How to Choose the Right Therapist for You
by Alissa Klugh, MS, LPC
For many people, choosing a therapist is simple: they go to the first person who comes up on an internet search, or whatever therapist is available soonest at the practice closest to home - or even worse - we base it solely on the type of insurance that we have and is accepted at the practice. This is hard. Sometimes, this works, and it's a great match. Typically, this is happenstance, and I don't know many people who would truly prefer to leave their story in the hands of someone who they just "lucked out" getting.
Think about it this way: Would you date someone who you didn't take time choosing, getting to know, and seeing how they function as a partner? Heck no! So, why wouldn't you take time to build a connection and learn about the person who you're going to be telling the intimate details of your story to? For some, it could be because it's "easier" to just go with the flow, for others, perhaps it's the therapist their mother, or wife, or brother chose for them. There are many reasons we choose who we choose, but what many clients do not realize is that they have the right to choose someone who honestly fits their needs and has the experience to do the job.
I've had countless clients walk into my office and share with me that they have never been to therapy. First, let me say that is a HUGE step and I am always proud of them for taking it. And after a session or two (sometimes sooner), they lose their zest. You could arguably say that this happens due to a mental health condition, which, could be true, but it could also be because it is not the right fit for the client, and sometimes, it is because they aren't actually ready for treatment, but that's another story, altogether. I would say that the majority of people I have seen are good fits, and something that many of them have in common is that they did a great job in finding and selecting me. I am also the kind of therapist who is not afraid to tell my client that their needs may be better met, elsewhere. This is not meant to be mean or rude, but if you aren't feeling the connection, chances are, your therapist is not either because they are feeling your resistance. It's your right to choose someone else, if this happens.
I've compiled a list of ways in which you can choose a therapist that works best for you. This is not an exhaustive list, so there could be other factors that are not mentioned, here, but it's a good start.
- Get a Recommendation/Referral: If you were buying a new car, you're more than likely going to ask around about the best make, model, year, and durability, right? Do the same thing when you're picking a clinician. Search the internet, ask your friends and family, your trusted doctors, and check out practice ratings on websites that use rating systems. If someone you know and trust connected well with a therapist, or knew someone who did, then they may be a good referral for you. Keep in mind that your therapist, ethically, should not be seeing you and your close loved ones, individually, if they are aware of the connection. This can create a therapist bias, as they may know information about both you and the other individual, potentially clouding judgement and skewing the assistance that you are getting. If your loved one is seeing someone, and you know you should not go there, too, perhaps that therapist can recommend someone who has similar practices. Ask around!
- Theoretical Orientation: Find out what type of therapeutic practice the clinician uses. If they are the type of therapist who uses talk-therapy, but you would do better with someone who does hands-on work, such as art or music therapy, then you are going to want to figure this out, beforehand. Once you start seeing a therapist, it is up to you to drive treatment. If what your therapist is doing is not working for you, tell them. I have never met a good therapist who does not appreciate honesty from their clients in the work that they're doing with them. This will help the therapist change course, or provide you with the opportunity to find someone who is better matched for your needs.
- Talk with Them Beforehand: Before going in for your first session, see if the therapist would be willing to speak with you on the phone. This would be a good opportunity for you to see if there is potential for a good connection. Most therapists would be willing to take some time to talk with you and share their theoretical orientation and what principles guide their practice. Please keep in mind that this is not your opportunity for a brief therapy session - it is just to get to know your therapist-client fit.
- Check-In with How You Feel: At your first session, your therapist will more than likely be asking you questions that elicit feelings of discomfort and apprehension. This is pretty normal. They're slowly trying to learn about you and you're being asked to share and talk about some difficult topics. Beyond this, check in with how you're feeling. Do you feel connected? Safe? Heard? Understood? It's important to figure out how you're feeling when you're in therapy because therapy is supposed to make you feel better (eventually - trust me, there will be moments that you may feel worse because of the depths you're exploring, but overall, you'll be heading in the 'feeling better' direction). If you aren't feeling it, talk with your therapist about it, and if a change is necessary, make the switch!
- Physical Space: Have you ever been somewhere that makes you feel welcomed, calm, and relaxed? This is the feel that therapist are trying to emulate in therapy. Let's be honest - sometimes you feel that way, and sometimes you do not. Not every therapist or space is for every person. You should feel a general sense of comfort in the environment. Go in for your first visit and see how you feel while you're in there.
- Specialties: When was the last time that you went to your pediatrist to have them look at a mole? Never? I didn't think so. Finding a therapist with a specialty in what your needs are is crucial. If you are looking for a therapist who can help you sort out gender identity, you probably do not want to go to someone who has only ever done drug and alcohol counseling. Be smart about this, people. Ask questions. Be HONEST about your needs. I know that it can feel a whole barrel of emotions to admit what you're looking for, but if you're not honest about your needs and take your therapist's recommendations for a good fit, then you're probably not going to feel fulfilled with your treatment.
- Looks: Okay, this seems weird, right? You don't want to base your pick of a therapist off of the way that they look anymore than you want them to make judgements about you and what you need based off of yours. But let's be real here: if we want to feel comfortable, we need to be around people who make use feel that way. If you are seeking therapy because you were attacked by a man with dark her, chance are, you're probably not going to want a male therapist with dark hair - makes sense when I put it this way, right? Shop around! Most therapists have a website with their photo on it - take a look at them and see if they are the gender/build and/or have the energy that you want in a therapist.
- Why Do You Want Therapy: Think about why you want therapy in the first place. This is crucial in figuring out who will meet your needs. Give yourself a good, hard look and figure out what work is really going to need done. Share this with your therapist. Be open. Be honest. They can do NOTHING for you if you do not give them openness and honesty. If what you want is something they do not believe that they can provide, they'll likely tell you.
Although there are many other ideas swirling around about how to pick the perfect therapist, only you are going to honestly know what works for you. Remember this: if you pick a therapist, start to see him/her, and you do not think that what they're providing you is what you need: tell them. Try to work it out. Get on the same page. If you cannot: then seek therapy elsewhere. Ask your therapist for help in picking someone else who they know and trust. This may be the best way to find "the one."
Alissa Klugh is a licensed professional counselor in the state of Pennsylvania. Although her thoughts and ideas on picking out a therapist for you may not be all-inclusive, you are welcomed to invite your own zest for finding the right therapist for you! If you live in the Pittsburgh area and would like to schedule an appointment with Alissa, you can do so by calling 412-367-0575 or by clicking here to request a session.