The right therapist really matters, so I’ll cover several specific factors to keep in mind when evaluating a therapist. But before that, I want to make two very important general points about finding the right therapist.
You Need To Like The Therapist And The Therapy
First, the biggest factor when it comes to successful therapy is whether you like what’s going on. Do you like what’s going on in the therapy session? I say “what’s going on”, because you have to like both the therapist as a person, and the therapy itself, the style and the therapist’s expertise.
Each of you is a unique human being dealing with a unique situation, so we can’t make universal recommendations. What we can say is, if you don’t like the therapist or the therapy itself, if you feel that in your gut - it doesn’t matter how many articles you read saying “this is the right kind of therapy for you”. Or how many 5-star reviews the therapist has on Yelp. Or that they got a PhD from Stanford. The therapist won’t work for you.
On the other hand, they could be a brand new therapist, and you might not even be able to put your finger on why you like what’s going on. But if you like what’s going on, it’ll work for you.
We’re going to talk about some factors that make a lot of people like or dislike their therapist or the therapy. But there is an infinite number of factors that can go into your preference. You could like a therapist because of their great sense of humor. Or maybe you can’t even articulate what exactly it is you like about what’s going on. So we can’t even list out all the factors to consider. You may really care about something we haven’t thought of. Also, you won’t have preferences when it comes to most of these factors. Most people care about a couple of things.
If You Aren’t Sure, Try It Out
You may also not know what you like, which brings me to my second very important point.
If you aren’t sure about a therapist or a type of therapy, try it out and evaluate quickly. Just like in a relationship, the best way to see if a therapist is right for you it to try seeing them. You’ll quickly learn - within 4 sessions, and usually within 1 - whether you like what’s going on.
Now, let’s talk about factors that usually make people like or dislike a therapist.
Types Of Therapy
First, at the highest level, there are two types of therapy.
There’s Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT. The goal of CBT is to help you replace negative thought and behavior patterns with positive ones. It’s not focused on your past or who you are.
CBT is very structured. The therapist has an agenda each session. You’ll learn skills to better handle specific situations. For example, when you have a negative thought, how to respond to healthily. Or how to communicate better in relationships. You’ll learn these skills through exercises, such as journaling, worksheets, and role-playing. You’ll also have homework - you’ll be expected to do these exercises between therapy sessions. This form of therapy can be as short as 6-10 sessions.
The other type of therapy is psychodynamic therapy. Psychodynamic therapy addresses your challenges by helping you more deeply understand yourself and the root causes of your challenges.
You focus on becoming aware of and articulating your emotions. You will explore your past experience and how that’s made you who you are. There’s also a lot of focus on understanding the nature of your relationships. These include your relationships with yourself, your family, partner, and colleagues, and the therapist themselves.
Psychodynamic therapy is directed by you, the client. It’s a lot more fluid than CBT - you can change topics every session. The idea is everything - every interaction, thought, or emotion - contains some information about you. So if you come in and some very tiny comment someone made a few days ago is on your mind, your therapist will explore what that says about you. Because it’s open-ended, it can go on for many months.
Choosing Between The Two
Neither style of therapy is better, and a lot of therapists incorporate both styles. But, most people prefer one. If you want structure or skills, you might want to try CBT. On the other hand, reasons people don’t like CBT are because it’s inflexible, or because there are too many exercises.
If you want to understand why you are the way you are, you might want to try psychodynamic therapy. On the other hand, reasons people don’t like psychodynamic therapy are because it takes time, or it’s uncomfortable to face your issues.
Note that even if you have a mild preference for one style, the other style may be more effective for the issues you’re dealing with. You might also discover you like a style you thought you wouldn’t like, or vice-versa. You should discuss style with therapists you’re considering to make the best decision, but it’s important to be aware of the styles.
The Therapist Themselves
Aside from the style of therapy, you have to like the therapist themselves. Again, there are an infinite number of factors that can make you like or dislike your therapist, and you should go with your gut. But, empathy is really important, and someone who has had similar experiences to you may be able to better understand where you’re coming from.
I’ll use myself as an example. I’m ethnically Indian. I was raised Hindu. I’m a minority in this country. And I’m an immigrant - I spent my teens in India. As a result, I have a very different set of experiences, beliefs, and perspectives than say someone who’s white and was born and raised here.
A lot of Indian parents expect their children to become doctors or engineers. I can’t talk to my parents about sex or drugs. My dad watches cricket and Indian news at home. I’ve been vegetarian for 15 years. I lived in an extremely dense city with 6 million people and so I don’t like suburbs. Very rarely, I’ve experienced racism.
As a result, a therapist who’s white and was born and raised here, wouldn’t be able to appreciate a lot of my perspective.
I’m also a male, 25, and working at a technology startup.
So, you may want to find a therapist who can understand where you’re coming from because of their own similar experiences. Gender, age, ethnicity, sexual identity, and religion are specific factors that result in people often connecting or not connecting with a therapist.
Finally, in a lot of cases, a therapist that specializes in working with your issues matters. Almost all therapists can help with depression, anxiety, relationship issues, work stress, and life transitions. Most therapists can help with trauma and PTSD, and issues related to the gender of the therapist.
But if you’re dealing with almost anything else - for example eating disorders, addiction, ADHD, sleep, phobias, parenting, becoming a mother, being adopted, kids and teens, if you want couples therapy - try to find a specialist.
We’ll talk about how when we get to searching for therapists.
- The biggest factor when it comes to successful therapy is whether you like the therapist and the therapy.
- If you don’t have a preference for a type of therapy or therapist, try it out.
- CBT is structured, therapist-directed style of therapy focused on replacing negative thought and behavior patterns with positive ones. You learn skills and do exercises.
- Psychodynamic therapy is a style of therapy focused on self-exploration to understand the root causes of your issues. You talk about your emotions, your past, and your relationships.
- Gender, age, ethnicity, sexual identity, and religion are specific factors that result in people often connecting or not connecting with a therapist.
- If you’re not dealing with depression, anxiety, relationship issues, work stress, or life transitions, look for a specialist.