Ask Yourself: What Am I Looking to Accomplish?
First, ask yourself what you want to accomplish. Do you want to go on an exploration of what happened in your childhood? You may want to find a therapist who specializes in psychodynamic therapy or even hypnotherapy. Are you looking for someone to help you with trauma? You may want to find a therapist specializing in posttraumatic stress disorder and someone who has had training in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization) therapy. Or perhaps you recognize that you have a problem going on today, and you don’t want to go exploring for ‘first causes,’ then you might benefit from CBT or REBT (cognitive behavioral therapy or rational emotive therapy).
Outside of specialization, in general, you want to see if the therapist has explained their approach in marketing materials on their website. Yelp and other review sites should be taken with a large grain of salt. Why? Because most people don’t gush about their therapists in public and try not to advertise that they are in therapy. Those folks who do put out very negative reviews of therapists may have legitimate gripes, and they shouldn’t be censored. However, keep in mind that often the same behavioral, emotional, and communication problems that have brought people into therapy may also show up inside the actual therapy itself. For example, a person who goes to therapy for low frustration tolerance and irritability will very likely experience and express those same feelings and behaviors towards the therapist
Think of Therapists As Emotional and Behavioral Travel Agents
Therapists, like medical doctors, lawyers, accountants, realtors, can be amazing or just plain awful. They all get the same basic training, but they aren’t all equal. Some are naturals. Some never stop training and keep updating their tools and techniques. Some get better over time. some are great out the gate.
In my opinion, a great therapist is like an emotional and behavioral travel agent. They need to know where you are departing from—your current emotional and behavioral problems—and where you want to arrive—your ideal state of mind and actions. Just like a travel agent, they need to know what kind of experiences you want in order to get you to that ‘destination.’
If your travel agent listened to you talk about your house many years ago in Chicago and heard about your great house in West Los Angeles, but didn’t want to know where you want to go or have suggestions based on your desires, that would be a terrible travel agent. If your travel agent told you, “No, don’t tell me what city or airport you’re departing from, doesn’t matter. Here’s where you need to go!” that too would be a poorly trained travel agent. If your travel agent simply listened to your Chicago story and listened to your desire to visit Hawaii, but didn’t make reservations, didn’t give you a clue as to how to get there, well that’s just plain lousy service.
In the same way, if a therapist doesn’t have any concern to hear what’s going on with you before providing solutions, or a therapist only listens to your description but provides zero solutions, that’s bad therapy. A good therapist is going to give you actual assignments, whether thinking, reading, writing, behavioral, social—they will recognize that one hour a week by itself may not help you change effectively or efficiently.
Consider What You Really Need Right Now
At different times in our lives, we may need different kinds of therapists. Often people like to have therapists that are older than they are. That makes it difficult at times for the newly minted therapist, fresh out of school, often with fresh new ideas and techniques. Sometimes a new therapist is an advantage in that they are open to new ideas, new theoretical perspectives and may actually at times be more flexible in their approach than a therapist of many years.
Sometimes an older therapist is ‘just what the doctor ordered.’ They may have already experienced the ‘life stage’ that you are going through and have their own personal, practical wisdom to share in addition to their therapeutic techniques. And often a therapist who has ‘been around the block’ more than a few times may also have an increasingly flexible perspective, knowing that his/her technique or theory doesn’t work for everyone who comes through the therapy door.
But how do you know if it is a good fit when you are calling them up for the first time? It’s hard. You listen to their voice tone. Do they sound empathic, warm, caring? Do they sound professional, appropriate? You may not get to talk to them at all if they use an answering service or administrative staff. Does their website look like a hodgepodge, with little thought or professionalism put into their image? Are they clear in their descriptions of their service, their methods, their treatment philosophy?
When you do meet with them, are they warm, welcoming, kind in their body language, their tone of voice, their words? When you speak to them, do they look up from their notes and make actual human contact with you? Do they appear to be listening intently? An occasional ‘mm-hmm’ or I see or I understand goes a long way towards feeling heard.
*This piece was written by Ross Grossman, licensed marriage and family therapist.*