Step Four: Make your match.
After you’ve gotten the names and numbers of a few potential therapists, call each one and ask if they have experience working with clients who’ve gone through issues similar to yours. Don’t hesitate to ask about their background and their general therapeutic approach, and be frank about any concerns you have about payment policies.
Choosing a therapist is serious business. This is a person with whom you’ll likely share intimate details about your life, and in whose care you might invest considerable time, money, and energy. Your therapist works for you, so it’s important that you find someone who serves your needs. Here are the questions I always ask a potential therapist:
- How long have you been working as a therapist?
- What is your area of specialization? What issues do you have the most experience working with?
- What kind of approach do you use in treatment?
- Have you been to therapy yourself? (This is huge for me—I won’t go to a therapist who hasn’t dealt with their own stuff.)
- Do you have experience working with people from my community/culture/background/religion/age?
- How do you feel about alternative approaches like art therapy, music therapy, acupuncture, yoga, etc.?
- Where are you located, and what hours do you work? Are you available for emergencies?
- How much does each session cost? Do you work with insurance or provide sliding-scale options? Do I have to pay out of pocket, or do you deal directly with my insurance company?
- What are your cancellation and vacation polices?
Now, that’s just my list; yours will probably be different. If you’re under 18, definitely add these two questions:
- What are your legal obligations regarding parental involvement and consent?
- What are your confidentiality guidelines for minors?
Anything is fine to ask. Your first session with a therapist should be like a job interview—where you’re interviewing them to see if they’ll get the job as your therapist. They expect this, so don’t feel weird. Some therapists don’t even charge for this first getting-to-know-you session.
After I ask prospective therapists the questions I mentioned, I usually have a good idea about whether we should move forward together. Personally, I need to actually like my therapist in order to trust them. I gravitate toward therapists who are both compassionate and honest. I prefer a relatively informal communication style, and I appreciate a therapist with a quick mind and a sense of humor. But everyone’s preferences are different. Go with your gut. If you have a weird feeling about a therapist, their communication style, or their vibe, keep looking for someone you feel comfortable with.
Once I find someone I think I’ll like, I give myself a three to four sessions to figure out if the pairing will work long term. Honestly, I approach my therapist relationship in the some of the same ways I do dating—without the romance. I expect the following things from a therapist:
- They need to meet me on my own terms and not have an agenda beyond helping me feel better. I once had a therapist ask me inappropriate and judgmental questions about my feelings about abortion when I mentioned that I took Plan B. She also asked a lot of weird, loaded questions when I told her I was in an interracial relationship. I ended up leaving her because I couldn’t trust her advice or that she was interested in truly helping me. (This is the only therapist I have ever “fired” after more than a few sessions—the rest I had to leave because one of us moved, or my insurance provider or their insurance policy changed.)
- My therapist needs to be an equal partner in our relationship. I refuse to work with anyone who abuses power dynamics and race/class/age privilege. I had one session with an older white man who treated every problem I told him about (like my resentful feelings about emotionally abusive ex-boyfriends) as a symptom of my race, gender, and age. He never actually listened to my feelings about what was going on with me. Needless to say, that was our only session.
- My therapist must respect my boundaries, my investment, and my time. My boyfriend had a therapist who forgot he had a session with him, and then never called back to reschedule. He left my sweetie high and dry during his time of need, not to mention wasted his time when he could have been doing other things. Your therapist should respect your time just as much as you must honor theirs by paying a penalty for missing appointments or for last-minute cancellations.
Don’t let some of my less-than-stellar experiences scare you; I told you about them to help you avoid similar situations. Most therapists you will encounter will be competent, talented, compassionate, and supportive. But also, it’s important for you to know that it’s completely fine to make a switch when you feel that you’ve outgrown the relationship or if the partnership isn’t working for you for any reason.
I’m so happy that I was able, that one day in college, to turn off my dad’s voice in my head and make that phone call. Starting with my first session at the campus counseling center, therapy has improved every aspect of my life. I shudder to imagine where I’d be today without it.
My father still doesn’t understand why I need therapy. I don’t think he ever will. But he loves me, so he supports whatever I need to do to feel healthy and strong. And that’s enough for me, because one thing I’ve learned in my 10 years of therapy is to embrace my fears and to embrace my humanity, my vulnerability, and my flaws—which has helped me love all those things in others, including Dad.
Therapy taught me how to really deal with all the stuff I was raised to deny and suppress—until it came roaring to the surface and knocked me down completely. Don’t let that happen to you! It starts with one phone call. ♦