As a licensed psychologist and practicing therapist, I am often asked questions about how to know if a therapist is right for you.
The therapist-client relationship is a deeply personal one, and finding a match with a therapist can feel a bit like dating! Just like in searching for a prospective partner, there may be “criteria” that you know are important to you, such as the sex of the therapist, whether they do virtual or in-person sessions, or their level of experience with concerns like those you are facing.
There will be some things that you might not be entirely sure about before meeting with a therapist, such as what specific model of therapy will be most helpful, what kind of degree or license your therapist should have, or how frequently you will want to meet. A good therapist will work with you to answer these questions.
However, as with any relationship, there are other more intangible dynamics, or what might be described as “chemistry” with your provider, that can have an impact on your experience in therapy. We call this kind of connection with your provider the “therapeutic alliance”, and it includes a sense of safety with and trust in the therapist you choose, as well as shared alignment around your personal goals for therapy and how you will reach them. We know that having this kind of connection with your therapist will play an important role in your ability to achieve your goals.
Some recent research (Hayes et al 2022) has given us more information on the “secret ingredients” that contribute to a successful therapeutic relationship. When these psychologists examined what seems most important in terms of the kinds of therapeutic relationships that help people make meaningful changes in their lives, they found that there were some common patterns. Basically, the “right” therapist will be someone who is able to help you learn to be more open, aware, and actively engaged in your life – and they often do this by modeling these skills for and with you in each and every session!
When you consider starting a therapeutic relationship with a new provider, I encourage you to pay attention to whether you are able to develop a sense of trust, safety, and collaboration with your therapist. However, I also suggest that you notice whether you are able to see them engaging with you in your sessions together in the same ways you’ll be practicing in your own life! A good therapist will demonstrate how to show up in the present moment and all it holds with open, accepting attention and curiosity. You will trust in their commitment to helping you achieve the goals that are in service of your values, and be able to observe the ways in which they can change or adjust their behavior to allow them to be effective, even when the present moment includes challenges and obstacles.
So, in the long run you will know that your therapist has been the right fit because they will have helped you achieve your therapy goals. However, even the very first consultation call offers an opportunity to pay attention to the kind of behaviors, attention, and presence the therapist offers. The “right” therapist will be the one who models the kinds of qualities that you wish to develop in your own therapy journey!