As May is mental health month, there is no better time to talk about the noble and sometimes arduous quest for therapy.
But first, a couple notes:
- It often takes a couple of sessions to accurately assess your therapist.
- A therapist is not a replacement for community or societal change
Over the last decade, I’ve had eight therapists. Most of my switches were because of external factors (moves, job changes), but I’ve also had therapists that just weren’t a good fit. My trials gave me quite a bit of insight on what to look for in a therapist. Everyone is different, but there are some general questions that I think can apply to everyone in their search for a well-matched therapist.
Do they know when and how to dig deeper?
Typically the first appointments with a new therapist are where therapists try to get as much information on your background as possible. In my opinion, this is one of the best times to gauge a therapist’s ability to dig. There’s a lot of ground to cover, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing worth stopping or asking on clarification for. Likewise, there are things that don’t need digging. We pay too much for these appointments to waste time!
As a personal example: my mom died when I was young. I was counseled through her illness and death, and made my peace with it early on—however, if this does not come up in the first two appointments then this therapist is probably not right for me.
Another example from a friend: “I’ve been single my whole life. I don’t consider this a problem—or at least one of my biggest problems—but when therapists decide to hone in on it then I know our values are not aligned.”
Can they see where you’re coming from?
A part of knowing where to dig is being able to understand the landscape. While we are all different, our problems are not terminally unique. There are people and even communities out there that have been either where we are or close. There are also people that cannot understand where we are*.
Discerning between the two is a bit difficult, both in life and in therapy. Therapy is first and foremost an exploration via questions, so their “checkpoints” are how I gauge their understanding. For me, “checkpoints” in therapy are the conclusions the therapist draws after all of the follow-up questions. When I agree with the conclusion, then I know I’m being seen.
These conclusions aren’t necessarily always insightful, but they feel true. For me this often ends up being some form of validation in my emotions or actions throughout a story. It can also be an identification of some underlying problems/patterns. Which leads me to my next question…
* I personally have made great progress with therapists with different backgrounds from me, but I know that can differ from person to person.
Can they find patterns in your beliefs and actions?
None of our actions exist in a vacuum. We are all an accumulation of our own lived experiences. There are naturally a lot of connections within our lives, but they can be difficult for our own eyes to see. A fresh set of eyes can offer valuable perspective not just in specific situations, but general life trends. Finding the trends is the first step to improvement in pretty much everything.
One of the best things about a therapist is that they know nothing about you except what you tell them. They see your life as you see it. This also puts them in a unique position to work with you to reframe your own perspective, rather than just challenge or enforce it like most other relationships. To do this well though, they have to be able to find the underlying patterns.
Do you feel respected by them?
Like any other person you’re working with, the feeling of respect is paramount. It has never been enough to do the bare minimum when it comes to social pleasantries, mostly because we can’t agree on what the bare minimum is. I wish there was a better way to set standards for respect, but in this way we are often very different.
Some baseline disrespectful actions apply in therapy as they do in life, like constant interruption and dismissiveness. Constantly cutting sessions short is also disrespectful. Therapy is a time-based service, so ensure that you’re getting what you’re paying for. Typically sessions are between 45-60 min, but double check with each therapist what their standard is.
Therapy can be difficult, especially with heavy topics. It’s quite literally in the job description to talk through tough conversations. That said, feelings of anger, frustration, and/or irritation directed at the therapist (rather than the topic of conversation) are generally not great signs. It’s worth talking through these feelings with the therapist as well. With either confirmation or clarification typically comes a bit more resolution.
Do you feel a bit lighter after your sessions?
Therapy is like a personal trainer for your brain to lift you up. With a good therapist, I often exited sessions feeling recharged, even in the depths of my depression. This feeling helped lighten the load of the world I built in my head. Now I feel pretty level-headed and content, but life has a way of presenting new and old challenges that give me endless material for therapy.
Because I enter every session differently, I don’t feel the exact same after every session. But I do generally feel a little bit better than when I entered. Sometimes I feel a bit more understood. Sometimes I had a good laugh. Other times I get clarity. At any rate, the weight of what was on my mind feels a bit lighter. I think this should be the goal in general.
I think of a therapist as a guide meant to help you chart your path to being and staying mentally healthy. They don’t necessarily know your exact landscape, but they have enough experience with different lands to give valuable insight. That said, some guides specialize in different landscapes, and it’s totally okay to switch when you realize they weren’t cut out for your terrain. Finding a good therapist can be difficult, but not impossible! Alma also makes it a little easier with their search functionality and database of providers.