7 questions you need to ask

If you recently decided to try therapy, you are not alone. According to the American Psychological Association, there is an increased demand for mental health treatments that can be used in trials to treat various disorders. Therapy is all about you, but it also involves another person – your therapist.

Research suggests that the relationship between a therapist and their client is perhaps as strong 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 most importantly, when to find someone else

“Choose a therapist who comes across as warm, patient, and nonjudgmental,” says Joel Minden, a clinical psychologist and author of Show your fear who’s boss. “If you don’t believe that you can be open with your therapist, you will find it difficult to address the issues you struggle with most in therapy.”

What to look for in a therapist

Research suggests that the relationship between a therapist and their client is perhaps as powerful as the treatment itself.Getty Images

In addition to insurance and scheduling, there are several things to consider when initially looking for a therapist.

If you want treatment for a specific problem, 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 at 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 referrals.

“Once you’ve found some therapists who are a good match, try to set up a phone call to interact with them,” Minden says. “Many therapists offer free consultations to discuss your concerns and treatment goals, your treatment approach, and what it would be like if you worked together.”

It’s also fair to “visit more than one therapist to see how comfortable the fit is,” Michael O’Loughlin, a psychologist, previously told me. “It’s a matter of chemistry in some cases and sort of an assessment of whether that therapist can be helpful.”

But even after all that thinking and research, you might be wondering if you’ve found the right therapist after a few sessions. It can be difficult to figure out if therapy is “working,” so the National Alliance of Mental Health recommends asking yourself these questions about your therapist:

  • Do they lead you to your goals?
  • Do they show acceptance and compassion?
  • Do they challenge you?
  • Do they contact you?
  • Do they help you study?
  • Do they practice cultural competence (the ability to understand and communicate with people from different cultural backgrounds)?
  • Do you treat each other as equals?

Research also suggests that 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, clients’ insights into their own mental health improve. And therapy outcomes are more likely to be positive when therapist and client agree on the client’s goals.

Your personality can also influence what you look for in a therapist. One study found that more submissive clients respond best to a warm therapist, while dominant clients are happier with a therapist who is also dominant. Ultimately, these results suggest that therapists should adapt their approach depending on who they are working with. The happier a client is, the less likely it is that they will end therapy prematurely.

Is your therapist the right partner?

It’s important that you and your therapist are on the same page about treatment goals. Getty Images

When considering whether your therapy is “working” or not, Minden says, it’s important to make sure you and your therapist are on the same page about treatment goals and what you’re doing to achieve them.

“Many people seek therapy to reduce or control their feelings,” he says. “If your therapist believes that the problem isn’t the presence of unwanted emotions, but how you understand and respond to them, you may feel frustrated when challenging emotions persist.”

If you’re unsure whether your expectations are in line with your therapist’s, ask them to reconsider your treatment plan, Minden says. This is how you can see if you are making progress.

“It’s also good to remember that change takes time, especially when you’re struggling to change a behavior that you’ve maintained for years,” he explains. “Once you’ve made sure you and your therapist are in sync, schedule at least a few months into therapy to decide if you’re benefiting from it.”

But after those few months, you may find that you are not satisfied. If you’re feeling this way, it’s important to tell your therapist what you think is missing and what changes you’d like to see, Minden says.

“Many people go to therapy to learn how to deal with difficult personal relationships. So think of this as an opportunity to express yourself with confidence to meet your needs,” he says.

It’s possible that your therapist has a different perspective, and you have the opportunity to decide together if there’s room for compromise. On the other hand, if it’s clear you want a different approach and it’s time to consider other options, “inform your therapist that you just don’t think it’s right and that you want to stop treatment,” Minden says .

Therapy is like dating. Ultimately, you want a therapist who is willing to engage with your understanding of what might be helpful—but it’s also important to keep an open mind and consider ways you might be helped in unexpected ways.

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