Finding the right therapist can seem daunting, and with good reason. When you entrust the essence of your life to another human being, you step into uncertainty and vulnerability. Making the decision and following through requires bravery and courage. Your perceptions about what therapists and counselors do, or previous experiences, may trigger intimidation, fear of judgment, hesitation about how friends and family members will perceive you and place expectations on you when you enter therapy, and a host of other fears. There are ways to ease the angst and enhance your search for the right therapist.
The therapeutic relationship is among the most powerful you may ever experience. Therapy/counseling is a reciprocal, synergistic relationship between two or more people in which the sole purpose is to promote the client(s) on their path of hope and healing from difficult emotional experiences. Therapy can be rewarding and empowering. It also can, at times, be perplexing, uncomfortable, exhausting, and frustrating. It helps open the channels of discovery that lead to insights and epiphanies. You may feel you are making little or no progress. Sometimes you are so close to your experience that your progress is not evident to you. Some issues require the peeling of many layers of emotional distress. Some concerns cannot be resolved or cured, only made less intense with focused attention to healing, a process rather than a destination. The process involves a constant exchange between you and the therapist. You both listen and interpret what the other is saying, or not, voice inflection, and body language, then reflect what is heard or seen, and share your assessment.
Therapy is a gift to me. It has been an integral part of my life since my mid-twenties. My experience with the gift of therapy includes my time as a client as well as seven years as an advanced certified substance abuse treatment counselor (ACADC). I believe in the power of talking through problems with someone who is trained to hear what I am not saying, read my body language, and reflect her or his assessment back to me, thus helping me sift through my feelings and reframe my experiences. For more information about the counseling process, see my article of July 2017, The Gift of Counseling.
Depending on their areas of interest and training, therapists work under a license or certification or both. Psychologists. Social workers. Counselors. Clergy. Spiritual Directors. Most psychiatrists provide medication management and only minimal therapy. Many therapists are members of accountability and professional development organizations. Therapists may be trained in several treatment protocols and specialize in one or more. They also may have a client focus, e.g., men and boys; women and girls; families; children; teens; parents; LGBTQ+; retirees, and others. The therapists at Des Moines Pastoral Counseling Center all have a diverse focus, recognizing how the complexities of life impact the whole client. No client walks in the door with only one issue, although a main issue may be the catalyst for seeking help.
Your role is to tell the therapist, as fully as possible, your story as you understand it. Honesty and openness strengthen the interactions. You may not always hear what you want or were expecting, and some reflection may be uncomfortable. Between sessions, you are responsible for working on any assignments, checking suggested resources, and reflecting on important points. You always know more than your therapist as you are living the experience and, therefore, have information the therapist does not have. Only you know your story and the reason(s) you are there. Your therapist cannot help you with what you do not tell her or him. The therapist knows, and therefore attempts to interpret, only what you reveal.
You and your therapist form a delicate bond of trust necessary to encourage honesty, exploration, challenge, guidance, and healing. The therapist’s role is to assess and interpret your words and body language and offer reflection, validation, compassion, empathy, support, encouragement, and direction. Despite the gravity of our discussions, my therapist and I always encounter something that triggers laughter or a smile—that is right, every session. While issues are usually serious, there can be room for joy and lightheartedness and celebration. This requires an ever-strengthening bond between therapist and client. With all these elements in place, the client advances along the path of healing through hard work and the gradual opening of the golden doors of trust. I praised my therapist for walking with me through difficult times to which he nodded toward me and said, “The one sitting in that chair is doing most of the work.”
Effective therapy requires an attentive, intuitive, well-educated, and experienced clinician and an honest, introspective, reflective, open, trusting client. Two other key components in effective mental health therapy is the therapist’s mental agility and adaptability. Every client is different, and every session is different. I commend therapists for their unconditional positive regard for their clients. While they are not mind readers, they must continually interpret the messages—verbal, subverbal, and nonverbal—of every client at every session.
When selecting a therapist, you need someone to whom you can entrust your story. All of it. Finding a compatible therapist is often a process of seek and find and seek and find and seek and find. I experienced a lot of therapists over the years who did not meet my needs. I did not know how to find a therapist. Friends or my primary care doctor referred me to certain therapists. For my last two therapists, particularly with the one I have at the Center, I conducted a methodical search which follows.
I sought out my therapist at the Center by visiting the website and reading the bios of each of the clinicians, paying attention to area of interest or expertise, treatment protocols used, area of study or license, and other facts about the person. The bio of my therapist seemed to jump out at me. I called the Center to set up an appointment and asked to be placed on his schedule. During my first session, I shared a little bit of my story and asked him questions. At the end of the session, he requested that I give him six sessions before making up my mind. That was seven and a half years ago. On April 9, 2020, we celebrated our 165th session. One of the surprises about my therapist, a mutual discovery that arose organically over several months, is his interest and expertise in working with Black people. Never had I been able to discuss race relations with a therapist. You may need only a few sessions or long-term as in my case. It takes as long as it takes and is totally dependent on the therapist’s and client’s perspective of the healing or progress made.
Here are some tips to find a therapist that meets your needs:
- Consider your reason(s) for seeking therapy.
- Think about your end-goal for therapy, although you may not be able to pinpoint the reason at first. Usually, the client’s initial goal is relief from distress.
- What are your preferences in a therapist: race, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity, religious or spiritual background, age, treatment modalities, race relations? Other parameters may be important to you.
- Write out what you want, then narrow the list to three to five most critical points for you.
- Read the bios on the Center’s website: (https://dmpcc.org/staff/ (adults), https://dmpcc.org/coolstaff/ (children, adolescents, and teens), or https://dmpcc.org/our-services/spiritualdirection/).
- When you find a therapist whose bio most fits your criteria, fill out our online intake form.
- Have a list of questions ready to ask at your first session, such as “What is your experience working with…?”. Take notes.
- Pay attention to the answers to your questions and comment on points that impress you as well as on those for which you need clarification or further exploration.
- What are the therapist’s mannerisms and voice inflections?
- Be aware of your comfort level during the session.
- Do not be afraid to tell a therapist your initial thoughts and even your decision if you know what it is. It is far better to decline a therapist than to enter a relationship with one you know will most likely be a poor fit. That said, there can be surprises as I discovered with my therapist that reveal themselves over time.
- You may want to interview several therapists before making your decision. Try not to worry about offending a therapist if you think she or he is not a good fit. Therapy is for your benefit, not the therapist’s.
- Try to relax.
The decision to seek mental health therapy is a significant step to improve your life. Choosing a therapist that closely matches your need is vital for your maximum therapeutic experience. A methodical, well-planned search can save hours of unproductive sessions and frustration and hundreds of dollars.
How you select a therapist and how you show up and participate in your healing can make the difference between a therapeutic relationship that empowers you on your healing path and one that leaves you feeling unheard. To schedule an appointment with a therapist at the Center, click here.
May your trek on your healing path be illuminating, fruitful, rewarding, and empowering.