Five things you should keep in mind when choosing a therapist, because it's okay to seek help
I wanted to start therapy for years, but the work of finding a therapist always felt far too complicated to actually do anything about it. Where do you start? Where do you look for one? How could I possibly afford it? I was overwhelmed by every aspect of process, so like many things in my life, I avoided it completely. I assumed I would make it happen one day but continued to put it off, until I was in the midst of a major mental breakdown. Finally, when I felt shattered to my core, I decided it was time to reach out and find someone who could help me figure out how to choose a therapist.
I didn’t know where to start, so I sent a quick Facebook message to a friend from college who is now a practicing psychotherapist. She recommended me to one of her colleagues, another psychotherapist, and also sent me to Psychology Today, a helpful resource that allows you to search for local therapists. I sent an email to her referral, logged onto the website and typed in my zip code. The woman who appeared on the screen before me was not only based out of my neighborhood but also accepted my insurance. I sent her a short message.
Within a few days, I set up a phone call with my friend’s referral, and scheduled an initial appointment with the second practitioner I’d found online. While both ultimately seemed like great options, the latter was more affordable with my insurance, and when she said, “I like helping women become more assertive,” I immediately knew she was the therapist for me. When I look back on that low period in my life, I feel immensely grateful for how easy it was to find the right person for me. Although I’ve since changed therapists, I now realize how unusual it is to find one so easily and that there are many things you should consider when choosing a therapist.
If you’re currently looking for an IRL practitioner (rather than an online, text, or phone-based therapist), I spoke with some experts about what to keep in mind when you’re beginning your search.
1Identify the issues you want to address and the goals you’d like to achieve
According to Vanessa Kensing, a psychotherapist based in New York, it’s important to spend time considering what issues you’re hoping to work through. As each therapist has a different framework, it’s also helpful to educate yourself about different treatment modalities and determine which one might best help you to achieve those goals. “Some therapists ascribe strictly to one type of therapeutic intervention while others use a variation of a few,” Kensing explains.
Moreover, Lauren Appio, a psychologist and career coach, recommends posing questions such as: “Is this form of therapy primarily exploratory and reflective, skills-based, or both? Will I mostly be talking through my concerns or learning and practicing new strategies to manage them, or both? How directive and interactive will the therapist be? Will we mostly be focused on exploring past events, attending to present experiences, practicing for the future, or a mix of those?” Answering these questions can help you decide what type of direction is right for you. Plus, when you speak with prospective therapists and share your goals for therapy, they will express how they would approach working with you.
2Consider what you want or expect from your therapist
Who do you envision as your therapist? Kensing recommends thinking about which factors are important to you and catering your search accordingly—perhaps you’d only be comfortable with a woman therapist, for example, or someone who specializes in LGBTQ issues or sexual trauma. Beyond this, “You want to feel heard, understood, emotionally safe, be able to laugh and cry, and not feel judged [by your therapist],” she says. Therapy is about self-reflection, exploration, and evolution. Change can make us uncomfortable, and while you want to feel safe around your therapist, you also want to feel challenged.
Carlene MacMillan, a psychiatrist and the director of Brooklyn Minds, says that it’s also worth considering a therapist’s personality type. “Some therapists have a more quiet, calming presence and others may sit more on the edge of their seat and be more active.” Think about what would be a good fit for you or try out different styles before settling on one.
She also recommends finding out if they’re available after hours in case of a crisis and what would be the best way to reach them, and if you are looking for someone who prescribe medications, ask if they have prescribers they frequently work with or consider seeing a psychiatrist or therapist who is part of a group practice or clinic.
3Speak to people you know and/or use a search engine
To find a therapist, it can be helpful to speak to people in your community and ask if anyone sees a practitioner they particularly like. However, Kensing admits, “Word of mouth has its pros and cons. Hearing good things about a therapist can put you at ease about the process of reaching out and making that first appointment.” But what worked for a friend or loved one may not work for you, too. Plus, it’s important to be cautious when seeing a therapist a friend or loved one is currently seeing for privacy reasons. However, their therapist may be able to recommend a trusted colleague.
Appio suggests that if you don’t feel comfortable asking friends or family members, talk with your health-care providers or people in your wellness communities (fitness instructors and trainers, AA sponsors, and so on). “They are often connected to a community of therapists and can point you in the right direction,” she tells HG.
You can also use directories, such as psychologytoday.com, zencare.co, zocdoc.com, mywellbeing.com, or helloalma.com, which allow you to search for therapists using different filters, such as insurance, speciality, and more. Lastly, MacMillan recommends, “Looking on your insurance company’s website is kind of a last resort as the lists they have are vast and often misleading or outdated.”
4Understand that the process takes time—but it’s worth it
Finding the right therapist can take a lot of time. In fact, Kensing draws a parallel between finding the right therapist and finding the right romantic partner. “You may have to try a few therapists until you find the right one.” And if you’re on the fence about your connection with a particular therapist, it could be worth giving the relationship a few sessions to get a real sense of how the connection feels.
Yes, the process can be frustrating—you might spend a lot of time talking to multiple therapists over the phone or meeting them in person before you find the right fit. But, as Appio assures, “Be persistent and don’t give up!” According to her, “The right therapist will be supportive and challenging, [and someone] who seems to really ‘get’ the concerns you’re bringing to therapy. They’ll ask you questions that make you feel more curious about yourself.” But at the same time, it’s normal to feel both nervous and hopeful about moving forward with a therapist.
5Always ask questions!
Most therapists offer a free consultation, usually over the phone but sometimes in person. Use this time wisely to ask questions and find out what you can expect from working together. As Kensing says, “This is a great way to ask more about the therapist, what their therapeutic framework is, and how that manifests in the therapeutic work.” Notice how the conversation flows and how they engage with you as this will indicate whether or not they are a good fit for you.