Looking For a Therapist?

By William Madsen, Ph.D.

Dr. William Madsen is a psychologist practicing in the Boston and affiliated with the Family Institute of Cambridge. He is the author of a new book “Collaborative Therapy with Multi-Stressed Families.”

When problems crop up in our lives, we often seek out help from others. Over the years, people have turned to family, friends, clergy and others in their community. More recently, people have also turned to books, TV talk shows, and now websites. Sometimes, people look to counselors or therapists.

How do you pick a therapist, if that’s what you decide

There are as many different types of therapists as there are flavors of ice cream and all make different claims about their effectiveness. Research on therapy highlights the importance of the relationship you develop person to person. These studies show just what we would have expected: empathy, respect, warmth, genuineness and hope are the biggest contributors to effective therapy. These factors are reflected in how therapists think, talk and act. So, how do you decide whether a particular therapist is a good fit for you?

One way is to draw from the experience of others. I consult to many mental health programs for people who have not been well-served by the mental health system. I talk with people a lot about what has worked and not worked for them in getting help, and here are some of the things they tell me:

  • “I came into the mental health system in a crisis. I felt so vulnerable it was really hard to trust my own judgment. I didn’t have the confidence to question the professionals, but it was really important to remember this was my life and I should trust myself.”
  • “I want a counselor who’s going to see me as a person and believe I have strengths and resources, even when I don’t feel it. It’s been helpful when a therapist looks to pull me up rather than let themselves get pulled down by the problems and pessimism in my life.”
  • “They’ve got to be on my side. I have enough people criticizing me and telling me I’m wrong. It’s not enough that they aren’t judgmental. They have to let me know they’re in my corner.”
  • “A lot of therapists can fall into only focusing on problems. It’s been most helpful for me when my therapist remembers that I am more than the problems in my life and tries to help me build on that.”

How do you know if you’re making a good choice?

  • Ask Questions!

Therapy is a two-way relationship. The therapist works for you and you can ask them about their work just as they ask you about your life. You can interview a therapist when you first meet them and you can continue asking them questions as you work together. As one person put it,

“It’s really helpful when I know what my therapist is thinking. She checks in with me and asks how this process is going for me. She takes my responses to heart and that helps me feel more ownership of the work and makes sure we’re going in the right direction.”

There are many questions you can ask therapists, but here on some that others have found useful:

  1. How do you work? How is that useful? What are its drawbacks?
  2. Can you share some experiences you’ve had with similar families and situations? What’s worked and what hasn’t with them?
  3. How do you get feedback from clients about finding out how your work is going with them? What do you do with that feedback?
  4. How do you stay hopeful when things aren’t going well in the lives of the people with whom you work?

Trust Your Gut!

What does it feel like being in the room with this person? Do you feel a connection to them? Do you feel respected by them? Do they seem curious about you? Do you feel safe talking to them? Do they seem “on your side?”

So, if you’re looking for a therapist: Ask Questions and Trust your Gut

See if you believe in the therapist and she believes in you.

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