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.

Five Minutes

It was only for five minutes. But it was the best five minutes of the whole day.

In the middle of thawing the turkey (don’t you hate that part?) and making the stuffing, the phone rang. I thought it was a family member with the annual mandatory Thanksgiving greeting. But when I glanced at the caller-ID, it said my son’s school. The one in Montana. The one I left him at thirty days ago.

My first thought was – oh shit. What did he do? Are they calling to tell me he’s expelled? That I should buy him a one-way ticket home pronto? Expecting the worst, I hesitantly clicked the phone’s on-button and said hello.

“This is the Monarch School. I am calling to ….”

My heart beat faster. I know it’s the Monarch School, you fucking idiot. I can tell from the caller-ID. What bomb are you about to drop in my lap? That’s what I want to know.

“… let you talk to your son for the holiday call.”

Holy shit, I thought. Good news? The best news? I get to talk to my son for the first time in a month?! My body immediately went from stressing out over the worst (now what am I going to do to get him through high school?) to elation for the surprise. Tears poured down my morning face. I get to talk to my son. I get to hear his voice.

I immediately put the phone on speaker, screamed at my unknowing daughter to put the now meaningless Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on mute and ran to the couch so we could have five minutes. Five short minutes to connect with my son, her brother.

I couldn’t talk fast enough. Poor guy. I barraged him with questions. Are you okay? Are the people nice? Are you making friends? Are you losing weight? What’s up with the bad grade? Do you still hate me for sending you there?

There was just not enough time. I only had five minutes.

At one point, he said to me, “Mom, you’re manic!”

I retorted, “Of course, I’m manic. I only have five minutes!”

For five minutes, the love poured back and forth and then in a flash, time was up. He had to go. We reassured him (or probably more myself) that we’d be there for Christmas and then sadly, I pressed the phone’s off button.

Our five minutes had come and gone.

My daughter and I embraced on the couch, crying in the messy mix of joy and sadness. My son, her brother, was okay. And yet his being missing from our Thanksgiving table was a sight we’d never get used to.

It was only five minutes. But it was the best five minutes of the whole day. It was more than enough to warm my heart and change the tone for the entire day.

Maybe, sometimes, five minutes is all we ever need.

These Are My Days

Grey hair? Check. Less energy? Check. Memory loss? Check. Hot flashes? Creaky knees? Boring Saturday nights? Damn it. Check, check, check.

Yes, I have all the signs of solid middle-age creeping into old age. But recently, I discovered yet another symptom of rounding the proverbial bend … a cluttered calendar.

I’m not talking about the marked -up paper one that runs my day-to-day life. I’m referring to an internal emotional calendar that is now salt-and-peppered with embedded emotional memory. 

Think about it. After decades of living, there are few days … and certainly, no months … where something significant has not occurred in your life.

When we are born, other than the mandatory cultural and religious dates, we have a blank slate with that now one important date – our birth day. Yee haw! Like a new coloring book waiting to be filled in, we start the process of living and coloring in those once blank spaces with an emotional overlay. Very soon, those dates are no longer meaningless. They fill with feelings associated with the day’s happening – albeit joy, pain or some variance of in-between emotion.

On this date, I graduated high school. Buried the family dog. Left for college. Had sex for the first time. Had my heart-broken. On this date, I got engaged. My parents got divorced. I got married the first time. My father died. On this date, I gave birth to my first child. Had a miscarriage. Learned of his infidelity. On this date, we traveled to Paris. Conceived our second child. Got mom’s cancer diagnosis. On this date, I got fired. Got divorced. I won the custody battle. I landed the big promotion. On this date, my ex was born. I moved west. The police knocked on the door…

… You get the idea.

No longer is life – and the passage of time as we mark it – emotionally clear space. Our previously white-spaced calendar is no longer waiting around with hope and a smile for what “will be.” The middle and later years bring with them colored-in feelings associated with days gone by.

Yes, we can live in the present and bring a new energy to our days. But, history stands meaningful and certainly undeniable. Our once blank-canvassed hearts are rich with an array of complicated stories and significant feeling.

So, I say, let’s stop fighting the system. Whatever the calendar’s date, every day we awaken is a gift. An opportunity to open the scrapbook of our soul and celebrate the whole freakin’ thing. All the good, all the not-so-good. All the celebrations, all the loss. All the triumph, all the mistakes. All that once was and all that will be – even if just for today.

Because I’m here … it’s all of me … my filled-in calendar as historical witness of my one brave adventure at human living, my small but oh-so-mattering life.

Before, During and After

Before, During and After

We are supposed to be the higher animal. The non-reactive ones. The ones that can rise above ourselves, pause and make rational adjustments for the betterment of self, others and our relationships. I know I forget this evolutionary perk at times. My monkey-brain takes over and I am two shakes from the jungle. I might as well be swinging from trees.

Psychological maturity requires the development of what is known as the second consciousness. Instead of reactively firing off, we practice intentionality. We make an actual conscious choice to be relational, calm and moderated.

How do we cultivate this higher capacity? Through observation, curiosity, risk and repetition over time. Like going to the gym, we build new emotional muscle memory. What once was automated gets unlearned and a new neural pathway grooves the now norm. More specifically, we can meet this challenge in three places – after, during and before, from easiest to hardest.

After. This is the “ah ha” moment after the fact. Might be a moment later, an hour later, a week later or even longer. “You know, honey, I messed up last week. I … when I really should have …. I am so sorry. In the future, I really want to ….” The not-so-helpful deed has been done and cast but at least we can recognize it, own it and commit to more relational behaviors in the future.

During. A bit harder to do. This action means catching ourselves mid-stream. “Oh my gosh. There I go again. Let me redo.” We then back-up, pull a U-turn and start again. Hopefully, our partner is gracious enough to mark the first try a strike-out and give us another turn at bat.

Before. The hardest to pull off. Before I react, I pause. I stop. I choose behavior and words that are respectful of you, me and our relationship. If I can’t do this, I breathe and wait until I can. Much easier to prevent than to take back. A hallmark of psychological sophistication.

Monkey or human being? I say we choose the latter. It’s the path of psychological progress.

Harmony, Disharmony, Repair, Repeat

“Mom, have we repaired yet?” I can hear my twelve-year-old daughter now. I think I have created a monster.

Every relationship, albeit one with your partner, child, friend, coworker or neighbor, can be pinpointed at one of the three places – harmony, disharmony or repair.

Harmony is the fun phase. We are skipping through the daisies. All is well with the world. We are both in a good place so our relationship is in a good place. We are playful, free, safe and at ease. Emotions are regulated and for the most part, there is peace, creativity, laughter and joy.

But, we are human. Trying to get along with another human being who is not us. Shit. Along comes disharmony. One party becomes disgruntled, injured, frustrated or hurt and then like dominoes, the other party often quickly follows suit. Emotions flair and we wonder where those daisies went to. Tension and conflict arise and we are all of a sudden disconnected. Our relational engine has clogged and gunk is quickly accumulating. Not so fun anymore.

Two things about disharmony. First, disharmony is inevitable. It’s called relationship in real life. To have a relationship of any depth or length and not have disharmony is called denial. Secondly, your relationship can be in disharmony and you may not know it. If your partner is in disharmony, the relationship is in disharmony. Sorry to be the one to tell you but that’s just the way it is.

Thus, the success of any long-term relationship relies not on avoiding disharmony but on the partners’ ability to repair effectively. Having no repair tools and/or choosing not to use them is a recipe for the demise of the relationship. Or at least one for a limited connection that we choose to avoid and not grow further.

Do you have repair skills? If not, get some. Having a stocked tool box can come in very handy in navigating the complicated world of relational living.

The Not-So-Magic Kingdom

I know. Put me on the “bad mother” list. It took until my kids were teenagers for me to check the box for that mandatory childhood Walt Disney World vacation. It was the earliest I could manage the trip to Central Florida. Mickey and Minnie just had to be patient – I am the customary late bloomer.

After all this time of anticipation was “The Land of Magic where ‘all our dreams come true’” really as it is advertised? Hardly. In what was supposed to be all thrills and smiles, life as perfection … it was really just fancied and prettied up normality. I guess you can’t take humanity out of the princess. Mostly what I observed were overly tired and screaming toddlers being forced to smile for the camera yet one more time, exhausted parents who looked like they were on an expensive never-ending walking marathon and endless crowds with envied eyes for the FastPass+ Line. I think I got my money’s worth in people watching alone.

At one point, my daughter and I gave up our planned agenda (you really have to have one) to go “princess spotting.” It should be a new sport. We veered from Tomorrowland back to Fantasyland just to snap pictures of random girls that were donned from head to at least knee in perfect costume, all in hopes of attracting their dapper prince. (The shoes tended to be on the casual side – a major fashion faux pas for true princesses, I imagine, but, hell, this is the 21st century and Disney World is not easy on the feet.) Most adorned girls even had the hair thing going – greased back in a tight bun with the faux diamond tiara topper. We were impressed with their determination, if not downright jealous. We wanted to shed our shorts and t-shirts for their more glamourous life. One that guaranteed our dreams would come true.

Instead, we settled for reality Disney. A teenage son who chose to stay in the hotel room and order pizza rather than experience the Magic Kingdom. An angry mother (that be me!) who stupidly reminded him how much money this trip was costing me. A rainy day at Epcot with cheesy Mickey Mouse ponchos, extra and useless flimsy soaked paper maps, included. A deaf Uber driver who gave our grouchy and tired selves cold water, breathe mints and a warm smile at the end of a long day. A must-buy action photo on Splash Mountain, the woman in front’s hilarious flying Kramer hair, an added bonus. Countless roller coaster rides – all guaranteed motion sickness for me (“where is the closest vomit bag?”) while simultaneously bringing sheer joy to my daughter (“let’s go again, mom!”).

You get the idea. Even in make-believe, fairy dust and all, reality wins. We are stuck being human, having a human experience. Did my family and I have a perfect vacation in a perfect place? Absolutely not. We fought. We made up. We laughed. We sang out loud. We ate too much. We spent too much. We embarrassed ourselves. We embarrassed each other. In seemingly endless lines, with sweat dripping, we were miserable. Yet, in unexpected moments of my son’s spontaneous humor, we peed in our pants. Our adventure was far from ideal but it was wonderful.

Yes, life demands inclusivity. Even Walt Disney himself could not create a flawless world.

Now, if I can just get some fairy with a magic wand to zap that into my thick head, I am sure I can walk off happily into the sunset. Do you think that’s possible?

Me, The Saboteur

We all have a story. A place from which we arrived.

Within this frame, we can trace and seek understanding as to why our life script has played out the way it has. Yes, somewhere it all makes sense. No one is crazy to themselves. Within our individual context, there is meaning, albeit mostly unconscious. Our behaviors, choices, pathways and feelings did not develop in a vacuum.

What I love about this classical analytic frame is that it offers compassion. We do what we do for a reason. And often this reason is sheer survival. Without taking on a certain role, behavior, substance or choice, we just may not have made it. We had to adapt somehow, some way, as a coping skill through the daunting pain.

And thankfully, it worked. We did it. We fucking survived. A blow-out party is in order. Invite the masses. You are nothing but a super-star.

But once the dishes are put away, the cake eaten and the candles blown out, it is time to wish our once so helpful coping skills good riddens. They have served their much needed purpose and we do not need them anymore. In fact, they are in the way at this point. Holding me back. Limiting my progress toward the bigger and better me.

For, I am an adult now. Even an empowered one, if I choose. I can peel off my victim cape and seek different choices, behaviors and pathways that are healthier for the me who is now. I can do the things now that I could not do when I was young, dependent and innocent.

I know that this is not an easy liberation. Our younger self tremors with the same ole’ idea that my survival skills of yester year are still necessary. Like a newly freed prisoner, we just do not know the life we can have outside the walls that we not only know so well, but erected in good stead.

But trust me on this one. Your story does not have to be over via mindless repetition which is now just plain self-sabotage. There is more in you. A promised land for the taking. All yours. Waiting for you to discover.quotescover-JPG-53