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How to Find A Therapist Who's Right For You

Discover the qualities of a good therapist and how to find one. Also, things you can do to make the most of therapy.

Perhaps I can offer some suggestions from "the other side of the fence", so to speak, from my experiences as a volunteer counselor with a local crisis agency.

My initial answer to the question (and a rather un-helpful answer which we've probably all heard before at that) of how to find a therapist who is right for you is "you'll just know". Well that's fine if you do know and you've found one, but it doesn't help much in actually finding one. So here are a few other random thoughts:

The counseling relationship is not entirely unlike any other form of relationship, although it does have very specific boundaries and is in a sense a rather artificial and particularly one-sided relationship. Different people seeking help will relate differently to different counselors, so no single counselor will be ideal for all people.

The Qualities of a Good Therapist

What makes a good counselor? What's a counseling session like? Dealing with counselors who violate the boundaries and trust of their patients.A good counselor should make a person feel comfortable enough to talk in-depth about their problems, but not so comfortable that the person feels no need to work on underlying issues outside the counseling session. Keep in mind that it's what happens outside the counseling session that makes the difference; the sessions themselves are merely a means to this end.

After overcoming the initial nervousness of actually getting to a counseling session and sitting down to tell a complete stranger all your problems, a good counselor should be working to make you feel comfortable about being there and what you're doing. This will mean different things to different people. Having said that though, a good counselor will need to caringly confront blind spots in the person's outlook and challenge them to take sometimes-difficult action that will improve the situation.

I'd be inclined to separate these two sources of "discomfort" if you like, since a person seeking help may be reluctant to take the sort of action that may be necessary to address the underlying problem, yet it would be counterproductive for the counselor to allow them to remain stuck where they are. A persons' discomfort with their situation is one of the things that will help motivate them to take action which may help improve the situation, so in this sense a counselor who simply makes the person "feel better" may be doing them a disservice. A good counselor should take time to build rapport and listen effectively to the person's feelings and situation first however, and there should be a balance between feeling heard and feeling challenged and empowered to change the situation.

Therapists Who Violate Your Trust

Having said that, it's an unfortunate fact that some counselors violate the boundaries and trust of the people who seek their help. If something that happens in a counseling session makes a person feel uncomfortable with the counselor, it's worth keeping this in mind since that feeling may be an alarm bell ringing that something is wrong with the counseling process itself. Of course, this is difficult because the person seeking help may be in something of a vulnerable position and overwhelmed with what is happening in their lives, and is the counselor's responsibility to ensure that the boundaries with the client are absolutely respected. I do feel though that knowing more about just what this "counseling" thing really entails would help protect people from counselors who do violate the trust of the people who seek their help. "Knowledge is power", and all that.

Knowing what you want from a counselor will go a long way towards working on the problem you wish to address; although it's probably fair to say that most people going for counseling initially "don't know", or rather, they know, but they just don't know where to start - that's why they come. Writing down and prioritizing the things you wish to work on will help focus things, and also shows the counselor that you're serious and motivated about working on the problems. However, a good counselor should ask at the beginning of the session what you'd like to work on, or at the very least should pay attention when you try to tell them what you're wanting to focus on. For instance, if the counselor is determined to put you through an intensive course of hypnotherapy before they've even heard part of the story, it's probably time to find a new counselor. On the other hand, they shouldn't completely neglect important issues that the person seeking help may be reluctant to address because they seem difficult, either.

Although the counseling relationship is inherently imbalanced, it's generally considered to work best when the person seeking help and the counselor work as a team. The counselor may have some expertise in problem solving, emotional dynamics, relationships etc etc, but it's the person seeking help who is the expert on the situation in question. The best solutions to the problems presented are likely to come from the person seeking help rather than the counselor, so the counselor is really there to facilitate the development of these solutions rather than to offer advice which may not be appropriate. Ideally, the person seeking help should have control over what happens, and what they work on -- the counselor may offer suggestions at times, but the person seeking help should be empowered to "own" and have the ultimate say over the process.

It's worth noting that different counselors tend to follow different patterns of "therapy", according to their personal preference and the way in which they were trained. However, the skill of the counselor has been shown to be a more important factor in their effectiveness than the particular type of therapy they practice. A good counselor will be able to adjust their counseling to the needs of the client, but it's worth keeping in mind that any counselor is likely to be more skilled in the particular mode of therapy that they specialize in. So, for instance, if a friend highly recommended a great Gestalt counselor, but you just don't find Gestalt stuff helpful, then they might not be the best counselor for you. I'd also suggest that the degree of motivation of the person seeking help is probably generally a greater factor in the effectiveness of counseling than the skill of the counselor, although a good counselor should be able to maximize the person's motivation to resolve or work on the underlying problems, so the two are intertwined.

Well there are a few points anyway; It's certainly not the be-all-and-end-all of the subject though, but it's a good start.

Where to Find A Therapist

  1. Ask your family doctor for a recommendation.
  2. Call a university psychiatry or psychology department and ask for recommendations of people trained in that program.
  3. Call a large clinic; ask the receptionist for recommendations. "They know who specializes in what and can match you up
  4. Check with friends and family.
  5. If you're moving to a new city, ask your current therapist for referrals, or have him check with colleagues.

Also, check with professional associations to learn about a therapist's expertise -- whether they provide psychotherapy, if they treat children, etc. The American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association both provide such lists for people wanting to find a therapist. Your county associations are listed in the phone book.

next: Talking Therapy Equals Antidepressant Drugs For Severely Depressed
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APA Reference
Writer, H. (2008, December 11). How to Find A Therapist Who's Right For You, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, September 16 from https://www.healthyplace.com/depression/articles/how-to-find-a-therapist-whos-right-for-you

Last Updated: June 24, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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