By: Dr. Anoosha Avni
The first time I went to see a therapist was pretty awful. The therapist began the session with a relaxation exercise (for her benefit, not mine. She didn’t even know why I was there to see her so she had no idea whether or not I needed to learn relaxation techniques). Her phone rang shortly afterwards…and she answered it. Then she took out an apple and started chomping away while I began telling her what prompted me to seek help.
I wasn’t impressed with her, so I didn’t go back after our first (and only) session. I’m grateful I had this experience because it showed me what bad therapy looks and feels like. Something didn’t feel right when she started the session with a relaxation exercise without knowing why I was there to see her. Answering the phone and eating that apple while I was talking just made things worse.
It’s really important to find the right therapist to work with. Research has shown that the most important ingredient for successful therapy is the relationship with your therapist. Techniques are secondary, contrary to what many believe. Since you’ll be sharing the intimate details of your life with a therapist, you want to make sure you choose one who is right for you.
Here are five tips to help you choose a therapist:
Asking family, friends, your family physician, dentist, etc., is a great place to start. If you know people in therapy, ask them if they like their therapist. If they do, find out what it is they like about their therapist and give them a call. Even if you don’t end up seeing that particular therapist, s/he can provide you with a list of referrals, if you ask.
You can call institutes (e.g., Dialectical Behaviour Therapy Centre of Vancouver) to find which therapists are in your area. You can also call professional associations, such as the British Columbia Psychological Association, and ask for a list of referrals.
With all of that being said, don’t choose a therapist who is convenient. You want someone who is good. Good and convenient often don’t go hand in hand. You could have a mediocre therapist who is five minutes from your home, but you could have an amazing therapist an hour away. Why would you settle for someone mediocre?
A lot of people begin their search for a therapist online. Some people use therapist locator services such as counsellingbc.com or psychologytoday.com while others type what they’re looking for in a search engine (e.g., anxiety counselling Kamloops). You’ll probably find at least a few therapists’ names this way. Read their bios and put together a list of the ones you think you might connect with.
People usually have an idea of the gender of the therapist they’d like to work with. Some people are adamant about their preferences for a certain gender while others don’t really care much, as long as the therapist is professional and competent. There’s no right or wrong when it comes to choosing a particular gender. However, I think it’s a good idea to pay attention to which gender you absolutely wouldn’t want to work with. Make a note of that and let your therapist know. It’s valuable clinical information.
4)Call potential therapists.
Once you’ve created your list, call each therapist before you meet with them in person. When you talk to a therapist, you should ask them the following questions. You don’t just want to hear their answers; you want to get a feel for how comfortable you are talking to them:
- Are they licensed? If they say yes, you should still contact their regulatory body just to make sure. Don’t be afraid to ask for their registration number. A therapist with something to hide would refuse to provide this information. It also doesn’t hurt to check with their regulatory body whether they have any infractions against their license.
- Where did they go to school? With this question, you want to make sure they graduated from an accredited program and not an online coaching certificate program.
- What is their specialty? Be wary of generalists. Don’t see someone who specializes in EVERYTHING. Would you go to your family physician if you needed knee surgery or would you go see an orthopedic surgeon?
- What is their training? If they say they’re trained in Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy, find out where (and for how long) they received their training. Was it a one day seminar, a two hour online course, or a six month practicum in graduate school? RUN if they claim they’re an expert in something after a one day seminar or two hour online course.
- Do they have experience working with people with your issues? This is not the same as asking how long they’ve worked in the field. You want someone who has experience working with the issues you’re dealing with.
- If you choose to set up an appointment with a therapist, ask about their fees and methods of payment. If their fee is too high, ask if they have a sliding scale and whether they can lower your fee. If they say no, ask them if they can refer you to someone who works like they do, but charges less. With that being said, cheaper is not always better.
- If you’ve called and left a message and the therapist doesn’t respond within two business days, it’s best to call the next person on your list.
Having said all that, don’t email potential therapists. You won’t get a sense of who they are over email. It’s always best to call them. If you find the therapist arrogant, impatient, or evasive, move on. Obviously, nobody will spend an hour talking to you on the phone, but if they won’t answer some of the above questions over the phone or they insist on a paid consultation, end the call.
Pay attention to how you feel during and after the phone conversation with the therapist. It’s normal to feel nervous during the first call to a therapist (it took me months to call that first therapist!). And it’s pretty normal not to have an immediate “Yes! That’s the one!” feeling, too (although this can certainly happen).
When you go for your first session, pay attention to everything. Is the waiting room neat and tidy? Is the therapist professional? Notice how you feel while you’re talking to the therapist. Do you feel heard when you speak? Does the therapist look bored or irritated when you talk? The relationship with your therapist is essential to the process, so you want to find someone with whom you feel comfortable and safe. Remember that in therapy, you intentionally make yourself vulnerable to another human being, which can be pretty scary.
You may not decide at the first session if the therapist is right for you; sometimes, it can take a few sessions. If you decide the therapist isn’t right for you, let them know what you’re looking for. The therapist may have some referrals that would work better for you. Don’t be afraid of telling the therapist that you don’t want to continue with the sessions. A secure therapist would not take this personally. If they do, you know you’ve made the right choice to stop seeing them.
Of course, the desire not to go back may stem from anxiety about being in therapy. Talk to your therapist about this, too.
If your therapist is behaving unethically or unprofessionally (eating and answering the phone during a session come to mind for me), don’t go back. The search for the right therapist may take some time, but it’s well worth the effort when you find the right one.
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