How to find a therapist - part 1
This is part one of five on finding the right therapist.
Surprisingly, much of the publicly available information to clients on therapist selection focuses on areas such as their specialism, experience, gut feeling, type of therapy, training, and qualifications, but not really what to look for in the person. In this article, I'll be talking both as a psychotherapist and as a client who has experienced therapy (counselling/psychotherapy) over many years, in what I believe makes a good therapist and so to help clients in their selection and feelings towards the therapist.
I have seen many clients and been a client myself and in those experiences, I’ve found out what I believe clients need to look for. I have now realised why it’s not uncommon for people to struggle to find the right therapist for them and as I’ll explain, there are many more important things to consider than basic factors such as experience and qualifications. I hope this article helps you along your psychological adventure.
First a bit of context to frame my answer. When clients seek therapy, they may want to work on a variety of issues, such as insecurities, anxiety, and deep emotional wounds, so therapy is all about helping a client through their healing process. Therefore at the outset, we have to recognise that counselling/psychotherapy is all about enabling growth, change, increasing awareness and thus personal development. In order to do that, and you may have already discovered, unless you are seeing someone like a psychiatrist, it is not really about the therapist diagnosing you and prescribing a course of treatment that will get you feeling better, so it’s very unlikely going to be an instant fix (although some issues may be cleared/improved in a single or a few sessions but that would be variable from client to client). You won’t typically walk in and tell the therapist a deep rooted issue, be told by the therapist what to do and think in a procedural way and come out changed. It’s clearly not like taking a pill. Mental wellness has so far, not been amenable to a formulaic approach, so it’s not really scientific, even though science has been applied to researching therapy outcomes and working out clusters of symptoms, etc.
So, given the unscientific nature of therapy, what are therapists and how does therapy work?
In my view, therapists are creative healers and artists. Ultimately, the key to therapy is that the therapist supports you in such a way to help you when you’re ready, change your own mind by working through thoughts, feelings and needs. This type of process requires more than diagnosis and prescription, although there may be areas where diagnosis is useful in determining options for therapy or ensuring the therapist works safely with clients (e.g. post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)).
Therapy is therefore unlike other types of learning from that of a teacher, coach or a parent. It’s more like someone who points and focuses you towards your own answers in creative and engaging ways to enable you to expand, mature, stabilise and change your own thoughts, feelings, needs and senses. An analogy could be that the parent nurturing and encourage a child (it is important to state that therapy is not a type of parent-child relationship) to balance on a bicycle, but that won’t get the child balancing on their own. Ultimately, balancing on a bike can only be done by the child through time, effort, overcoming obstacles, or feeling you’re getting worse, stuck, being frustrated and eventually being able to balance on the bike themselves. If the child is given space, encouragement and the right environment, tools and pointers, balancing will eventually come if the child persists. Therefore, in therapy it’s more about helping you find your own way of being (answers) that will fit with you (i.e., makes sense in your felt experience) that helps resolve your issues. The therapist does not tell you the answers but helps you discover what areas are important to you, to focus on that and through that process, the client finds a way forward.
The therapist will be informed by their own school of thought (e.g. person-centred, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), or psychodynamic) and the client to help you with your process of change. This type of approach makes sense because firstly, the change has to come from the client’s perspective not the therapist’s (something called the client’s frame of reference) and also the therapist cannot know or be the expert of the client (it’s a truism that no one can live or experience the mind of anyone else to know to that extent). A good therapist needs to tap into the client’s expertise of themselves to find a solution, i.e., what makes sense and is right for them not the therapist.
Therapists often talk about the client “mindshift” where clients perceive themselves, their relationships, and themselves in a different way which enables their wounds to be lifted, reduced, worked through, accepted, let go, etc. So given that it’s not scientific, not a hard diagnostic prescription oriented and not about telling a client what to do and “clients” have to do the shifting, it’s therefore critical to consider what qualities you need in a therapist that will optimally enable this type of healing or shifting process to occur. What this means is, it took me a while to work that out it’s the therapist’s deep knowledge and experience of themselves that is important, and since therapy is a human endeavour, they need to “know themselves” by being a kind of expert of themselves. For example, by being on or through a journey of self-discovery and emotional healing themselves. Thus, it’s their way of being with the client in the relationship that has the best chance to enable the shift to occur. That’s not to say other things, such as type of therapy and experience, are unimportant but the “magic or missing” link that acts as an enabler for change is in the being or way of the therapist – who they are, who they are not, how they are and how they are not.
So, it’s natural to assume that if it’s the client’s being that has to change, it must be met with a therapist’s being, who has been through and knows about the way that is conducive to healing, and it really is that simple. But then the question comes: When you meet a therapist for the first time, how will you know if the therapist is an expert of themselves and knows about their own wounds?
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