Finding a Fit
How to choose a therapist who's right for you.
Posted February 4, 2020 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
As a therapist and client of therapy myself, the question of how to find the "right" therapist has evolved over the years. Before the proliferation of the internet, therapists were relegated to lists on an insurance panel's network where you simply chose based on location and credentials.
Now, it's expected therapists have their own website with pictures and a bio. Some clients feel they need to connect to their therapists based on their website even prior to seeing them. So the landscape has changed dramatically in terms of how to find a therapist most suitable for your needs.
Here are a few considerations for those new to the world of therapy (in no particular order):
- Credentials. Do you care if you're working with a psychologist, social worker, marriage and family therapist, or mental health counselor? I've worked with all of them and to me, a competent therapist is a competent therapist regardless of their credentials.
- Gender. The gender of your therapist is important because in therapy it can bring up issues specific to the gender of your therapist (When I worked with female therapists, more maternal issues came up while more masculine-dominated themes were evoked with male therapists). I encourage clients to consider eventually working with both as some of the best healing can come from the gender you're least comfortable with.
- Therapeutic Goals (short-term vs. long-term). Are your goals short-term or long-term? Do you have issues that are very specific in nature (a recent job loss or the death of a loved one) drawing you to therapy? If so, it would be helpful to address this with your potential therapist to see if the counselor has a preference for clients. Some therapists prefer doing more "solutions-focused" work with clients that are brief and time-limited (i.e. within 6-12 sessions) whereas I prefer the cadence and rhythm of being with clients long-term.
- Specialties. Analogous to seeing a primary care physician vs. a specialist, do your issues require a degree of specialty that needs a specialist? You could start with a more general therapist and see if they recommend a specialist, but some issues would be better handled through counselors who have a focus in those areas (i.e. addictions, eating disorders, personality disorders, Autism spectrum disorders, etc.)
- Cultural Considerations. If cultural heritage and ethnic identification is important, then finding a therapist with an understanding or desire to understand your background will be vital. I've worked with a number of white therapists who I felt were effective because they cared to ask about my background and were inquisitive to learn how it impacts my mental health. I've also worked with Asian-American therapists that brought a unique bond as they could understand the challenges of my culture simply because they've lived it as well.
- Faith-Orientation. If you belong to a specific religion or are drawn to a specific spiritual practice, finding one aligned with your faith background can be a great foundation in establishing a therapeutic foundation.
- Format. Do you need individual, couples, or group therapy? Oftentimes couples work involves clients also doing individual work. From my own experience, group therapy is a format that is dynamic, spontaneous, and has the potential for deep growth. It's also the best means for shame-reduction.
- Therapeutic Fit. In the past 20 years, I've been a client of nearly 10 different therapists (individual, couples, and group therapy). And in that time, there was only one therapist whom I didn't see after a few sessions. The reason was that despite his credentials as a psychologist, he lacked the ability to empathize and validate my fears of transitioning from journalism to the field of psychotherapy. Instead, he just pointed to his degree hanging on the wall and said something to the effect of, "If I can do it, so can you!" While I couldn't articulate at the time why this wasn't working for me, I did see how finding a therapist who could sit with my fears was better than one trying to lift me out of them.
In your own search to find the right fit, remember that while some of these considerations are important, it's just as important to be open to the process especially if you're new to it. You could ask friends or coworkers if they know of a therapist who has worked well with them. You can also give yourself a time period of 12 sessions or up to 3 months of weekly work with a therapist even if you feel you don't like the fit, because there may be something necessary to work out in your own discomfort with a particular therapist.
Regardless of your choice, just remember that the act of asking for help should be seen as an act of courage and a desire for growth. While the stigma of mental health counseling has been waning in recent years, it's still taboo in certain sectors of society and within certain demographics. If you feel the stigma, may you rest in the peace that you are finding a means to better yourself as a person, partner, and community member.
To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.