Finding a therapist can be a daunting task. We tend to only seek therapy when we really need it and may be feeling a sense of urgency. This can impair our ability to discern and consciously choose the best therapist for us. Yet taking the time to research and choose consciously could make all the difference between having a positive healing experience or an experience which can actually make you feel worse.
I have had mostly great experiences with therapists over the years. However I have also been with therapists whose personality and approach have led to me being retraumatised and added wounding upon wounding. This is also something I have heard from some clients I work with, who have reported some terrible experiences with previous counsellors and therapists.
That’s why I am writing this article now. Therapy has been life saving for me and can be for many people but when therapy hurts people I feel disappointed and angry. This work is meant to heal.
So I urge everyone who is looking for a therapist to approach this decision from an empowered place and to consider your own needs and educate yourself about different options.
There are many therapists and many different approaches and ways of working. It can be quite overwhelming choosing, especially if we are new to therapy and don’t know much about the different approaches.
Most people these days probably begin their search online. It can be very helpful to read about different ways of working and read about different therapists. This may help you to come to some understanding about different approaches, such as bio-dynamic psychotherapy, gestalt, somatic, art therapy and so on. You may get a sense of being drawn to particular ways of working more than others. For me I have always been drawn to working through and with the body and to working creatively so somatic and creative approaches held more promise for me.
Perhaps even more important than the type of therapy you choose however is choosing the person you want to work with. Therapy requires a very good working relationship between client and therapist. Without that, healing will not occur.
A good therapeutic relationship is one in which the client feels safe enough, respected enough and heard enough to feel vulnerable and do the work of healing.
It is the therapists’ job to create a safe holding environment for their clients. Obvious things like the therapist working in the strictest confidence, avoiding dual relationships and being adequately trained are essential for safety.
However there are many other ways in which a good therapist will strive to create an emotionally safe space for clients. They will be in supervision, which means if their own process gets triggered within the session they have a place to process that. It is never appropriate for a therapist to unconsciously bring in their own personal process in your sessions. For the same reason I feel it is also important for therapists to continue with their own personal therapy and development. I was very impressed once when a new client asked me how long I had been doing my own therapy. She recognised that if I started to bring in my own unconscious material she would not be safe. Having been in therapy for such a long time the odds are I have done a lot of my own psychological work and healing and am less likely to impinge on the client’s process. If I do feel triggered by anything in my clients process I am more likely to recognise that I am being triggered while it’s happening, contain it within the session and take it to supervision and perhaps personal therapy.
You also need to feel a good enough rapport with your therapist. It does help if you basically like them and trust them. If they seem to be the sort of person you could open up to. Everyone’s needs around this will be unique and different. I know I need a therapist who can hold stillness and remain calm and contained. Someone who allows me a lot of space to figure things out for myself and have my own experience and also can challenge gently and with respect in the right moment.
Probably what you will need in a therapist will mirror what you might need in life in general and in other relationships. It may help to reflect on what you needed from your parents when you were a child, or what you might need in a partner or friend now when you are distressed.
It is possible to begin therapy from a more empowered position within yourself, when you have some sense of what you might need. It is really worth reflecting or journaling around the following questions:
- What do I need to feel safe in relationships?
- What type of person am I drawn to having as my therapist?
- What type of therapy seems attractive to me? Why is that?
As you can imagine answering these questions will limit your search criteria and help you make sense of the potentially overwhelming choices on offer.
Then make appointments with several therapists for an initial session. In that session you can let the therapist know a bit about who you are and why you are seeking therapy and you can also ask them questions about themselves as therapists. Yes this will take time and cost money but the initial investment at this stage will be worth it in the long run.
Everyone’s questions will be unique and will grow out of their reflection about what they need and the kind of person and kind of therapy they are looking for.
However here are some sample questions you could ask:
- Can you tell me about your training?
- What are your values as a therapist?
- Do you have a particular philosophy or approach you work from?
- How long have you been working as a therapist?
- How long have you been in personal therapy? Are you in therapy now?
- What kind of supervision do you receive?
- I am interested in exploring _____________ (my history of abuse/my relationship with my partner/my lack of confidence/whatever it is for you…) what kind of experience do you have in this area? Or how would you approach this?
Asking these sorts of questions can seem scary for some people. Our culture tends to promote submission to those in authority but actually there is nothing wrong with you asking questions. Most therapists will welcome all signs of your taking care of yourself and valuing yourself. If you meet a therapist who objects to you asking things like this or does not want to answer, than take that as a sign that they are not the right person for you to work with.
If it seems too hard to find it in yourself to ask these sorts of questions it might help to write them down and bring them in on paper reading them one at a time.
As you can imagine, meeting several therapists in this way, you will feel a lot more informed about your choice and empowered to make a decision about whom to work with. Then you will start your therapy feeling empowered and positive and be much more likely to engage in a therapeutic relationship and process which will lead to deep healing and transformation.
I wish you the best of everything on your healing journey.
If you have any feedback for me about this article I would welcome it. You can leave a comment or email me on firstname.lastname@example.org
Gwen Mc Hale is a Somatic Therapist based in the West of Ireland.