How to tell if a therapist is right for you: 7 questions you need to ask
Research suggests the relationship between a therapist and their client is perhaps as powerful as the treatment itself.
If you recently decided to try therapy, you are not alone. According to the American Psychological Association, there’s increased demand for mental health treatments, which studies show work to treat various conditions. Therapy is all about you, but it also involves another person — your therapist.
Research suggests the relationship between a therapist and their client is perhaps as powerful as the treatment itself. So it pays to know what to look for in a therapist, how to build an effective and beneficial relationship, and, critically, when you need to find someone different.
“Choose a therapist who seems warm, patient, and nonjudgemental,” says Joel Minden, a clinical psychologist and author of Show Your Anxiety Who’s Boss. “If you don’t believe you can be open with your therapist, it’ll be difficult for you to address in therapy the issues you struggle with most.”
What to look for in a therapist
There are several things to consider during your initial search for a therapist beyond insurance and scheduling.
If you want treatment for a specific issue, Minden recommends researching relevant evidence-based therapies and then trying to find a specialist with expertise in the treatment you want. For example, you can find therapists who specialize in treating anxiety through the therapist finder tool on the Anxiety and Depression Association of America website. It can also be helpful to ask your doctor for a referral or to ask people you know for recommendations.
“Once you’ve identified some therapists who seem like a good match, see if you can set up a phone call to interact with them,” Minden says. “Many therapists will offer free consultations to discuss your concern and treatment goals, their approach to treatment, and what it would look like if you started working together.”
It’s also fair to “visit with more than one therapist to see how comfortable the fit is,” Michael O’Loughlin, a psychologist, told me previously. “It is, in some cases, a matter of chemistry, and in some sense an evaluation of whether this therapist can be helpful.”
But even after all this consideration and research, you might also find yourself wondering if you found the right therapist after a couple of sessions. It can be tricky to figure out if therapy is “working,” so the National Alliance of Mental Health recommends asking yourself these questions about your therapist:
- Do they guide you to your goals?
- Do they show acceptance and compassion?
- Do they challenge you?
- Do they check in with you?
- Do they help you learn?
- Do they practice cultural competence (the ability to understand and communicate with people from different cultural backgrounds)?
- Do you treat you as an equal?
Research also suggests therapists who exhibit certain behaviors have greater client satisfaction. For example, studies suggest that when therapists share their feelings about their client or the therapy relationship, the client’s insights into their own mental health improves. And therapy outcomes are more likely to be positive when the therapist and client agree on the client’s goals.
Your personality might also influence what you’re looking for in a therapist. One study found that more submissive clients respond best to a therapist who is warm, while dominant clients are more satisfied with a therapist who is also dominant. Ultimately, these results suggest therapists should adapt how they act depending on who they are working with this. The more satisfied a client is, the less likely they are to end therapy prematurely.
Is your therapist the right match?
When considering whether or not your therapy is “working,” Minden says it’s critical to make sure you and your therapist are on the same page regarding treatment goals and what you’re doing to achieve them.
“Many people seek out therapy to reduce or control feelings,” he says. “If your therapist believes that the problem is not the presence of unwanted emotions but how you understand and respond to them, you may find yourself frustrated when challenging emotions persist.”
If you’re unclear whether your expectations align with your therapist’s, ask them to revisit your treatment plan, Minden says. This can help you know if you’re making progress.
“It’s also good to remember that change takes time, especially if you’re struggling to modify behavior you’ve maintained for years,” he explains. “After making sure that you and your therapist are in sync, plan on giving therapy at least a few months to decide whether you’re benefiting from it.”
But after those few months, you may realize that you’re not satisfied. If you feel this way, it’s important to tell your therapist what you think is missing and the changes you’d like to see, Minden says.
“Many people go to therapy to learn about how to navigate difficult personal relationships, so look at this as an opportunity to express yourself in an assertive way to get your needs met,” he says.
It’s possible that your therapist has a different perspective, and there’s a chance for you to decide together if there’s room for compromise. On the other hand, if it’s clear that you want a different approach and it’s time to look at other options, “inform your therapist that you just don’t think it’s a good fit and that you’d like to terminate treatment,” Minden says.
Therapy is like dating. Ultimately, you want a therapist who is willing to engage with your understanding of what may be helpful — but it’s also important to keep an open mind and consider how you might be helped in unanticipated ways.