Updated: Nov 4, 2021
Finding a therapist can be a daunting experience. An individual may think they don’t have “big enough” problems to seek out therapy, but it can be helpful with many different issues. People seek out therapy for all sorts of reasons. Some of these reasons include, but are not limited to: trauma, undergoing a big change (new career, moving, etc), feeling alone, feeling a loss of control or any number of other things. Your problems do not need to be “really big” for therapy to be worth considering.
One of the first things you should do when considering therapy is figure out what you want to get out of therapy. Some clients go into therapy with the goal of a therapy based treatment like EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy). Others might want to try to deal with their triggers, and may have exposure therapy in mind as a solution. In such cases, you need to find a therapist that specializes in the treatment. Some may just be looking for some coping skills to handle a difficult point in their life. Setting up realistic expectations for yourself and your therapist can be helpful to both of you.
When it comes to what defines a “good therapist”, there is a lot of conflicting information and this definition may vary from one individual to another. However, usually, a good therapist will focus on resolution, stability, motivation (identifying a client’s goals) and, in trauma work, helping a client to understand the impacts of trauma. While a good therapist will be supportive and caring, they will not make that the focus of the therapy. They will listen to the client and hear their limitations and comfort, but will not allow the client to lead therapy. They may use this information to gently encourage a client out of their comfort zone to make progress, while being careful not to push too hard.
Before you approach a therapist, you may want to consider looking into them online. Many have information available about their specialties, experience and monetary costs. Some offer a sliding scale for lower income clients, while others do not. A lot of them may have been reviewed online.
It’s important to know that you have a right to ask your therapist questions, especially before or at your first session. A good therapist will allow you to ask questions because they understand the importance of it and how it can build trust and help new clients feel comfortable. A good therapist is just as interested in having clients who they will be able to help as clients are in having a good therapist. This means that a therapist that doesn’t allow you to ask questions and deflects with statements like “we should be focusing on you,” is likely not a good fit. Keep in mind that a therapist does not have to answer anything about their personal life, so while you may be curious about their personal experience with something like cheating or trauma, your therapist is under no obligation to tell you about their lived experiences.
Therapy is a very personal experience. The best type of therapy, the best sort of therapist and other such things will differ greatly for each particular person who goes through it. The questions below are not meant to be a one-size-fits-all guide, as such a thing would be very difficult if not impossible to create. This is meant to be a starting point, to help you understand what you might want to think about in deciding on a therapist. You may want to reword or ignore many or even most of these questions. While reading them, you may think of some questions which are not on this list but would be very helpful to you. Also, you may think of new questions as you speak to therapists.
One of the first questions I recommend asking is “how will they know when you’re done with treatment?” Therapy is expensive, so knowing when it will stop (even if it’s not a defined number of sessions, but with a defined end-goal/milestone) is important and may be helpful.
Here are some other questions you could ask:
What are your personal views/experiences on therapy? A lot of therapists will have undergone therapy, and I personally feel safer with ones who have and admit this. Talking to a therapist that knows what it’s like to be on the client side of a session can be really helpful.
What happens if I am ever angry with you?
What happens if I am in crisis? (can I reach you outside of sessions, do you have contact information for another therapist that does after-hours work)?
How do you handle sensitive issues/topics like suicide or violence?
Do you emotionally react to difficult subjects if they’re brought up without warning?
What topics or identities are you uncomfortable with discussing in therapy (e.g. religion, LGBTQ+, polyamory)? This question may be a way to gauge whether certain things feel safe for you to discuss with them and/or a therapist's experience with a topic.
If I have trust issues that cause resistance and/or other difficulties, how will you handle that?
How do you define successful recovery?
What is your general approach to helping? Are you more direct or do you focus on guiding?
If you’re looking for help with a specific problem (e.g. PTSD) or want someone who is knowledgeable about a particular area (e.g. LGBTQ+):
Did you take a class in this?
Have you done any research on this?
While you were working with clients, were you ever supervised by a professional who has taken a class or done any research on this?
What experience do you have with the LGBTQ+ community? This allows them to either share work history that is relevant, personal history, or both. If they don't say anything, that's a red flag.
Have you worked with clients with similar experiences to me? When was the last time?
If you have a particular disorder/mental illness (eg. bipolar, BPD, DID, etc.):
Do you have experience working with people with that disorder/illness?
Would that change anything in your approach to therapy? If so, what/how?
You should also consider what your goals are for therapy and ask the prospective new therapist how they feel about those goals. For example, if you are seeking therapy for addiction and your goal is reduction, not abstinence, you can ask your therapist if they are comfortable supporting and working towards that. Harm reduction is a valid goal, but not all therapists are comfortable with that and that's okay. It just means you need to find a different therapist who is more compatible. If you have DID, you may want to decide if your goal is final fusion or functional multiplicity ahead of time, and ask your therapist if they are comfortable supporting you towards that, and if they have appropriate experience to help with that goal.
After your first session (or phone consultation), it might be worth asking yourself some questions, such as:
How did I feel talking to them?
How did their answers make me feel?
Is it possible I will feel comfortable with them? (It’s normal to not feel comfortable right away, so the question needs to focus on the future.)
Did the therapist interrupt you?
Did you feel that your concerns were heard, respected, addressed and/or validated? A good therapist knows that any concerns or hesitations a client has about therapy are not personal and will not treat them as such. They should validate your feelings and if possible, address them.
It’s okay to ask to change therapists if you’re not feeling the right trust/connection or if you feel you are not progressing. Your therapist doesn’t have to be “bad” or have done something wrong for them to not be the right fit.
Searching for the right therapist can be a tricky experience. Some people find a therapist who they work well with right away, while others may find their first therapist a terrible fit with them. Hopefully, asking questions can help you to sort through the options available to you and find what you need. Overall, know that you are valid to want to "therapist shop" and find one that you feel more comfortable with.