particular set of treatments that have proven effective for others.
It’s a starting point to see if and which medications might be useful (only a psychiatrist or medical practitioner can actually prescribe) or what to begin discussing with you. Diagnoses are also often a way to get insurance to cover all of this.
You are not your diagnosis!
The diagnosis is merely a starting point for you and your therapist to decide together which path to take with your treatment; where and what to explore. Remember that diagnoses of mental illness are quite common.
A third of the world’s population is diagnosable at some point in their lives. That’s more than 2 billion people.
You are not alone.
4. Have compassion for yourself
You will slip up, relapse, make and remake mistakes. You’re flawed AND beautiful. Love yourself as best you can.
5. Be excited!
We recreate our lives every day. Therapy allows us to do this in intentional, radical ways. It provides consistent, reserved space and time for us to take a step back and reflect on our lives and choose if and how we want to do things differently.
Needing help doesn’t make you helpless. If the first therapist you see isn’t a good fit for you, there are countless others you can work with instead. Promise yourself you’ll take the time to find the right one.
It’s worth it.
And you deserve it.
Good luck in your search!
Katy Kreitler is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism as well as a counselor and youth advocate. She can be found wandering the streets of San Francisco with a purse full of used fiction, a pair of emergency yoga pants, and half a burrito.