Tips for Selecting the Right Therapist

Written by Andrew Gorrill

Selecting a therapist you’re comfortable with can make a big difference, and this process may take time. Here are some tips for finding a therapist you’re compatible with.

Think about what you want in a therapist

Who would you be most comfortable with? Would you prefer to see a therapist of a certain gender/ethnicity/sexual orientation? Remember that you need to be at ease with this person. If there are certain kinds of people you tend to be more comfortable around, it’s okay to be picky.

What do you hope to accomplish? Before you interview therapists, try to write down, as clearly and concretely as possible, what you’re hoping to accomplish. This will be useful in explaining your goals to therapists, so that they can explain exactly how they think they can help you achieve them.

Consider several therapists before choosing one

Get a few good candidates from online directories of therapists, recommendations from friends, family, or a religious institution, or an Employee Assistance Program at work, if your employer has one.

It can be helpful to find several therapists who might be a good fit so that you can compare them and find someone who you could work well with.

Understand their qualifications

There are many different kinds of therapists. To legally be called a therapist and practice therapy, a therapist must have at least a master’s degree in their field.

Psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, marriage therapists, and pastoral counselors are all different types of licensed therapists.

All of these professionals are qualified to practice therapy. The difference between their education is probably less important than the comfort you feel with a particular therapist and their experience with your particular challenges.

Some people may offer therapy without these qualifications; they may call it counseling, or coaching. Be aware that this is not the same as therapy. Therapy is medical care delivered by a licensed professional with extensive education and training.

Counseling and coaching may certainly be useful in a person’s life, but you should know which you’re getting. If you’re unsure what your therapist’s qualifications are, ask them, or view a list of common therapist credentials.

Read reviews or ask around

It can be helpful to read reviews of therapists before or after talking with them; you can keep an eye out for problems others have mentioned, or if something strikes you as a warning sign, you may be able to verify if it became an issue for other people.

Of course, reviews can be abused, and everyone’s looking for something different in a therapist, so it’s wise to take what you read with a grain of salt.

Unfortunately, reviews of therapists online are fairly sparse. Some of the best sites are below, but if you don’t live in a fairly large city, you may have difficulty finding many reviews for your area.

However, on the flip side, if you live in a small town or city, there’s a better chance that you may know someone who’s been to the therapist you’re researching. Ask around.

  • Rate MD’s This site has the most comprehensive listings (though they’re still quite limited), and is user-friendly.
  • Zocdoc This site has some excellent features—such as listing available appointments with each therapist—but very limited coverage outside of large cities.
  • Vitals Spotty coverage, but better than many.

Interview the therapists

To decide which therapist is right for you, it’s important to talk with the therapist beforehand.

Most therapists will do a quick 10-15 minute phone or in-person consult before the first session. If that’s not possible, send your questions by email.

If all else fails, you can always ask your questions on the first visit—and if you don’t like the answers, you can try another therapist.

You may have to wait a while before a therapist you’re interested in has an opening (up to a couple months, if they’re popular). It’s entirely appropriate to schedule first appointments with several therapists so you don’t have to start the process all over again if your first therapist isn’t a good match. Once you’ve found someone you like, you can cancel the other appointments.

Here are some questions you can ask.

  • What their general philosophy and approach is. Just hearing the therapist talk about how they approach their work can help you get a feel for whether you’re comfortable with them or not.
  • What methods they use. Different methods of therapy have different levels of evidence behind them. You have the right to be selective, and whatever method you choose, make sure that your therapist outlines their approach for you, and that it’s something you think could be helpful.
  • How they handle conflict. Being able to handle conflict well has been linked to better outcomes in therapy.
  • Discuss payment. if you haven’t already. While therapy is important and may be worth economic sacrifices, you should make sure you know exactly what you’re getting into financially. If it’s going to be more than you can afford, it’s best to find out now and explore ways to pay for therapy, rather than creating stress by getting into debt.

Watch out for warning signs

warning sign on door

There is such a thing as a quack therapist. Watch out for:

  • Therapists advertising “miracle cures” or “spiritual transformations.” Therapy can be very helpful, but it isn’t usually miraculous. Anyone advertising it as such is probably unscrupulous.
  • Therapists who try to get you to pay up-front for a certain number of sessions, or to sign a contract for a program. While therapy usually takes a series of sessions, and therapists may ask you to mentally prepare for a series of visits, it’s not a good idea to pay for multiple sessions in advance.
  • Therapists who try to intimidate you or make you uncomfortable. The therapist is your partner in this therapy, not your boss.

There are also plenty of good therapists who may simply not be a good fit for you. Watch out for anyone who:

  • You feel uneasy with. Trust your gut. Whether it’s right or wrong, if you don’t feel comfortable, the therapy won’t be productive.
  • Doesn’t seem to be listening to you. The therapist needs to learn about you in order to help you. If they’re not listening to you, they’re not doing that. However, this doesn’t mean that you should expect the therapist to just listen quietly while you go on for hours about whatever comes to mind. Particularly in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the therapist will try to keep the discussion to useful topics, and may ask you challenging questions. This is good. Appearing uninterested in you or your struggles is not.
  • Spends more time talking about themselves than listening to you. While the occasional reference to their own life may be helpful, a therapist more interested in telling you about themselves than helping you won’t be of much use.
  • Doesn’t agree with your goals for treatment Over time a therapist may suggest other things you could work on, but studies have shown a strong correlation between how much the client and therapist agree on goals for treatment and how much progress the client makes in therapy.
  • Makes you feel judged, shamed, or emotionally unsafe While it is a therapist’s place to challenge your thoughts and perceptions, it is not their place to make you feel judged or ashamed. If you feel this way, the therapy won’t be productive, and they’re not a good fit.
  • You regularly feel worse after your session. You may feel worse after a session occasionally—after all, therapy is about confronting your difficulties, and delving into them isn’t always fun. But if you regularly feel worse, particularly if that feeling is sustained, then the therapy isn’t doing what it should. You should feel like you’re making progress, even if it’s difficult.
  • You have a high amount of conflict right from the start. Once your therapist has gotten to know you, they may challenge you on your views of certain issues. This is part of the therapy process and a good therapist will help you be open to these challenges. Conflict from the start, however, is a bad sign, and indicates incompatibility between you and the therapist.
  • You just don’t like or want to talk to them. Therapy is basically opening up to someone and talking to them about your world. If you don’t like them and don’t want to talk to them, this won’t work.

Find someone you’re comfortable with

It’s important you get a sense that you could feel comfortable sharing a deep level of feelings and personal details with this therapist.

Studies have shown a consistent correlation between how comfortable the client is with the therapist and how much progress the client makes in therapy. It’s worth shopping around to find someone you’re comfortable with.

If you don’t feel comfortable with the therapist during your interview, even if you can’t say exactly why, they’re probably not a good fit for you. (Of course, you should make sure you’re not confusing discomfort with therapy with discomfort with a particular therapist.)

If you’re just uncomfortable with the idea of therapy, you may not like any therapist you meet at first. You may need to first conquer worry or stigma around going to therapy

Once you’ve found someone, review these tips for preparing for your first appointment.

About the Author
Andrew has a diverse background, ranging from Chinese language and culture to organic agriculture. He occupies a variety of roles at UpLift, including customer service and project management.