Finding a therapist who can be a good match for your needs may take a lot of your time, money, and energy. I would like to offer some tips that might make “shopping” for a therapist easier. My suggestions are based on my personal experience as a therapy patient or, in marketing terms, a consumer of therapy services and on my professional experience as a therapist.
In general, I see selecting a therapist being similar to finding and hiring any professional. There is a pre-interview stage during which you find a handful of candidates. Next, you interview them either by phone or in person or both, and, finally, decide whom you will hire.
The difference when you look for a therapist is that you can let your feelings influence your decision much more than when you hire any other professional. Normally, it is not a good idea to put your feelings or emotions in charge, but therapy work is unique because it is largely constructed around feelings and emotions. The premise of therapy for the patient is to discuss their personal matters with the therapist for the purpose of improving their emotional state and/or life situation. The exposure of one’s personal material makes one vulnerable and, therefore, should not take place without a basic sense of safety. If something about the prospective therapist makes you uncomfortable, don’t take a second guess and move onto interviewing the next candidate before you spend a large sum of money only to realize that you and the therapist aren’t a good fit.
During the pre-interview stage, you will be mostly using one of the two sources for selecting candidates or both of them: personal connections and online sources (therapists’ online directories and google search). I don’t think that one source is in any way better than the other. Each one has its up and down sides. Some people only trust referrals that come through their connections, some prefer to use online directories and search engines, others do both. I, personally, suggest using both sources as it increases your chances to find a decent therapist.
When you get a referral from someone you know, they often will tell you their impression or opinion about the therapist they are recommending, and that is a valuable piece of information you won’t get if you use online sources. On the other hand, the mere fact that this therapist helped somebody you know or is recommended to you by somebody you know is not a guarantee that they will be able to help you. They might be very experienced and knowledgeable and still not be a good fit for you on a personal level. Besides, when a referral comes through personal connections, you won’t be able to form your own impression about the therapist before you meet them. By comparison, when you look at therapists’ online profiles and websites, you can get an intuitive sense about who they are before you contact them and this way won’t have to waste your time and money on someone who does not appeal to you from the beginning.
The online search might get overwhelming, as you will have to go through many websites and profiles and look at many photos. Pay attention to the therapist’s picture first. Look at the face carefully. Is this the face that you like and that you can trust? The face of someone you can connect with? This may sound like a childish approach, but as I said before, therapy is a unique type of work that is build around feelings and emotions and, therefore, feeling safe with the therapist is the fundamental condition for the therapy to begin.
After reflecting on the therapist’s picture, read their profile or website carefully and see if their approach and philosophy resonate with you and match your needs, and then decide if you want to include this therapist in the list of candidates for interviewing.
When you have selected several candidates for the “position”, contact them and ask for an appointment. Some therapists offer 10 or 15 minutes free initial “consultation” over the phone. I, personally, don’t believe that phone conversation will give you a clear sense of what kind of a person is on the other end of the line. It may be helpful to talk on the phone first if you want to decide whether to meet with them or not. If you dislike them after a couple of minutes of talking, then you don’t need to waste time and money on a meeting and can move on to contacting the next candidate. I also don’t think that it is accurate to call this first interaction on a phone a “consultation”, as the therapist is not really “consulting” you about anything at this time. This is just a preliminary mutual screening, when you both are deciding if you want to take it a step further and to schedule a meeting.
Keep in mind that it may take more than one session for you and the therapist to assess if you can work together. The nature of therapy work is very personal and it may take a little time to get a feel if you and the therapist are a good match.
I believe that during a preliminary stage, when both, you and the therapist, are trying to assess if you are a good fit for one another, sessions should be offered at a substantially discounted rate. Many therapists would disagree with me, but I think that not much work can or should be done during the assessment period while the commitment to working together has not been made yet, and, therefore, it is not fair to charge the full fee during this period. It also might create tension in you as a prospective patient because on some level you might see the unfairness of the situation. You don’t know if you are going to work with this therapist. You don’t even know if the first session will be a good experience for you, and, yet, you have to pay the full fee. Psychologically, it puts a pressure on you to commit to working with this therapist right away, because you have already paid a substantial amount on your first meeting and would feel like a fool if it turns out to be a waste! A reduced fee, therefore, reduces a pressure to commit, puts people at ease and makes their first experience with the therapist more positive. Besides, when you are given a freedom not to hire the therapist, paradoxically, it increases the chances that you will decide in favor of hiring them, as you will appreciate that you were not pressured to commit too soon.
When you meet with the prospective therapist the first time, relax and pay attention to your senses. Do you like this person? Do you feel that he or she is a good listener? Listening might seem like an easy thing to do but it is not. It requires one to put aside their frame of reference while listening to you and to be willing to see your experience from your perspective. I believe that the therapist’s ability to listen is one of the major curative factors in therapy. If you didn’t feel that you were listened to during your first session, waste no more of your time and money with that therapist and make an appointment with somebody else.
During a preliminary stage, it is also important to ask the therapist about their approach to work and methods they use and to make sure that their business policy is clear. You can also ask them about their credentials and professional experience. They have to be willing to answer all your questions related to their work.
They have the right not to answer personal questions. In fact, in many cases it would be inappropriate and even unethical for them to do so, as their self-disclosure might undermine the therapy work. There is only one personal question that, I believe, the therapist has to be willing to answer and that is whether they have had their own therapy. I believe that it is a legitimate question to ask, as I also believe, that education and professional training are not enough to make someone suitable for doing therapy work. In order to be effective and, at the very least, not do harm therapists have to stay aware of how their own psychological issues may interfere with the work they are doing, and personal therapy is a must for them to maintain this awareness. In addition, I believe, that every therapist has to know what it feels like to be a patient.
Just like everybody, therapists are different in their personalities, working styles, theoretical background, interests, beliefs, training and experience and this is wonderful because you, as a consumer, have a lot to choose from. There is one quality, however, that every therapist must have and that is a clear understanding of what a therapeutic relationship is and what it isn’t. They should never allow their relationship with you to develop into a close one. They have to be able to empathize with you and to have compassion for your pain and struggles, but empathy and compassion should not be confused with closeness and intimacy. When therapists are confused about their role and don’t know how to be helpful without crossing a professional boundary, it often results in patients getting hurt rather than healed.