4 Things to Ask a Therapist

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Finding the right therapist for our distinct personalities and unique circumstances can be tricky. There are those therapy “horror stories” of therapists answering phone calls in the middle of a session simply to chat with the person on the other end and counselors falling asleep in the middle of their patients sharing an emotional story. These instances might sound a bit extreme and to be sure, they are. The majority of people going to therapy won’t have a dramatic experience like these, but maybe something much more subtle. Many people will simply have a vague, undefined, general feeling that “therapy just didn’t work for them”, or that “talking didn’t fix them.” They won’t have concrete examples, or tangible stories to point to in order to realize whether their therapy was successful or not.

When thinking about therapy and finding the best therapist for you, personality matters. If you don’t like your therapist as a person, or you get a feeling they don’t quite “get you,” I’d be surprised if you end up having a successful therapy experience. So much of the work depends on the relationship between the therapist and patient. If there is a conflict of personality then the work can be difficult for both patient and therapist.

This makes me think of a first session I had with a therapist; I felt so frustrated during the entire session. It was like a horrible first date when you know in the first 5 minutes there’s not going to be a second date. You just endure it. At the end of the session when it was time to schedule for the next week, I simply said, “I don’t think this is going to work.” She seemed surprise by my response and asked me why. I explained that I didn’t think she liked me much and that I wasn’t sure that I liked her either—our personalities were like oil and water.

What she said surprised me even more, “you’re right.”

There was of course a moment of sting, but I was grateful she knew herself well enough and what needed to be in place for a good therapist-client relationship to occur that she let me go.

There are many really great therapists that will be a good fit for you; you just need to do the work of finding them. But have you ever looked for a therapist on Psychology Today’s website, or through your insurance company’s database? It can feel like trying to find the proverbial needle in a haystack. It’s difficult to know who will be best at working with your particular experience, pain and issues. Part of that is simply because of the format of the search engines. They don’t allow space for details or a description of skills, trainings, or specialties. Many therapists are afraid of getting stuck in too much of a niche, so they promote themselves with an all things to all people kind of mentality. Some therapists go the other way. They don’t want to turn away work and, afraid that if they don’t mark on their profile that they work with depression a person might pass them up, they list everything under the sun. Throughout my life I’ve mostly had incredible experiences in therapy, but even I, as a trained therapist, feel overwhelmed by the experience of looking for a counselor.

I have very special places in my heart for those therapists who have walked with me through particularly difficult times in my life. I will never forget having a therapist while in graduate school who only charged me $35 a session because that was all I could afford as a student. I still think about our time together and remember many of the key elements that were so impactful to me. Yet even while this is true, I think if I had had a therapist that truly understood the particularities that are involved for someone who is Christian but who is struggling to figure out their sexual orientation, I could have shaved years off of the therapy I needed and pain I went through. I’m not saying it wasn’t good therapy, or even that I didn’t heal and change from time spent with this therapist, or other therapists who have journeyed with me along the way. What I am saying, understanding what I understand now, in the journey of being an LGBTQ Christian, is that it would have been a huge deal if my therapists had had a keen understanding of the specific process for an LGBTQ Christian. I’m not saying they themselves needed to be queer, just that I’m not sure those that walked with me really understood the depth my faith played into my pain and self rejection. Because of this, with new patients I too try and make sure I’d be the best fit for them and if not, refer them on.

One of the things I will ask a new client is if they have any questions for me. The majority of them are thrown off by this question. Hey you’re the therapist, aren’t you supposed to be the one who asks the questions? They assume they aren’t the expert on themselves, but I believe they very much are. It’s okay when they don’t know what to ask, but I’m going to let you in on some important topics to cover in that first conversation you have with a potential therapist.

First off, call more than one. I know it’s nerve racking to pick up the phone and actually make that call, but talking to at a few counselors will give you a feel for what a good fit might feel like instead of simply a good therapist. When you make these calls here are 4 questions to ask the therapist.

“Have you worked with patients with similar issues to mine before?”

It’s not that a therapist needs to be an expert on all things in order to help people, but it can be super beneficial to the process if the therapist has worked with others before you who have experienced similar pain, confusion, life stories etc.

“What kinds of journeys have you seen others go on who have had similar issues to the ones I am describing?”

Does the therapist have a grasp of the issues specific to you?  Does the therapist seem to understand simple language you use, or concepts you talk about?  Let the therapist talk you through what they’ve seen in working with others.

“Do you have hope for me?”

I love this question so much because, as therapists, we need to have so much hope for our patients. It can be incredibly powerful if a therapist can offer you a specific hope for where you are.

“What are your thoughts on termination; ending therapy? What will you say if I want to end therapy before you think I should?”

It is so important to remember that this therapy is for you! If at any point you don’t think its helpful, feel like you don’t need it anymore, or feel that you’ve reached a state of health that was your goal, then trust yourself and end your sessions.  I’ve heard of therapists who try and convince their patients that ending “early” will harm them. This is not true and you need to end when you feel ready.  Find a therapist who lets you be the expert on when you end therapy.

Calling a therapist and asking questions is anxiety provoking. I’m a therapist and have been in therapy myself and even I feel the nerves during that first phone conversation! I’ve experienced the question of wondering if this therapist is going to be a good fit for me for me and only having a vague feeling of “Well… maybe?”

While the above questions are important to explore, there’s something even deeper to tap into than the answers the therapist gives. It’s also something you can be aware of and connected to if you don’t feel comfortable asking specific questions.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou

Maya does it again, she took all the years of her life lessons, relationships with people from all over the world, her wisdom and heart and boiled it all down to one sentence that is as profound as it is simple. At the end of the day, people can say all kinds of eloquent things, spout off statistics, or name impressive people they’ve known, but what is most important is how that person made you feel when you were with them. Did the spirit of who they were, how they interacted with you, what they asked you feel connected to you? Did you feel them “with you” in the conversation, or were they distracted? Could you feel their good intention towards you and did you get the feeling they really got you? How did it feel to be with them; did you feel like you could be yourself?

In all of these questions, the best judge of whether they will be a good fit for you is to trust your gut! If they answered all your questions in super impressive ways, but you felt belittled, or confused at the end of the conversation, then trust your gut! There’s a good reason you had those feelings. Move on and call someone else; don’t waste your time, heart or money. If you weren’t sure if they answered your questions as good as you had hoped, but you truly felt seen and could feel their heart for you, then trust your gut. Sounds like a good place to start.

Therapy has been one of the single most life changing things I’ve ever done. There is so much potential for beauty and healing and is so worth risking the nerves of calling someone in order to get the life you’ve always dreamed of and becoming the person you know yourself to be deep down inside. There is so much hope for you! This image below feels to me what therapy should be. There are times in our life when we need someone to help build us a safe nest to rest and heal, except sometimes its too scary and painful to be in there alone. As a therapist, I count it a privilege to join you in that space and know and believe there will come a time, not too far off, where you will be ready to leave that safety nest. On that day, I will celebrate with you as you leave towards beauty and freedom.

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