Choosing a therapist who’s right for you can be a daunting task. It’s often a decision people make when things are at their most difficult or they are feeling desperate. How will you know who will you feel most comfortable sharing your struggles, emotions and past events with? How do you ‘shop’ for a therapist when you are at your most vulnerable? Because it’s a personal decision with profound impacts on you, it is worth taking several things into consideration.
Some are purely practical – how close are they located to you? Is there wheelchair access if needed? What is the office like? The lighting? Parking? Proximity to public transportation? I know myself that if I am already feeling down, stressed, or anxious, travelling across the city, looking for parking and then getting to work or home later could exacerbate how I am already feeling. Yet, if a therapist is a good fit, then I may make the trek.
So, how do you know if your therapist is a good fit and what exactly is that anyways?
A good fit is someone you feel comfortable with, someone you trust and respect. You will be sharing struggles, emotions and past events that may bring up fears and vulnerabilities. You should feel cared for and safe with your therapist, and able to build a strong connection and foundation to expand from with them. Their therapeutic approach should be one that validates your past, including trauma. They should be able to provide psycho-education, for example, on topics such as how trauma impacts us? What is trauma? There is no “one modality or therapist fixes all.” Please don’t believe anyone who tells you that you will see a difference in a predetermined time frame. There is also no such thing as a guarantee.
When I speak with potential clients, I let them know I have no guarantees, only the promise I will work diligently, drawing on my education and experience, to help them to move forward with their lives as a healthier and more confident individual who has a different, more positive perspective of themselves.
Once you find a therapist, ask questions! You are important and so are your questions and feelings. I often have clients who begin with, “I don’t know where to start or what questions to ask.” First of all, there is no wrong way to start. The therapist should be able to answer your questions and make you feel comfortable (and confident in them). You could ask if they have expertise in your area of concern: trauma, depression, separation – ask! What’s their availability? Fees?
Remember, therapy is about you and your needs. You are interviewing the potential therapist, not the other way around. Remember, you don’t have to go with the first one you speak with.
Once you have found your good fit, what should you expect? What does a first appointment look like? Clients often say, “I don’t really know how to do this.” First off, there is no wrong way. It’s up to the therapist to put you at ease. I usually start by validating my clients for taking the step to come and see me. Some clients share right away and others prefer questions, you can choose. Often I ask, “How will you know therapy is working?”, which is my way of asking what goals a client may have. And don’t worry if you don’t have specific goals, that’s something you and your therapist will work on together.
One thing you should absolutely expect is reviewing and signing a confidentiality form that basically states that whatever you tell your therapist is confidential unless they believe you are at risk to harm yourself or someone else. That’s the only time the circle of trust between you and your therapist could be broken. My words are, “I am okay if you are angry at me as long as you are alive. The rest we can deal with.”
Once you have agreed to work with a therapist and signed the confidentiality agreement, you should then have the chance to share your story, as much or as little as you feel comfortable with. Of course depending upon the therapeutic approach, there may be specific questions your therapist or you have. As much as the first few appointments are for gathering/sharing information, they are also (and almost more importantly) for establishing a relationship.
A question I am often asked is, “How long do you think therapy will last?” I’m never able to answer that question, not even in the ballpark. The answer is as individual as you are. I let my clients know we will work together and at some point they will “graduate” from me. You may graduate because you get to a place you like and feel comfortable. Perhaps you have accomplished the goals you had set out for yourself. You may also graduate because you develop different goals and believe a new/different therapist would be more helpful. Sometimes clients “graduate” without the need to return; for them just knowing I am available if need be is assurance enough.
Good luck with your search. You and your mental health are important. It takes a strong person to ask for help, and asking is the first step.