How to choose a therapist

If you want to start therapy but the process of finding a therapist feels overwhelming, you are not alone.

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Like dating, most people find it can take quite a few attempts until you find the therapist that is right for you. Unlike dating, however, the stakes are much higher, especially if you’re in a vulnerable or crisis state. And so this article tells you the key things to look out for to save time.

As you may have heard, "it is the relationship that heals". In fact, it is said that having a good therapeutic relationship is more important than knowing your therapist's theoretical approach*.

So if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the endless acronyms and abbreviations (CBT, EMDR, ACT etc.) or types of therapists out there (counsellor, psychotherapist, psychologist, psychiatrists), fear not, this article will eliminate any responsibility you may be feeling to research the meaning of each and every one.

The feelings you have towards your therapist (known as transference) are an important part of the therapy work. E.g asking a therapist for help will likely bring up feelings from when you’ve had to ask for help in the past. So if you’ve been called needy or made fun of for asking for help historically, you will naturally transfer these past feelings onto your therapist. 

So have faith and know it is OK if you’re having conflicting or complicated feelings about your therapist. A good therapist will be able to help you explore this if you feel safe and confident enough to tell them. 

It is important therefore that you feel comfortable with your therapist and so below I suggest the three important qualities that are useful to have in your therapeutic relationship to facilitate the greatest chance for change and healing. These conditions were developed by a therapist called Kohut (but knowing anything more about him is not important).

To gauge whether these conditions will be present in the relationship you should request an initial conversation with your therapist (however, it isn’t essential).


Therapy relationship conditions

1. Twinship

In our earliest years, it is common to mimic our parents (pushing dollies in a pram, carrying a briefcase etc.) highlighting how an experience of sameness (or twinship) is a natural impulse and integral to a healthy sense of self and development. If we have observed and so mimicked unhealthy behaviour (such as negative self-talk or smacking as punishment) therapists can be an essential part of correcting this by providing healthy behaviour to ‘twin’ with. 

My experience with twinship

As a mixed raced girl who went to a school with 95% white peers, I felt both proud and ashamed of my difference in having a black mother. The way my friends' mothers parented in a culturally different way left me longing for a gentler approach. My mum immigrated as a little girl from Jamaica to Yorkshire, a county that was at times very racist, and so she had to develop a thick skin and a tough protective exterior. Whilst this taught me to be resilient in adulthood, as a child, in moments of vulnerability I wanted a little more nurturing. It was no surprise then, that I chose a white, middle-aged mother as my therapist, who felt like those of my peers growing up. I was able to ‘twin’ with someone who shared my culturally white experience helping me to reconcile my emotional internal world with the tougher external skin my own mother had taught me.

How to choose someone to twin with

Looking out for someone who seems like they share your values or background is a good place to start. They say a picture tells a thousand words, so pay attention to what you feel when you look at your potential therapist's photo. Do they look like they don't take themselves too seriously if humour is important to you, does their t-shirt tell you something about their interests, is it important that someone shares your race, does the location of their clinic signal something important to you? Don’t be afraid to lean into what you feel when you look at someone's photo. If you resonate with someone's wry smile or kind eyes, trust that.

Furthermore, within their bio, does the language they use feel accessible and inclusive if you want someone relatable and not too clinical? Do they mention an industry that they worked in before they trained as a therapist, telling you they may understand the pressures of your working life? Perhaps they’re a parent, or not a parent, belong to a religious group or have left a religious group. All this information gives you clues about whether you feel like they’ll really be able to get where you’re coming from.

2. Mirroring

Affirming, reassuring words are essential to the development of a healthy psyche and positive self-image. You may look at your peers and wonder, how they seem to achieve things so easily, or enter new relationships without anxiety. Before you start judging yourself for this, ask yourself whether you felt reinforced and validated for who you are, just as you are growing up. If the answer is no, this leaves us not only doubting ourselves but everything we do.

My experience with mirroring

My therapist reflected back at me every time I spoke about myself in a negative way. Through exploration, we figured out where I had learned to be so critical. She always praised my efforts in therapy and positive attributes, until over time, this became a new and improved language that I had internalised for my own disposal.

How to choose someone to mirror you

During an initial call, when you tell your potential therapist how you’re feeling, pay attention to how they respond. They should validate the feelings you have and confidently reflect your experience back at you without feeling flustered. They should be able to pick up on the way you talk about yourself e.g if you say ‘I want to start therapy but I’m really bad at talking about my feelings’ they might say ‘the fact you’re able to hold this conversation now tells me you’re much better at talking about yourself than you think you are’. If you’re unable to speak with your potential therapist but share email exchanges if they notice and appropriately respond to any personal information you have included that feels encouraging and again, validating, this is a very good sign. 

3. Idealising

Whilst this term may feel strange, can you think of anyone in your life that felt reassuring and calming (especially when you’ve been in a difficult place)? Can you remember what it is like to feel their affection for you? If you can recall such a person in your life, you are already aware of how important it is to our development to know we have someone more stable than us to go to (especially growing up) because their calming reassurance teaches us that our feelings are ok, giving us an inherent sense of safety and trust that our problems aren’t too scary or unmanageable. 

My experience of idealising

I had just started working with my therapist at the same time as my therapy training. This immediately meant I had someone to look up to and base my future imagined therapist self on. She had all the qualities I wanted to exhibit as a therapist, and this encouraged me to work harder in my therapy work because she motivated me but also because I wanted her to feel proud of me. This helped to reinforce a positive self-view. There were times however when I also felt hopeless and that I’d never be as good as her and because the relationship was such a strong one, I told her this. She rationalised this for me with a much-needed dose of humour, saying that she would be annoyed at me if I was better than her, given her 15 years of experience. Her ability to explore and hold my conflicting feelings, made her feel safe, unwavering and reliable. This reinforced the feeling that she would be able to handle whatever I brought to her, even if it brought up difficult feelings for her, and that she would continue to be an empathetic and safe place when I couldn’t do this for myself. 

This dynamic also helped me realise just how much we idolise and project onto those who exhibit our desired attributes, without realising that we already hold them.

How to choose someone to ‘idealise’

During an initial call, try to be as honest as you can about what being in therapy will bring up for you. In other words, if you struggle with long-term relationships or vulnerability, tell your therapist and pay attention to how they respond. They shouldn’t overly pathologise but rather feel calm and confident as you share your feelings. If you feel their empathy, without feeling that they are too emotionally affected by your experience this will tell you they are a safe pair of ears. 

As above, can they listen calmly and with empathy, rather than hurriedly talking over you? Do you feel like you can let go of any responsibility of being the responsible one in this dynamic? 

Ultimately, I encourage you to trust your gut when looking for a new therapist and don’t assume the most expensive or highly trained person will guarantee results. A relationship that allows you to feel comfortable, valued and validated will facilitate the exploration of the things you once imagined impossible to say out loud. When we let those words out, you’ll be amazed, when with the right therapist, just how less shameful, powerful or scary they feel.

*There will be certain conditions (disordered eating, addiction, personality disorder etc. where you may naturally feel more comfortable working with someone specialised in the respective areas).

If you’d like to find out more about how counselling can help you, feel free to reach out to me.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London, EC2A
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Written by Janine Tooker, MBACP Reg. Integrative Therapist
London, EC2A

I've worked through the NHS & independently with: childhood trauma, self-esteem, identity, cultural & LGBTQ+ issues. I also work with general depression & anxiety. I am highly experienced in working with PTSD from sexual & psychological abuse. I am an Integrative Therapist, meaning I...

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