Deciding to start therapy can be a daunting task, and trying to find the right therapist is an important first step. Research has shown that the biggest predictor of positive outcomes from therapy is the therapeutic relationship- that is, the relationship between the client and the therapist. Why is that? For therapy to be successful, it has to be a safe space where you feel comfortable being vulnerable and honest; a space where you feel heard, understood, and respected. Finding someone who can hold that space for you can be tricky, because defining the connection between two people often feels amorphous and difficult to quantify. It’s also important to keep in mind that not every therapist is a good fit for every person that comes in through their door. But when you first meet with a therapist there are six ways to assess if this person is right for you:
- Do you feel heard? The foundational job of a therapist is not just to listen, but to hear and understand you. This means attending to both verbal and non-verbal cues and being able to accurately reflect back on what you said. Does your therapist give you the space you need to say what’s on your mind? When they paraphrase what they’ve heard, does it accurately reflect your thoughts? And if it doesn’t (keep in mind, no one is perfect and even the best therapist can get it wrong) are they open and responsive when you clarify?
- Do you feel validated? Emotional validation is about understanding and accepting someone’s emotional experience as true and legitimate. It is a crucial part of the therapeutic process.
- Are you able to give feedback? Therapists are not mindreaders but if they misunderstand or misinterpret you, consider how they respond to your feedback. Your therapist should be open to discussing it with you and willing to accept your input.
- Are they open and accepting of your identity including your culture, spiritual beliefs, sexual orientation and gender identity?
- Does their approach make sense? Every therapist is going to have a different perspective, and while it can be incredibly valuable to consider new perspectives, their viewpoint and suggested interventions should make sense and resonate with you.
- Are you getting something out of the session? When you walk out of the office (or leave the zoom room) take a moment to reflect on the time spent. Consider how you felt and what you were thinking before the session, and notice any changes you experience. The something varies from person to person, and session to session- it may be a moment of insight, a new coping strategy, a feeling of healing or emotional release. Don’t expect every session to be revelatory- there's hard work that happens in between those magical ah-hah moments, but sessions should feel productive.
Some considerations when you are looking for a therapist:
Think about what you want to get out of your sessions- do you want to learn new tools and strategies that you can apply in your daily life, or do you need a safe and non-judgmental space to verbally process your thoughts and feelings? What kinds of interventions are you comfortable exploring and plan to ask some questions of your provider in the first appointment to assess goodness of fit. If you want to explore holistic treatment options, or find out if they use evidence-based practice for your specific concern the first session is the perfect time to ask. Do some research before your session by looking at the therapist’s website or online profiles and get a sense of the provider.
Consider if there are aspects of their identity such as age or gender that would help you feel more comfortable in therapy. Some people are most comfortable seeing someone who has been in the field for a long time and has lots of experience, while others prefer someone closer to their age. But keep an open mind - you may find a therapist who doesn’t match any of your demographics but ends up being a great fit. If you want to focus on particular aspects of your identity, it might be helpful to find a therapist who has more experience and expertise in that area. Websites such as Psychology Today and The Shrink Space allow you to filter search results by ethnicity, sexuality, gender and faith. Other therapist databases focus on connecting folx to inclusive therapists of color- you can find a list of those databases here.
If at first you don’t succeed....
When you call to schedule an initial appointment, you can ask if they will do a brief phone consultation before your first session to ask about their experience and specialties- this may save some time and rule in or out potential providers. Bring a list of questions and any worries you may have about therapy to your first appointment, and make sure to let your provider know. Even if that therapist isn’t a good fit, your experience with them will help inform you about what you are looking for in a provider. Finding a therapist can take time and patience but it’s time that you are investing in your wellbeing, which is always worth it.
Want to talk? Counseling & Psych Services (CAPS) is here to listen and help. Find out more about CAPS and/or get started today.
CAPS services are for every University of Arizona student, including students of all races, genders, sexual orientations, ages, religions, abilities, and sizes. At CAPS and Campus Health, we strive to support the mental health and wellbeing of all students by creating an environment of trust, respect, and openness. This is our commitment to you.