How to Choose the Right Therapist

The relationship between you and your therapist is critical to your progress and ultimate success in therapy. In fact the quality of this alliance between a therapist and client is often the strongest predictor of success [1]. No one therapist is right for every one so this means that it is important to find one that is right for you. To do this you need to find a therapist who is both competent and a good match for you. How can you tell and where do you start?

Where to Start

First spend some considering what you want from therapy. Then collect some names to choose from. Asking like minded friends who they know to be competent often makes a good list of referrals. You can check with organizations that share your values or seem related to what your looking for: a feminist bookstore, gay and lesbian centers, OA or AA. Even the yellow pages can help. While it is true that a catchy ad doesn’t say much about the person’s therapy skills, many ads do mention the therapist’s specialties and experience. And there is always the internet. How ever you do it, take time to make the list and get a sense of your choices.

The Interview

Next I suggest you ask for some time to interview a therapist you are considering before signing on with them. Most therapists will offer time for a free interview willingly, at least on the telephone. You are looking for someone who:

  1. can challenge you and teach you things about yourself,
  2. you feel emotionally comfortable with and
  3. you can communicate with easily.

You can tell by your own reactions if you are feeling comfortable with this person, especially when you are face to face. The therapist should be able to convey to you that they are on your side, and that they are interested in you as a person. You want to be able to feel that you could like this person, and more importantly, that they like you. However some therapists are warm hearted, nice people who ultimately support you to stay pretty much the same so you want more.

Judging Competence

So how do you decide if they are good at their trade? You can begin to form your own opinion from the first telephone or face to face contact. For example: is this person uptight or confident, reaching out to you as a person or being very formal (which creates emotional distance for all of us). Go ahead and ask questions and try questions that are somewhat open ended. Remember, how the person goes about answering tells you as much about them as what they actually say.

If you’re not sure what to ask, try finding out if the therapist is more cognitive or behavioral or more experiential in their methods, and then ask why they were drawn to doing that kind of therapy. Ask them how active they are in sessions. Or you could tell them something about why you are looking for a therapist and ask how they would go about helping you with this. If they refer back to things you have said about yourself in their answer, that would be a good sign, right? And if you are face to face with them for a session, you should be able to have some new insights or ideas to think over about yourself or the problem you came to see them about by the time you leave.

Don’t Settle

Most important of all: Don’t settle. Many people feel intimidated when meeting a therapist and then doubt their own perceptions. It’s easy to start off feeling “one down” when you are asking someone about how to run your life. You want to believe they can help, and the assumption is that they know more than you do because they are the professional. My advise: don’t even go there. Any therapist needs to earn your trust and your respect by saying and doing things that make sense to you. If this one doesn’t – keep looking.

Good luck you!

1. Orlinsky, D. E., Ronnestad, M. H., Willutski, U. (2004). Fifty years of psychotherapy process-outcome research: Continuity and change. In M. J. Lambert (Ed.) Handbook of psychotherapy and behaviour change (5th Ed.). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

17 thoughts on “How to Choose the Right Therapist

  1. I believe that finding a therapist is the hardist part…and really may be what discourages people the most. I have been to two and the first was a poor fit from the first session; the second I thought was a good fit until the third session when she became extremely aggressive and I left more anxiousand sad than I was when I had arrived.

    It becomes hard to “shop” around as it is financially stressful to do so and I think that may be why some people (well why I) feel almost powerless to get the help they need to work through their depression and anxiety. And to be honest ( I know it sounds lazy) the effort is almost too overwhelming to seek out a new therapist when you have already had a negative experience.

    I think making calls and doing interviews is a great idea, summoning the energy, the strength, and the ambition…well, like I said, I know it sounds lazy.

    • Jen, I understand what you are saying, and I offer a free half hour in an attempt to lessen the financial stress of “shopping around.” At the 30 minute point you can leave and not owe me anything. You also have the option of staying the full 60 minutes, and in that case you do owe me for the whole session. The therapist that got “extremely aggressive” with you probably had their own issues stimulated and didn’t keep that to herself/himself as is the therapist’s job.

      Contacting the therapist who was aggressive with you and telling them why you are not coming back might be empowering for you, and would be good for the therapist to hear. You can tell the therapist you do or do not wish to be contacted in response. You could email, write a letter, or leave a message. Feeling empowered could give you the energy to keep looking! Good luck!

  2. I really like that you included knowing what you want out of therapy. You can’t get what you want, if you don’t even know what it is. Also, I wasn’t aware there are therapist that specialize in specific things. Now I know what to look for when choosing a therapist.

  3. I appreciate your tip on getting a free interview with a therapist before you sign with them. I would imagine that you would want to know how they work before you decide to put your mental health in their hands. My sister has been suffering from depression recently so if she decides to see a therapist she will have to interview them first.

    • Ask for a free interview when you initially talk to the perspective therapist. Tell him or her why you want it. Say that other therapists do it and you are in the process of choosing who you want to see. If the therapist still refuses you even a free 15 minute interview, keep looking. I think that is perfectly reasonable to ask for, and then respect how much time the therapist is willing to offer

  4. Because of different situations going on, I am in the need of therapy; but I am not for sure what to look for in a counselor. I like the idea of being able to interview different therapists to see if there is one that I am emotionally comfortable with and can communicate with easily. I think it would be great to see if there is a counselor that specializes in therapy for women, that way I know that they understand a little more about what it is I am going through. Thank you for the advice!

    • I don’t really have a lot more to suggest than I have already done in my article and video. Absolutely trust yourself and your reactions when you meet the therapist. I think interviewing 3 is a good number – so you can choose from some options. I wouldn’t necessarily look for someone who specializes in women only, there are too many very good therapists who see men and women and have plenty of insight into both. If you feel more comfortable seeing a women, then take that into account for sure. You can get suggestions from a University, a women’s book store,or like minded friends. And of course there’s always the internet and reading therapists’ sites for who appeals to you!!

  5. Choosing a therapist can be a difficult task, but these are some really great tips. I love the idea of a phone consultation before the first session, I have never done that before. i think the most important thing that you mentioned was not to settle. Therapy session are for you and only you and if you are not benefiting from them there is no reason to continue. Thanks for sharing!

  6. I’ve been looking for a psychologist for my brother, and I think that being able to get some tips would be good. I’m glad you talked about not settling when it comes to finding a therapist. I think that being able to get a good psychologist would be helpful for him, and making sure that its someone who can actually help him would be best! Thanks!

    • It’s not clear from your comment if you wanted more feedback from me or not. It is normally important that your brother be included in the search and that he interview possible therapists for himself, unless there is some treason why he is not able to be a part of the process.

  7. I like how you say that you would want to consider if a therapist will challenge you. Finding someone who will help you grow would be really ideal. my sister is looking for a therapist, so she’ll have to find someone who challenges her.

  8. It’s interesting that you say that you would want to find out about a therapist’s methods first. It would be good to consider this because it would ensure that you find someone who will be able to help you out with your specific problems. My sister is looking for help with her anxiety disorder, so she’ll have to find someone who is properly qualified.

  9. It’s interesting that you talked about what drew them to the techniques of therapy they focus on. I have been looking for someone to help me work through some anxiety. I can see how it would be smart to choose a therapist that uses techniques that take care of the problem as fast as possible.

  10. You made a great point about choosing a therapist that will say things that make sense. I have been looking for someone to help me work through some anxiety. It would be nice to have a therapist that always makes sense. That way, it will be easy to listen to their advice.

  11. I heard that my best friend is looking for someone to help out her cousin. It appears that her cousin is suffering from anxiety and panic attacks, but they haven’t tried consulting yet if her cousin really has such mental illness. Thanks for suggesting asking people that we know for recommendations or referrals because they will be able to tell whether that psychologist is competent enough. I will gladly share this tip with her.

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