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.