6 Things to Look for in a Therapist

Choose your therapist with your eyes open.

Posted May 29, 2019

Part of you wants to change; part of you wants to be told that your problems are not of your own making. The part of you that wants to change gets you to call a therapist. The part of you that wants to be told you’re perfect just as you are may then have a free hand to choose the wrong therapist.

You’re supposed to feel a certain way when interacting with the people close to you—accepted, belonging, understood—but perhaps you don’t really know what that feels like? Maybe, for example, you think flirtation and admiration are the same as belonging, so you drop out of the therapy organized around belonging and find one where you feel attractive or special. Maybe you think that if someone accepts you, they agree with you about everything or let you have your way. So having read about how therapists ought to be egalitarian, so as not to exploit their power over you, you choose a therapist who goes along with your agenda.

But if your agenda is so sensible, why are you seeking therapy? It’s far more likely that the forces shaping your problems are also shaping your ideas about solutions. Common examples of this phenomenon include a depressed person who thinks she’s a soulless bag of chemicals and so seeks a solution in chemistry, and the anxious person who thinks the world is dangerous and seeks comfort and safety. Instead of choosing a therapist who agrees with your solution, which may be steeped in misguided patterns of organizing experience, choose one who invites you on a different path. This is the same as saying that therapy is not supposed to make you comfortable; it’s supposed to make you comfort-able (from Janna Goodwin’s play, The House Not Touched by Death). 

Photographee eu/Shutterstock
Source: Photographee eu/Shutterstock

A therapist who is too much like you may see the world as you do and miss anything that you both assume is just the way things are. Choose a therapist who is an expert in psychology and relationships. If you have to choose a therapist based on identity categories, at least choose a therapist who thinks that understanding your particular experience is not solved by sharing those identity categories. And keep in mind that sometimes bringing someone up to speed about your group's experience reveals oddities that are otherwise invisible. This is always true when you are explaining how your family works, but it can also be true when you are explaining other aspects of your particular experience.

1. A Working Alliance. Your therapist ought to make you feel that you are doing therapy together, not that she is doing it to you, or that you are doing it in his or her presence. Caveat: You may have a problem with collaborating (with lovers, friends, teammates, and colleagues) that brought you to therapy in the first place. Your therapist ought to make you feel like she is trying to collaborate with you by pointing out your skepticism about doing so.

2. Pattern Recognition. Your problems are patterns in relating to yourself, to others, and to the world around you. If they weren’t patterns, they’d be one-offs, and you wouldn’t need therapy for them. Your therapist should be an expert in pattern recognition, both understanding your particular patterns as they recur and recognizing human tendencies in your ways of being. Good therapists consume a lot of literature, but they don’t flaunt it. Choose the wisest-seeming therapist you can afford. You want someone who disrupts your current understanding of what you are going through, not one who confirms it. Just as when you stop and ask for directions, you want someone who knows how the city has changed since the map you are using was published.

3. Vitality and Convention. Your life problems probably rhyme with the age-old existential problem of living fully in a finite context, of self-expression in a world that rewards conformity, of balancing vitality and convention. Your therapist ought to be both lively and observant of the time limits around the sessions. A therapist who starts late may put his needs ahead of yours; one who ends late could be self-sacrificing to the point of eventually resenting you. Pick someone with excellent professional credentials who doesn’t act like those credentials are all that important.

4. Comedic Sensibility (aesthetic distance). I know your problems aren’t funny; that’s not what I mean by a comedic sensibility. What you want is a therapist who can empathize while taking things in stride, so you too can learn to tune in to yourself while taking things in stride. Therapists who are too emotionally demonstrative are not for you. Scott Peck stated it well: Your therapist should be reserved, but the reserve should mask warmth. I would add jollity and curiosity; the reserve should mask a capacity for laughter and a genuine curiosity about who you are.

5. Correctable. If a therapist tells you that you are the expert on you, you may wonder why there is a fee. Such a therapist may never say anything that disrupts your current narrative. Worse, though, is the therapist who is never wrong. Your problems could have something to do with how power over you has been used in your lifetime, but the cure is not to have a therapist with no power over you; the cure is to have a therapist who uses his power to help you change. Therapists who are never wrong may blame all the conflicts that arise in therapy on your mother instead of looking into their own contributions. Avoid therapists who speak as though they are infallible; also avoid therapists who never say anything disruptive. Find a therapist who talks as if making an offer for you to respond to, like two people hitting a balloon back and forth.

6. Therapeutic Approach. There are many disputes about therapy technique, with good people on both sides — self-disclosure versus anonymity, acceptance versus curiosity about what is to be accepted, home office or professional office, pay weekly or monthly, insurance or self-pay, clinical interview or plunging in, and so on. What I’ve noticed is that each of these disputes has a side that is convenient for the therapist and a side that is inconvenient for the therapist. The convenient side is typically either too friendly or too doctorly in my estimation, and the inconvenient side is typically trying to establish a unique kind of relationship that can be called therapeutic. You want a therapist who does it the hard way, with a focus on unearthing conflict, rather than the easy way, with a focus on fixing things. Find a therapist who acts like a therapist and not like a friend or a doctor. And avoid therapists who compliment, criticize, or comfort you.

Check Psychology Today's directory of therapists for a professional near you.

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