Good Vibes (& Other Things to Look for in a Therapist)
By: Lexi Roa, APCC
One of the most challenging yet most important parts of starting therapy is finding the right therapist for you. Working with someone we connect with and trust is ultimately going to give us the best chance to learn and grow, but thinking about having to try over and over again to find the right match can sound scary and exhausting. It can be difficult to know what to look for (and what to look out for) in a therapist, yet once we find a good fit, it’s SO worth it.
Let’s start by defining some basic expectations for what a therapist should and should not be.
A therapist is:
Licensed or registered to practice in your state. This means they’ve completed necessary requirements to practice in accordance with your state’s legal and ethical standards.
An unbiased perspective. Although friends and family members usually have great intentions, they tend to have a bias about what we do with our lives, and so their advice isn’t always what we’re looking for. Unless you live in a very small town where everyone already knows everyone, your therapist won’t know anything about you before your screening and/or first session with them. They have no stake in your life including choices you’ve made in the past or decisions you make moving forward, which means they can act as a guide to support you in determining what is really best for you - without letting their personal biases interfere (more on this later).
Able to share about their unique style and approach to therapy. Therapist education includes learning about all sorts of different theories and treatment modalities. Through a combination of their education, experiences, personality, and personal values, your therapist will have their own approach to therapy, and they’ll be able to tell you about it. You might be looking for someone who can give step-by-step skills and homework to help hold you accountable to progress, someone who will call you out and offer “tough love,” or someone who offers an unstructured space to go wherever you happen to be week to week. Whatever it is, they should be able to give you a sense of what you can expect from working with them.
A human being: who makes mistakes, deserves to have their own work-life boundaries, or might have to pee in the middle of your session. They sometimes have trouble with wi-fi, hit traffic on the way to your session, take vacation and sick days, or forget the name of your cousin. Perfection doesn’t exist, so let’s all agree to try and have some grace for one another.
A therapist is NOT:
Your friend. This one sounds a little harsh, but this is actually a good thing! While your actual friends have a bias or may be impacted by your choices, your therapist won't be. They're trained to manage their own personal opinions, allowing them to offer you insight to help you take your next best step! This also means they likely have different boundaries than your friends do, like, you probably can’t call them at 2am.
Someone who tells you exactly what to do. If you have a difficult relationship with a parent and your therapist tells you to forgive them and it backfires, you’re probably going to have a hard time trusting them after that. Additionally, a good therapist won’t push you towards a decision that favors their own values over yours. I’m talking about things like religion, or politics. Your therapist should be creating a space for you to assess and prioritize your own values to support you in your own effective decision-making.
An expert in everything. Your therapist does not have all the answers to the universe (sorry!). Be patient if they don't have the answers to all of your questions or your problems, you might need to seek them out together. Their response may also be an indicator of their fit with you: some people might prefer a therapist who can fake it till they make it, while others might want to see that the therapist can admit when they don’t know.
Going to fix you or your problems. It’s going to be up to you to do this. “Fixing” or improving things in your life is something that only you can do. Your therapist acts as a guide and a resource offering tools and a space to process your experiences, but in between your sessions, you will have to be the one to implement what you’ve learned so you can make sustainable changes in your life.
The owner of the session or the space - you have power too. Remember, you are the expert on your needs, so you ultimately decide how to move forward. Don't be afraid to speak up if something isn't working for you!
Here are some signs that you've probably found a good fit:
Good vibes. Seriously. Trust your intuition, sometimes you just get a good feeling about the person you’re sharing space with.
You feel generally heard and understood in sessions.
You feel comfortable sharing your experiences. Remember, this can take time!
You feel challenged and supported to make changes at your own pace.
They demonstrate cultural competence and humility.
You feel that your identities are welcomed and embraced.
Regarding these last two points: each of us has so many facets and intersecting identities that make us so complex. And yet there is simplicity in just being able to understand that. Your therapist will not be an expert in what it’s like to live in your unique set of identities - only you will be! But they should be able to embrace these identities and in that way create a space where you feel supported to navigate the challenges and strengths that come with them, together.
Overall, a therapist is someone who can listen empathically and offer space to support you in processing experiences and emotions as you work towards your personal goals. Like anything else in therapy, finding the right fit is not one size fits all. Which often makes finding your therapist equal parts overwhelming and rewarding, once you finally connect. Ultimately, it’s about taking the time you need to ask questions, and check in with yourself to determine if you’ve found the right therapist for you!