Updated: Oct 29, 2020
We are frequently told to shop around. Our parents and friends tell us not to settle for the first person that comes along. We read so many reviews before we buy a product. We do price comparisons. We try on clothes and shoes to see how well they fit before we buy them. Therapy isn’t much different than the rest of your life. You don’t have to settle for the first therapist that comes along. Be willing to shop around, try some out, and see which one fits best for you.
For some odd reason, it’s a really weird concept for people to shop around for different counselors. They assume that it's similar to the medical field where you just take the counselor that’s closest, accepts your insurance, and has the best availability. While those things can be important, counseling is vastly different. For instance, you only really see your doctor maybe once or twice a year (assuming you are in good health). You are vulnerable with your doctor at times, but that level of vulnerability can easily be compartmentalized. With a counselor, there’s no real option to compartmentalize that vulnerability until next year when you have to go in for your next check up. Plus, who wants to go see a counselor if they feel like that person is going to judge them?
The alliance (relationship) you have with your therapist is the most important component of treatment. Frequently in the research it is shown to be a large contributing factor to a positive therapeutic outcome. So, you truly do want to find a counselor that you feel like you can relate to (or they can at least relate to you well) and one that you feel comfortable with. Don’t worry if you don’t feel comfortable right away. Normally in the first session or two, it feels about as uncomfortable as an anal probe for some people. It's more about being able to feel a certain ease with them. It's kind of like knowing whether or not you click enough with someone after a first meeting to want to be their friend. With some people we feel that right away. You think to yourself after that first meeting, “yeah, I totally want to be their friend.” Then there are some people that we feel like we could be friends with maybe, but can’t necessarily tell after the first meeting. Ideally, your counselor of choice would fall into the first realm (“Yeah, I totally can click with this counselor”), but don’t overthink it if they fall into the second (“I could see myself potentially clicking with this counselor”).
Although it can be nice to see some similarities between yourself and your counselor, it isn’t necessary to achieve a level of comfort and safety with them. I can’t tell you how many people have told me that my tattoos and piercings made me feel like a real person to them. I also can’t tell you how many people say that they doubted me or our ability to work together as a result of my tattoos and piercings. The numbers are close to equal. At the end of the day, you need to feel like you’re in a safe, non-judgmental place with a person who actually listens to you and understands where you are coming from.
After that, you need to feel like the therapist is invested in helping you and is knowledgeable about how to help you solve your own problems. I frequently tell people, counseling is like any other profession. There are good therapists out there and not so good therapists out there; just like there are some good judges, police officers, teachers, etc. and some not so good judges, police officers, teachers, etc. Please don’t write off therapy if you’ve had a negative experience with a counselor. Give another counselor a try because they may be a better fit or more knowledgeable. Quite a few of the clients I’ve seen over my six years had seen different counselors before me. Their experiences range from god awful to really good, life changing outcomes. Just because you may not have found the right fit yet, doesn’t mean the right fit isn’t out there for you.
If you are having a hard time trusting your gut on whether or not you jive with a counselor, here are some questions that may help:
Do I feel safe telling this person things that I may not tell most of the people in my life?
Do I feel like they won’t judge me for who I am/have been or things I have done?
Do they seem genuinely interested?
Do I feel like they are relating to me?
Are they meeting me where I am at (e.g., not being overly pushy or shaming me if I’m not able to handle something or complete a homework assignment)?
Do they seem empathetic to what I am saying?
Can they explain why they are doing something in therapy (whether its a certain line of questioning or a certain skill they are teaching)?
Okay, can they explain why they are doing something in words that actually make sense?
Do they hold a professional license to treat people?
What is their formal education and training in?
Do they talk about themselves too much? *Remember, you are paying them to talk about you, not themselves* - you should always be doing the majority of the talking
Does it seem like they will empower you to solve your problems (instead of solving them for you)?
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