Therapy 101: How to Find a Therapist

Finding a therapist can feel like online dating. It usually begins with a search- therapists near me, counselors near me, therapy for depression, best counseling group. You scroll through bright, happy websites full of professional photos of well-lit, smiling people. They all say pretty much the same thing. You’re stuck and I can help you. They have lots of buzzwords. Change. Transform. Holistic. Wellness. Some list a fee or insurance networks they accept. Many don’t. It can seem like there’s no real difference between them. But there is, and it’s not something you can see from a website. It’s their personality.

 

After all the effort you’ve put into finding a therapist, it’s tempting to pick the first one who calls you back. But it’s worth it to find someone who really gets you. Studies of the effectiveness of therapy show that it’s the relationship you have with your therapist that’s the biggest predictor of change in your life. It’s not the methods- results show that the therapy method doesn’t matter so much even though they seem so different.

Treat the first session like a date- it’ll probably be a bit awkward and you don’t really know each other but you’re trying to see if it’s a good fit and trying to make a positive first impression while being authentic about your experiences and struggles.

Many therapists offer a free initial consultation so you’re not dropping a hundred dollars on someone you don’t want to see again. But many don’t offer a free first session or do a free consultation on the phone only, so you may have to make a bit of an investment in finding the right person.

Here are nine signs you’ve found a good therapist:

*note: many of these signs reference California legal and ethical standards for therapists with a state license and may not apply in other states.

  1. They’re above board from the start. Your therapist should go over things like fees, cancellation policies, confidentiality, mandated reported requirements, and other boilerplate details with you. If they don’t mention any of these things, that’s a sign they’re uncomfortable talking about difficult topics, but it also indicates that they either don’t know the law or are purposely ignoring it. Not a good trait in a therapist.
  2. They can explain the process of therapy to you. Every therapist does therapy a bit differently, but the time you spend in therapy generally has a beginning, middle, and end. If the professional therapist can’t tell you what to expect in therapy, watch out! They might not know what they are doing or they might want to bring you in with no defined end so you’re in therapy for years (and paying every week!).
  3. They listen to you. After the required details are taken care of, the therapist should ask you why you’re coming to therapy. Depending on the therapist’s methods and the nature of your problems, they might ask about your childhood, your relationships, your sleep habits, or even your current thoughts and feelings. No matter how they direct the conversation, you should expect to spend a good amount of time talking about yourself and your experience. Stay away from the therapist who hears “I’m depressed” and doesn’t ask more- it shows they don’t really care about your side or how your personal history has shaped the current issue.
  4. You feel heard. Some therapists listen but you’re not quite sure they’ve really understood what you were saying. It’s a good sign when your therapist reflects back what they heard you say and asks if they’ve got it right. That shows they’re actually trying to get your perspective accurately and are willing to ask for clarification.
  5. They ask about your end goals. There are a few ways they might ask about this. Phrases like “if the problem was gone, what would be different” and “how would you like things to be with your spouse” are indicators that your therapist is looking for specific, measurable goals so they know when you’re heading for the end phase of therapy.
  6. You feel comfortable in the room. Therapy takes a while. You should be comfortable on the furniture, feel safe parking your car or taking transit to the office. This may seem like a small thing, but if you don’t feel like you can relax in the room, it’ll be easier for you to skip sessions later when it’s hard to get out the door.
  7. You like the look of your therapist. It can seem shallow to judge someone by their appearance, but it’s actually pretty important. If you feel attracted to them, you might not be completely honest about the weird parts of your past. If they seem too young, too old, or too close to your own age, you might not feel able to trust their judgment. Some people need to see an older therapist who reminds them of their grandparent. Couples may prefer to see a married therapist. Teens often like therapists who are either younger adults or older adults- not someone parent aged. A person who has experienced sexual assault may want to see someone completely different in race and gender from their attacker.
  8. The therapy style seems like a match. If you’re more analytical, look for a therapist who can explain your anxiety in a more technical way. If you’re a creative type, steer clear of the technical therapist and look for someone who will do process art, dance therapy, or music therapy with you. A good therapist can be both- they’ll mirror the way you talk and match their style to your personality and way of thinking.
  9. You’re comfortable with the fee. Most people aren’t comfortable talking about money, especially when it comes to admitting that something is too expensive. If you really feel like this is someone you could work well with, ask about sliding scale fees or suggest a fee you feel comfortable with as long as it’s similar to the current fee structure. It’s no fun for anyone to have a mass of unpaid bills collecting.

If they’ve got all these factors, you’ve found a match! Just remember, first sessions are often like first dates, and if you can afford it, give a maybe therapist a few sessions to get to know you before making a final decision. Of course, a red flag therapist shouldn’t get a second session- get out of there right away if you feel uncomfortable or if they’re clearly doing illegal or unethical things.

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