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The Self-Creator's Guide to Finding a Therapist

The search can be daunting. These tips can help.

It's hard enough to know what qualities to look for in a therapist when you just have a "standard" problem, such as a suspected case of depression or social anxiety. It can seem nearly impossible when your problem is that you're not sure what your problem is, or that your depression is inextricably connected to what makes you great at your job, or that you're doing "fine" by conventional standards but have a nagging feeling you could be getting so much more from life. How can you guess from a particular therapist's profile whether they'll really "get you," whether they'll ask the right questions and attend to the right details to help you untangle the knot of longings and fears and hangups that has kept you from growing?

Without rehashing the good advice available elsewhere (see this, this, and this), here are some strategies for tailoring your search to fit your idiosyncratic, non-cookie-cutter needs.

  • Scrutinize providers' profiles for depth and specificity.

When reading a given therapist's online profile or professional website, ask yourself some targeted questions:

1. Does their distinct style, approach, and personality come across?

A generic or otherwise lackluster profile shouldn't be a dealbreaker; many fantastic therapists have lackluster online profiles. But if a profile is written in a more thoughtful and distinctive way, then you might want to bump it up in your queue.

2. Does their written style resonate?

If you like their written voice, you’re more likely to like them in person. If they provide a video introduction, that’s an even closer approximation.

3. When examining their list of specialties and therapeutic approaches, does it seem like they checked off every box indiscriminately?

This is generally a red flag for me, unless their profile gives a very compelling explanation for why and how they combine so many approaches. I would have the highest trust in a more selective list, particularly if it includes one or two "specialty" approaches (like "acceptance and commitment therapy" or "family systems") that seem to hang together.

If you're not familiar with a given approach, read a description of that type of therapy, and familiarize yourself with different approaches to therapy. Pay particular attention to a) whether the approach seems to have some scientific grounding and legitimacy (as described by a relatively "neutral" source, not just by its originators or direct affiliates) and b) whether it sounds potentially well-suited to you and your situation.

  • Contact multiple therapists, and ask for additional referrals.

If a provider seems promising, you have much to gain and virtually nothing to lose by reaching out to them. Even if they’re not taking new clients or their fees are outside your price range, they may still be able to recommend other, similar providers in the area. The more information you can provide about yourself and what you’re looking for, the better they will be able to tailor their referrals.

  • The initial consultation: somewhere between “test drive” and “first date.”

The analogy to dating is hard to avoid when talking about the therapist search, and with good reason: many of the same principles and pitfalls apply. For instance, the first date tends to go better if you let your guard down and ask a few “sensitive” questions; the more first dates you go on, the better your chances of finding a good match; and so on.

But there are also important differences: for instance, you don’t need your therapist to share your core philosophical beliefs or want the life you want. What you need is a therapist who can accurately comprehend and skillfully promote your chosen path to self-creation—whether by helping you choose a path you genuinely and unconflictedly desire, or giving you the tools to identify and remove any roadblocks in your way.

How can you guess whether a therapist is likely to be up to this task? Ask yourself:

  1. Are they making their own effort to get to know you and evaluate the fit? For instance, do they frame their initial impressions as hypotheses, rather than foregone conclusions? Do they encourage you to ask questions about the therapy they do, and help you make your own informed decision about whether it suits your needs? Or do they forge ahead on the assumption that they are obviously the best therapist for you?
  2. Do they calibrate their questions and responses based on what they hear you saying (or, perhaps, not saying)? For instance, if their first attempt to describe what you are feeling does not hit the mark, do they notice and try again? Or do they seem to be following a pre-written script?
  3. Do they bring out the best, most honest and courageous within you? Do you find yourself sharing things you hadn’t previously admitted even to yourself? Do you leave the session feeling called to purposeful action and reflection? If there’s a nervous knot in your stomach, is it the kind that forebodes a rocket launch? Or the kind you get when you’re doubling down on the procrastination tactics that have kept you grounded?
  • Self-create your therapy

With these tips comes a crucial caveat: a motivated, active client can derive some benefit from almost any therapist. A standing appointment with a trusted confidant whom you’re paying to scaffold your self-improvement can be a powerful source of insight, momentum, and accountability, even if you’re generating most of it.

In this light, you might ask: “Why not just eliminate the middle-man?” And indeed, depending on the nature of your struggles and the tools or insights needed to resolve them, you may be better off trying to solve the problem yourself—just as you might be better off managing your own investments than finding and working with a portfolio manager.

The cost-benefit analysis involved is analogous: would the value added by a well-chosen expert outweigh the costs of finding and employing one? In both cases, the answer depends on your particular goals and priorities; and the size of the value-add depends on the thought and effort you put into finding someone good.

As you weigh the decision, just know that competent, insightful, trustworthy therapists are not rare. Finding the right one can take some hustle—but it’s the same sort of hustle that all self-creation requires.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.