How do I find the right therapist?

Finding the “right” therapist can be a bit like dating. How do I know I found “the one”? The answer, like in romance, is that there probably isn’t “the one”. Believing there is “the one” might actually add to the anxiety around this process. In reality, finding the right therapist might involve a bit of trail-and-error.

To this end—there is no guarantee I’m the right therapist for you. My style works very well for some and doesn’t for others. That’s normal.

What I can say is that more than anything else, more than the specific technique or modality or background, what’s most important is that you feel safe and supported by your therapist. Which isn’t to say that you will always feel comfortable. There will be times in therapy when the conflicts you have in the outside world will recreate themselves with the therapist—you might find therapy stagnating, you might feel frustrated, stuck, and unhappy with how therapy is going. A good therapist will be able to spot these dynamics and address them with you. It might be a sign of it not being a good fit, but it also might be a sign of resistance: things that come up that keep us from engaging in an authentic, open way (which is completely normal and should be expected).

Don’t give up right away when things start to feel frustrating, but also don’t deny or minimize your feelings when they come up. Give an honest try to exploring these feelings before making a decision to move on. A good therapist will be able to accept your honest feedback and as a result, the relationship might actually strengthen. Giving feedback takes bravery and courage—and can be a beautiful experience, because a lot of times in life we’ve been taught out of being honest about our feelings. Instead, we learn to side-step ourselves, placate others, flatter them, reactively blame/attack, or keep our views silent and express them anonymously.

To those of you who don’t really like the intuitive “try and see how you feel” approach, start with self-reflection. Your future therapist is a person who is going to dive deep with you, see you in some of your most intimate, hidden places. And so, this is a person who should be someone you can trust.

Try a writing exercise. Put on a 10-minute timer, pick up a blank sheet of paper and a pen. Or do this on a phone.

Ask yourself: What qualities do I want this person to have? Start the timer and write down things that come to your mind in a non-interrupted way. Whatever comes up. No judgement, no analysis.

If you need extra prompts, ask yourself: Is gender/age/background important? If so, who would I feel most comfortable with? What would be their values? Philosophy of mental health and the human struggle? Life experience?

After the timer’s done, review your list. Pick out 1-5 things that stand out to you as most important. (no real reason why I say 1-5 things and not more, it’s just that if you have a list of 20 preferences it’ll be harder to find someone that fits all the items).

Conversely, you can start with a therapy experience you really DIDN’T like. What did you dislike about that experience and about the therapist? Write that down in one list, then on adjacent side of the page turn these negative qualities into their positive opposites. So, if you didn’t like X about them, what would you prefer instead?

Now, having a list of preferrable qualities, you can start your research. Each therapist you come across; you can compare to your list. No guarantee you will find the “perfect” therapist that checks all the boxes but at least you might find one that checks some.

How does therapy work?

Therapy works on the basis of repairing connection where there wasn’t any before. Trauma teaches us that when hard things happen, we have to go it alone. If it happens enough times, that belief gets wired into our brains. The belief of being alone in your struggle is something, if you sense how it lands in your body, doesn’t feel nice—it feels stressful, lonely, and hard. On some level, many of us operate this way in the world even if we know or don’t know why we do (not just individually but collectively and culturally the idea can be built in that you need to figure things out on your own and if you can’t you are broken/weak/incapable/etc).

Many of us haven’t had engaged, calm adults in those hard places. Of course, it’s not realistic to expect someone to always be around and for help to always be available. We have an extremely intelligent and resilient body that can adapt to even the toughest conditions. But the only way we understand and learn how to move through hard things is by first having a calm, attuned adult with us in that place. Someone who listens, who understands us accurately, who can feel with us where we are. This is the crux of therapy, the golden moment, when we can access that place that is most disowned, most cast off inside us and embrace it with the energy of acceptance and love.

What are the sessions like?

The first few sessions are pretty predictable in the sense that we are getting to know each other. You might find that I’m listening more and offering reflections, to get a sense of your story and the issue you’re coming with. We also discuss your goals and what you want to see on the other side of your issue.

Ongoing sessions vary greatly. Some sessions involve talking things through. Some sessions will involve body-based, emotional work and you may find these feel deeper and more impactful.

Always, and especially after deep, emotional sessions, plan to rest. Therapy is similar to a physical workout in many ways (what my therapist told me when we first started working together and I haven’t been able to prove her wrong yet!). You are using muscles you haven’t before and they will hurt after, you may feel exhausted. It’s important to give yourself plenty of time to recharge.

How do I know I’m changing?

I want to pre-empt this question by highlighting that most of us (not all), who have gone through the traditional school system will be familiar with learning as a process of acquisition and reiteration of information. Those of us who were “good at school” (where’re my people at?) ESPECIALLY love our “how-to” guides. We might be used to the idea that if you want to change or learn something new, we find a step-by-step list, do all the steps on that list, and then we acquire the skill, and voila: we are changed. Change is linear, clean, straightforward, permanent, and can be reached through sheer dedication, hard work, and acquisition of information.

That’s not how personal development works. Change in the realm of mental health and personal growth rarely if ever is so linear and so controllable a process. It might seem an obvious thing, but it’s not, not on a cellular level. There might still be a part of us that deeply wants the magic to happen (you only need to look around at our culture and all the promises of cures it sells). We might catch ourselves saying: “I will go to therapy, and I will NEVER feel anxiety again!” or “Damn it… I thought I worked this out already, why do I STILL feel like this? It must mean I’m doing therapy wrong.”

These thoughts are completely normal but a bit misguided if we take them seriously: we expect to be completely cured, but that’s not the point. The point is to approach your struggle differently, not in a hammer-and-sheer-force kind of way, but in a connected, calm, conscious, creative, and helpful way.

Successful therapy, in my professional opinion, requires three key things: therapist-client relationship, consistency, and risk-taking. 

Therapist-client relationship is a key factor for change—it’s the “container”, the “condition” that allows the client to self-actualize. Using a gardening analogy, most therapists believe that the potential for change rests within the client (the seed) and that if the relational space is just right (soil, water, sunlight), the client will grow and change at their own pace (grow like a plant into their own positive potential). To a large extent, this view is supported by research.

Consistency is important. Many clients either quit therapy the moment it begins to feel frustrating or the moment they begin to feel good. Change requires not just the acquisition of new information and experience, it involves continuous reflection, repetition, self-monitoring, and deep integration of information (not just knowing something to be true but feeling it to be so). All that takes time! It takes us stumbling over the same blocks over and over again and rising over and over again. To use the physical activity metaphor above, just like with building muscles, it involves active and consistent engagement in the process to keep your emotional/spiritual muscles strong and healthy.

Having said that, there is no hard-and-fast rule about how frequently you should seek therapy. It can be once a week, once every two weeks, or once a month. The key is to be consistent. Keep coming. If you have limited resources, talk about it with your therapist and make a plan that accommodates how many sessions you plan on having.

Risk-taking. Therapy involves taking risks and revealing yourself in places you’d rather stay hidden. This is because most of us have toughed out life with our deepest struggles alone. And it doesn’t work as a long-term strategy because our human, animal bodies and psyches are built for connection, and connection is what heals (even if it doesn’t fix or solve the material problem).

There are so many kinds of therapy out there. What’s the best one?

Hard to answer. I think all kinds of therapies have some cross-over in their assumptions about human behaviour and what helps people change. Some are more researched than others and so you might see some therapies being advertised as “evidence-based” but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will work for you. There are less studied modalities that can be just as helpful as the more popular ones. Bottom-line: there is no one-size-fit-all kind of therapy. 

Some of us are more emotional creatures and prefer emotion-based approaches. Some of us are more analytical and prefer those modalities. Some of us are more spiritual and prefer therapists with a transpersonal perspective. At the end of the day, I’d recommend focusing more on how you feel with the therapist and the therapist as a person versus choosing someone specifically for their modality.

I also think it’s very important that in whatever therapy you choose that there is a healthy balance of honouring your own intuition and challenging your assumptions about yourself/others/world. Unfortunately, there is no hard-and-fast rule about this either but it comes down to you feeling that there is a healthy balance between challenge and honouring yourself. An approach that completely disregards EVERY experience you have as “resistance” or a “distortion” isn’t helpful. Neither is therapy is that accepts every experience on a surface level without digging deeper to where the feeling are stemming from and addressing the emotional rupture that might cause this experience to resurface in everyday life.