The day my friend decided to go to therapy, she sent me a frustrated text: Ugh, I can’t find any therapists! Of course there were therapists and counselors in her area, but she couldn’t find any that met her other needs; more specifically, she couldn’t find a female therapist, who took her insurance, whom she really connected with. After weighing her options, she decided to make an exception, one that has really shaped her therapy journey: she chose to work with a male therapist whom made her feel comfortable and empowered.
My friend initially wanted a female therapist because she thought a woman would better understand her specific struggles. But after she had no such luck, she decided to take a leap of faith and work with a male therapist whom she believed could provide the support she needed. The point is that my friend knew where she could afford to give a little… that an essential to benefitting from therapy is working with a counselor or therapist who you can truly connect with. Because whoever that is, is the real deal and a key to your success.
Is Your Therapist a Keeper?
Steve Sultanoff—a clinical psychologist, licensed marriage and family therapist, university professor, and professional speaker and trainer—is going to help you determine whether your therapist (or potential therapist) is the real deal. A good therapist, or as Sultanoff calls them, a “keeper therapist,” does the following:
- Explains what he/she is doing with you in a way that you clearly understand.
- Serves as a catalyst. For example, he or she asks you to explore versus suggesting. (E.g., tell me more about what you are thinking of doing versus are you going to do this or that.)
- Is accepting and non-judgmental. Do you feel heard, respected, and cared about? These “feelings” will indicate an accepting therapist.
- Makes you feel understood. Can you say to yourself, “my therapist gets me”?
If the above points resonate with you and ring true in your sessions then your therapist is probably a keeper! If, on the other hand, they do the following then they’re probably a “dangerous therapist”:
- Makes suggestions and gives advice. (which may be disguised in question form. (E.g., have you tried…)
- Is judgmental. Say things like, “You should…” or “You have to…” (E.g., you should talk with him/her.)
- Interrogates. Asks question after question.
- Acts as if he/she is trying to “solve” your problem. That is more about the therapist than it is about the client being helped. In general, many therapists ask way too many questions as they focus on problem-solving and not facilitating the client.
Tell Me More
The list above is a quick one you can refer to, to decide whether a given therapist is one you should start or continue seeing. But if you’re still feeling unsure and need a little more info, consider a simple test Sultanoff says you can use to definitively determine if a therapist can offer you the help that you need. All you have to do is ask a couple simple questions…
“Ask the following: Can you describe to me how you work as a therapist? When the therapist has finished his/her explanation, if you understand how they work, then the therapist likely knows how to do therapy. If the therapist’s response leaves you uncertain or confused, then that may not be a good match. A skilled therapist can clearly state how he/she works. If the response is unclear or vague, then it is likely that the therapist does not have a solid foundation. Also, be skeptical of therapists who describe their goals, but not the behaviors they engage to meet those goals. For example, many therapists will state that they work to ‘build the relationship’ or ‘establish trust.’ While these are goals, a superior therapist will be able to clearly state how he/she builds the relationship and develops trust. A superior therapist can also clearly describe his/her process in therapy.
Second (and perhaps most importantly) is the answer to this question: Do I feel connected and understood by this therapist? After a 10-15 minute conversation, you will have a sense of how it feels to talk with this therapist. Trust your gut. If your gut feels good, you likely have a match. If your gut is telling you it is not a match, it most likely is not a good match. Years of experience, education and school attended, location of internships, etc. are much less important than how the therapist feels to you and can the therapist clearly express what he/she does. If the therapist’s description of his/her therapy is vague then he/she likely is uncertain about his/her approach.”