How to Find a Good Psychotherapist

How do you go about finding a therapist?

I feel sorry for the lay human being. Really, I do. Finding a qualified psychotherapist is like picking a cereal in Aisle 16 of the grocery store. The choices are overwhelmingly too many. Furthermore, who has the time and the energy to read the fine print on each box? Much less waiting a year for there to be a whole new brand, a whole new and improved flavor. It’s a wonder we all don’t lay on the floor and tantrum. Fuck it. Just grab a box of Apple Jacks and call it a day. Whether for breakfast or dinner, at least it will fill our belly.

But the metaphor ends there. Yes, therapists are vastly different and schools of thought and technique vary widely. But, who you choose as your therapist can make or break your growth process. The person across the room providing in-depth and often, way late, emotional nutrition can’t be just anybody. You want to get this one right.

So, let me help you poor souls out with a few decision-making tips:

  1. Know what you want to accomplish. Most of us seek therapy because some sort of emotional pain is outwitting our current coping skills. Perhaps, our life plans are refusing to materialize. Or, someone we love broke our heart or had a heart-attack. Or, old feelings we thought were over and done are surfacing with a vengeance. Whatever the emotional ache, we make that call looking to “feel better” or “get fixed.” Are you looking for short-term counsel that is problem specific? Are you wanting more generalized emotional growth toward greater personal and professional satisfaction? Can you be flexible that once you lift the hood, your therapeutic goal might shift with newly discovered territory that needs healing attention? – Have some sense of what you are looking for yet remain open to what the journey brings.
  2. Go shopping. Agree first to a consultation before signing-on for the long-term. Interview the potential therapist like you are assessing job qualifications. After all, you are the boss and he or she will be working for you. You are hiring him or her to transform your person. That is one important job. Do yourself a big favor – research, ask good questions and evaluate carefully.
  3. Listen to your gut. What does it feel like sitting with him or her? How do you feel talking to him or her? Do you imagine yourself feeling comfortable enough to spill your secrets? Is this someone who seems warm and kind, someone that you can feel emotionally safe with? Is this someone who is intelligent and knowledgeable?
  4. Is the therapist responsive to you? Do they look engaged, interested, empathic to your person and story? Additionally, do they respond to your calls and emails within a timely fashion?
  5. Is the therapist respectful? Does he or she encourage you to ask questions about the therapeutic process? To shop around as a wise consumer? Do they answer your questions in a specific and satisfying manner or do they seem irritated and only provide vague, unhelpful responses?
  6. Does this person give you hope? Do you intuit that this person can help you and that this is a person you want help from? After all, you are choosing them to become important to you. Is there something you sense in them that you’d like to incorporate into yourself?
  7. Has this person done their work? I argued with my graduate professor about this one. I posited that a therapist can only take a patient as far as he or she has gone themselves. My professor disagreed with me. I still hold this idea as true. For, it is the therapist’s aliveness that leads the charge toward greater vitality.
  8. Is this person humble, approachable and with good boundaries? Can the therapist receive and work with all your feelings or does he or she become defensive? Run from a therapist who talks about themselves, makes a sexual advance, does not provide a consistent frame to do the work of deep emotional healing and cannot handle your negative emotions. Your time and money are better spent elsewhere.

Like any relationship, not every therapist is a good match for every patient. The fit is all too critical. And, it may take you a few rounds before getting it right. But once you do, you can trust that you are in good hands. That despite the cost, the logistics and the emotional investment, you will surface with that hidden prize at the bottom of the cereal box – the one that holds our joy.

Am I Normal?

“I just want to be normal,” sayeth the umpteenth thousand patient on my green couch.

If only you knew how normal you are, I say only in my head.

That god-damn bill of goods. The one sold to us in magazines, on television, on Facebook, on shiny holiday cards. The one told at parties over martinis, on the sidelines of the soccer field, even dressed up at church.

Yep, that one. The one filtered of reality. The reality that none of us are spared. That ALL of us experience the range of human experience – loss and gain. The full effect of all feelings – highs and lows.

“But I have a diagnosis!” I can hear you argue with me. Trying to prove to me that you are different, somehow special in the category of fucked-up. That you are officially assigned and t-shirted as “not normal.”

I get that. Some people have cancer, epilepsy, clinical depression, asthma, divorce, a history of sexual abuse. These are real and painfully difficult. And deserve a shiny gold trophy all on their own.

Yet, I prefer a different diagnosis – human.

Because, we all are human. As far as I know, at least at this point in history, there is no escaping it. We all struggle with something. Some kind of challenge that makes our life uniquely troublesome. Suffering comes in many colors, just like that deliciously smelly box of thirty-six crayons we had as children.

So, stop aiming for normal. Stop falling for the masquerade. Stop making up in your head that you are solely selected by the gods of life who are sitting around some conference table, laughing as the ensure that you alone are especially victimized.

Instead, do you. Normal, wonderful, human you.

Just Fine

I’ve never been one much for superficiality. Those social niceties and exchanges that are well-intended but only serve to maintain a false pleasant front. In my world, such polished manners create disconnection, not connection. They make and maintain a pretend world where I feel alone in the mess of real life. A “don’t-really-ask-me and I’m-not-really-gonna-tell-you” policy.

My bullshit detector goes into overdrive. I hear myself screaming – on the inside, of course – can someone please talk about what is really going on? How they truly feel about the ugly reality spilt all over the living room floor? Are there any human beings in the room or just robots dressed in their Sunday best? Am I the only one here that is not happy, happy, happy?

One of the most common of such exchanges is the “how are you?” Often, it is asked automatically in haste or as someone is racing past you at high speed. Do you really want to know how I am? Do I really tell you how I am or do I oblige the game and give the pat “I’m fine” response? (What does “fine” mean anyway? That I am surviving? Just making it? One step from jumping off a bridge? Or that I am just vanilla ice cream today? A plain scoop, naked of the splashy rainbow sprinkles?

If we dare color outside the lines and respond with some inkling of honesty, then we often get the other pat response – “I’m sorry.” Or, the face that says – “I just asked to be polite. I didn’t really want you to answer because I DON’T CARE.” Then, why the fuck did you ask? Oh, yes … your mama taught you to be mannerly.

If I am about anything in my life and in my life’s work, it is authenticity. Figure out who you are and be clean and clear about it in your relationships and in the world-at-large. So, I say, to hell with manners. Shoot for relational connection. Although civility is an important value, intimacy grows in the world of feelings and feelings lie beneath manners.

Rather than “thank you,” tell someone that you love and appreciate him or her. Then sit back and watch the connection sky rocket.

If you want to know how someone is, ask them. And then slow down to make the space to receive them – in whatever human state he or she is in at the moment.

If someone asks you how you are, do a quick assessment to see if he or she really wants to know. Then depending on their interest, choose with intention to either play the game or give an honest answer that respects your heart and the relationship.

But, for God’s sake, be conscious about your interactions, rather than yet another human machine that spits out pleasantries that you been trained to say.

Maybe you don’t have time to hear how someone else is. That is perfectly okay. But then, don’t ask. Make a statement instead, such as – “I am really happy to see you.” Or, “I love to see your smile every time I come into Starbucks.” Such an act stops the well-indoctrinated social theater and offers a bite-sized version of genuine human engagement. I’ll take that any day over some scripted gesture that is empty at best and dismissive at worst.

So, really, how are you? I got time and space. And “fine” is not an option.

Lunching Before It’s Too Late

I had lunch yesterday with my 91-year-old friend.

It’s not what you might imagine. I did not go visit her in the nursing home. We did not dine over bland mashed potatoes and red Jell-O. No, not my friend. She invited me to lunch. She made a reservation. I dressed for the occasion, pretending to be one of those ladies-who-lunch. She drove. She talked intelligently. She didn’t drool or spill ketchup on her shirt. She asked about details from my life that she recalled accurately since we had lunch a few years ago. She challenged me. Told me what she thought. Asked questions as if wanting to learn something new at her old age.

I love my friend.

She told me about this club she started. After leaving a retirement community (and losing tens of thousands of dollars to do so) because she wasn’t ready to “give up and die,” she rented an apartment. She and another widow started sharing a glass of wine during the summer evenings on the patio. Before long, someone noticed their fun and asked to join. They are up to eight ladies now. They call themselves the “70 and 80s Women at the Portico.” Spontaneous geriatric group therapy, I thought to myself. I laughingly told her she needs to change the name, given that well, she is 90 now.

I love my friend. And what I love most is that she’s alive. Rather than her soup spilling on her blouse, her spirit overflows with vitality. She enthusiastically told me three times how great her sandwich was. And that the cup for her tea was too hard to drink … how do you manage a square tea cup? She eventually gave up in frustration. I asked her some honest questions. Before I finished the sentence, she said with passion, “no!” Okay, then. This woman has a thought, and a mind, and a heart. I asked her if she was bored. For, after 91 years of living, you still get the same choices – beef or chicken? Mountains or beach? Bath or shower? She looked at me strangely and said, “life is one grand adventure. Who knows? Maybe the key lime pie we just ordered (of course, she wanted dessert) will be awful.”

I love my friend.

She did say that she gets lonely sometimes. Her kids don’t call enough. And friends are sick or dead. But she volunteers at the local library. And she reads. And sometimes she feels crappy and then she just sits with the crappy till the crappy goes away. And of course, she has her club of women who drink wine at the portico.

I listened to her in awe, my body perched on the edge of the chair. I was watching a legend. Not only has this woman done life, but she keeps doing it. I want to be just like her someday.

Before we departed, she told me we should do this again soon. Before she’s no longer around. My heart saddened. I knew what she meant. (Here she goes again – speaking difficult truth so freely.) But I resisted her honesty. I didn’t want to know what she meant. She is a gift I don’t want to let go of.

But I know she’s right. At the age of 91, you surely can’t take the future for granted. None of us can, really. We can only hope to milk this baby as long and deeply as we possibly dare. And thanks to my 91 year-old-friend, I have witnessed such possibility.

Stable Misery

“Oh, yeah. That.”

It often comes down to that.

There is a certain kind of couple that finally make it past the door of a therapist’s office. A partnership locked in stable misery. They have a well-grooved path of relating that is wretched but can go on and on and on. Such a couple is long past when they should have sought help. Long past the smiles of the cake-cutting picture. Sometimes years, certainly months, of not touching the other. Feeling lonelier in their togetherness than they would if they were alone. And yet, they are stuck. They can’t split up nor can they move toward a brighter day. They are stably miserable.

As we begin the courageous and painful process of making sense of the cemented mess now on my green couch, I ransack for motivation. What will rouse this hurting pair to get off the dime and do the hard work necessary to create a satisfying, secure marriage that they probably have never had and yet deserve? Or at least to finally raise the white flag and free themselves and the other for a better day?

Money is a big one. Divorce is expensive. And wife here is getting fed up.

Shame and pride – those are there too and often pique interest.

Kids. Yep. Let’s stay together for the kids. Or let’s create a relationship we can model and wish for them to have someday. Yeah, that’s a good one.

There is the non-discriminate asshole. Even if you leave your marriage, you take you with you. And folks at work aren’t too happy with you either.

Commitment. Some folks take their marriage vows seriously. Others, not so much.

I even get hard up enough to pull out my existential card. “Are you your best self in this despairing relationship?” Sadly, most folks in this arrangement don’t care if they are settling. Or emotionally dying.

And then I go nuclear. It’s the last chance I got. I bring up the big “C” word.

“Are you being cherished by your partner?”

That wakes them the hell up.

I get the dumbfounded expression. Like I am speaking a foreign language.

“What do you mean by that?”

I then launch into explanation. I am not talking about being happy. Marriage is not supposed to make you happy. But, does your partner treasure you? Find you the gift that you are? A full messy human being that is held, looked at and treated with awe.

Again, empty eyes stare back at me as if not knowing that such was an offering.

Yep, the floor often shifts in that moment. The depressed folks on my green couch are starting to understand that more can be had in partnership and they have been missing out.

Are you cherished?

It is available. Don’t think for one minute that the good energy of the universe isn’t waiting to pour you deserved love. You’re it. All you. And if some partner isn’t seeing the prize you are across the dinner table, it’s time to up your game. You’re leaving love on the table and that, my friend, is a one damn shame.

Living in Two Rooms

“But I like living in two rooms!” says the patient adamantly.

“Okay,” I say. Sometimes keeping my sadness to myself and sometimes not. But despite my feelings, like in any other business, the customer is always right. The patient directs the show, not me. After all, it is their life.

Thus, the hardest part of being a psychotherapist is letting go of outcome. The best part of my job is being a real estate agent. Yes, I get to show the patient the grand home that he or she is living in but refuses to occupy. They have enclosed themselves in two small rooms of their personal mansion, choosing to live their life in a safe, limited space. So, I’m the trusted, privileged tour guide. I get to lead the noble seduction into all the rooms, spaces and places that he or she has closed off over the years. The basement with its musky tools and unopened boxes, the attic with its generational treasures, the hall closet with its multiple I-don’t-know-where-else-to-put-it things. The many rooms of entertainment, love-making, intellectual curiosity and artistic creativity. Shit, if you got a mansion, I say, move in its entirety. It’s yours to enjoy.

Yet, I get it is scary. Reducing our emotional space to what we can control (or try to control) feels essential, as if we are fighting for survival. And yet the opportunity cost is so expensive. Not only are we wasting our million-dollar property, but eventually, we whittle ourselves down to nothing. All in the name of protection.

So, remove the ropes from the dining room door. Take off the plastic sheets from the living room furniture. Dare to face the ghosts of your haunted attic. For, life is to be lived. Mansions are to be occupied. Your soul to go around once. And I want that invitation for dinner.