Choosing the Right Therapist
If you're looking into getting therapy, you're wanting life to get easier. Sloshing through random psychology jargon to figure out what in the world type of therapy you should get is the last thing you should have to worry about.
What's the difference between an counselor and a therapist? What's ACT, DBT, & CBT? What is insight-oriented therapy? What are all those different licenses that therapists have?
And every therapist has a little bio blurb, which can be helpful, but half the time it sounds like,
Cathexis through insight and reestablishment of the sanctity of trust, the bonds of relatedness, and the formation of hope lays a groundwork for - WHAT THE CRAP DOES THAT MEAN FOR HELPING MY DEPRESSION/ANXIETY/OCD/ETC?!
Frustration sets in, then you're back to putting off therapy... again. And that's no good because when we think we might need help, it is important to get that help. So let's make it a lot easier by learning what exactly to look for when picking out a therapist by walking through a few basic questions.
What type of difficulties are you having?
No need to diagnose yourself or have some perfect insight about what's going on with you - just note the basic difficulties that you're having. Some common ones are:
- addiction concerns
- feeling numb
- you have survived abuse or trauma
- relationship difficulties or having a hard time having relationships
- family problems
- OCD concerns
- constant worrying or perfectionism
It is okay if you're not sure what is going on with you. All therapists will take time to talk to you and get to know more abotu what is going on. You don't need to have that answer before your first session - you and your therapist will work as a team to identify your areas of concern and figure out a plan for improving them.
So for now, just pick one or two primary difficulties that best fit your concerns and look for a therapist with expertise in those areas. Therapists will have their areas of expertise listed on their website or on any websites where you can search for a therapist in your area.
What kind of help do you want?
There are a lot of different things in therapy that are helpful. Sometimes it is helpful to learn new ways of coping with our life stress and getting new tools to use to manage our emotions and grow. Other times it is helpful to finally have a space where you can actually talk about your experiences and feelings without being judged or told to "get over it."
If you want therapy to focus more on learning skills, tools and...
- learning new ways to cope with your emotional and anxiety difficulties
- learning how to improve self-defeating and negative thinking patterns
- the therapist giving you more guidance and instruction about what to do
- the therapist being more active by identifying unhealthy or problematic things you are doing
...then look for a CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapist).
CBT therapies are a group of therapies that teach us great strategies for improving our life based on how we think about things, our emotions, and our behavior. A type of CBT therapy is DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) which is a fantastic therapy focused on really practical tools for improving all areas of life, like managing our emotions, relationships, communication, and coping skills. There are many great CBT therapies you can choose if this type of therapy is what you'd like.
If you want therapy to focus more on you freely talking about your emotions, life, and...
- venting your emotions, frustration, and thoughts
- talking about things that have happened to you and how they've affected you
- the therapist focusing on being empathic and giving you space to talk and express your feelings
- the therapist being more passive and focusing on listening rather than telling you what to do
...then look for a insight-oriented, relational, process-oriented, psychodynamic, psychoanalytical, or client centered therapist.
If you don't have or don't know your preference...
It is okay if you don't have a preference or want a mix of both. Many therapists describe themselves as integrative or eclectic, which means they do a little of both types of therapy.
Most therapy has some combination of helpful tools and processing our emotions and life, but it can be helpful to think about if you want therapy to focus more on you learning actual tools and things to do to change your life or if you want therapy to focus more on you having the space to emotionally express yourself and talk about your difficulties.
To find what type of therapist someone is, look at their bio on their website or on their page on therapist search websites.
Understanding therapist degrees and licenses
There are dozens of degrees people can get in order to become a therapist. A degree is the type of educational program they went to, like a doctorate in clinical psychology, a doctorate in counseling psychology, a master's in counseling, a master's in social work, etc.
There are half a dozen licenses people can get in order to be a therapist. A license is a legal certification they get from a local government organization that allows the person to legally work as a therapist. Therapists must have a license in order to work as a therapist. Some licenses are, licensed psychologist, licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC), licensed professional counselor (LPC), marriage and family therapist (MFT), and way more.
What degrees and license stuff do YOU need to worry about when finding a therapist?
- Make sure they have any license that allows them to practice counseling - Typically their license will be a few capitalized letters after their name, like Winnie the Poon, LCPC. You can even google the letters to make sure that they are an actual license and not just some cute rando thing they tack onto their name.
- If you want someone with more training, look for someone who has a doctorate or someone who has been working as a therapist for a longer period of time.
- If you want someone who has been professionally certified as having a higher level of expertise and skill, find someone with a board certification.
- Sometimes you will find therapists who are still in training and do not yet have a license. This is a normal part of all therapist's education. Unlicensed, in-training therapists are always supposed to have licensed therapist supervisor, so you're welcome to ask them who their supervisor is if you're concerned.
What specific competencies do you want your therapist to have?
In a perfect world, every therapist would be competent and safe for POC, LGBTQIA people, people from various cultures or religions, folks in ethically non-monogamous relationships, BDSM community members, and more. But that isn't the reality.
If you're a black man in therapy, one of the last things you need is to be in the middle of talking about one of your life experiences and the second you utter the word racism, your therapist squeals, "Well, I don't see color!!" with a belligerent smile on their face, expecting you to dig a cookie out of your bag and hand it to them.
If you're trans feminine and in therapy, the last thing you need is a therapist telling you how they, as a cis woman, think you could be expressing your gender more "accurately."
It is smart and realistic to be concerned about running into a therapist who may have bigoted or prejudiced views that interfere with their ability to effectively treat you. Whether or not you feel certain parts of your identity are relevant to your mental health, facing harmful and ignorant mistreatment when you're trying to focus on improving your mental health is a tremendous detriment to any therapy being effective.
There are several things you can do to dramatically increase the likelihood of finding a mental health professional who is competent and safe to work with.
- Look at a therapist's bio on their website or profile on a therapist search website: most therapists will list any special focus or experience working with various groups of people, like LGBTQIA clients, working with the black community, refugees, veterans, polyamory, etc. Find a therapist with experience relevant to your identity and needs.
- If you cannot find a therapist with the relevant experience listed, find a therapist who appears to share common identity characteristics with you. For example, finding a therapist with the same or similar race, culture, or ethnicity may be more inclined to understand rather than pathologize your experiences.
What if they suck?
You never have to stay with a therapist who isn't helping you, doesn't understand you, or treats you poorly, like if they are treating you in a prejudiced manner. Ideally, if therapy is just ehhhhhh, you can tell the therapist what is helping, what isn't helping, and what you would like to be different. You can work together so that therapy can be more effective for you, but you need to tell them how things are going for you.
But if the therapy or therapist just sucks, you can find another therapist. You don't need to explain it. You don't need to let them down nicely, you can just cancel any remaining appointments and find a new therapist. Sometimes it takes a couple tries before you find someone whose personality and skills match your needs. That's normal. Trial and error is a part of solving any problem in life. So don't be afraid to problem solve your mental health treatment.
The Bottom Line
Whoever you pick to work with, however you think it will go, you're doing the crucial first step of prioritizing your mental health by getting help.
You might be pleasantly surprised how much this person gets you and how helpful therapy can be.
It might be ehhhh and you don't love it, but you find another therapist later who is alright. Whatever you're doing, you're taking the steps to make your life better... and that makes all the difference in the world.