As if making the decision to open up to a stranger isn’t hard enough, the next step - choosing a therapist - often feels like yet another hoop to jump through. New terms, and an endless selection of different approaches to choose from can make therapy feel like an alien world when you’re first starting out.
So where to start?
The good news is, there’s really no need to worry yourself about all the technicalities. Simply spending a bit of time getting clear on what you want to get out of therapy, and getting to know some of the basic differences between the main types of therapy, is all it takes to put yourself in a good position of choosing a therapist that feels like the right fit for you.
And when that happens, the rewards are tenfold. Science shows that when the relationship’s right, therapy can literally rewire the brain to create stronger, healthier neural network connections. And that’s when we start to see real, positive changes take place.
Below, we’ve compiled a list of easy steps to guide you in your quest:
Trawling through endless lists of therapist profiles only adds to the confusion. To make things easier, first try narrowing down your options a little. This helps sift out any therapists who don't match what you're looking for and points you towards the ones that do. In just one minute, you'll be left with a list of up to ten therapists nearby who match your own needs.
Make yourself a cuppa and set aside a bit of time to read through each of your therapist profiles. This will help give you a feel around what they offer – both from a professional standpoint, but also on a personal level too. Some people find that choosing a therapist with similar life experiences really helps. Of course, you should never go on appearances alone, but some people find they get a good feel from a warm, friendly smile. Opening up is never easy, so as much as possible you want to be looking for a therapist who instinctively inspires that feeling of comfort in you.
Firstly, be kind to yourself by not taking this step too literally. Most of us seeking out therapy do so in order to find some clarity, not because we're already figured everything out (has anyone?). No one’s expecting you to start out with a perfect plan. And it’s completely fine to turn up to therapy not knowing what you’re looking for. But that in itself might serve as an indicator. For example, your intention might be as simple as, “I want to get clearer about what I want in life”.
To give you an idea, here are a few helpful questions to ask yourself whilst on your quest:
Do you want to quickly solve symptoms? e.g. you’ve been feeling anxious at work and you want to learn quick, workable tools to put into action when anxiety takes hold.
Do you feel that something you experienced in your past might be impacting your present, and you’d like to explore it further?
Do you feel like you’ve lost your path (whether that be career, relationships, home life etc.) and you’d like to get clearer on what you really want in life?
Do you keep repeating certain behaviours or patterns that you feel are holding you back?
Do you simply want the space and time to be fully heard, and work toward your own self-development?
Maybe you even resonate with a whole mix of the above... Either way, don’t worry too much about nailing it down. People go to therapy for a whole bunch of different reasons. In fact, that’s one of the reasons there are so many different types of therapy, each focused around approaching issues in a different way. Whatever your reasons are, spending a bit of time getting clearer on what it is you’re looking to get out of your time in therapy will set you up perfectly for the next important step.
It’s very easy to get pulled into all the ins and outs of different styles of therapy. We’ve used the word vague purposefully here, because really that’s all you need. Firstly, too much information is unnecessary (let’s leave that to the therapists!), and secondly, it generally only confuses things further.
Once you’ve got clear on what you’re looking for in therapy, have a quick browse through the different types of therapy and what they mean. If time’s of essence, we’ve compiled a quick outline below of the four main branches of therapy:
Psychoanalytic and psychodynamic therapies
In-depth and longer-term (months - years), looking at your past.
Hold that buried childhood memories and emotions shape our present, and seek to unravel them, bringing them into awareness.
Cognitive and behavioural therapies
Goal-driven and short-term (5 - 20 sessions), only looking at present symptoms.
Focus on overhauling the way you think and behave to help you navigate life with a healthier outlook.
Focus on self-exploration to uncover your own truths, short or long-term.
Centred on the belief that difficult experiences can send us ‘off-track’ but we all have the capacity to find our way back to our unique path in life.
Non-verbal approaches (art, music, drama).
Encourage creativity as a mean of working with difficult emotions and experiences.
You’ll also find that many therapists work integratively. This means that they’ll blend together different approaches, adjusting the way they work according to the individual. For example, this might mean you see a psychodynamic therapist (who’ll encourage you to explore your past), who also combines CBT techniques (providing you with tools to manage your present symptoms).
Once you’re clear on what you’re looking to get out of therapy, you can use the info above to steer you towards which style most resonates with what you're looking for.
But remember not to get too carried away. Because...
The truth is, the science says that neither your therapist’s experience or the type of approach they use is the be-all and end-all when it comes to the success of treatment. In fact, the research shows the most important determining factor in the success of therapy is actually the relationship you build with your therapist.
What does it mean to have a good relationship with your therapist?
Unfortunately, there’s no hard and fast rule when it comes to defining a connection. Sometimes it’s there, other times it's not. Most of the time, it’s something you’ll instinctively feel. So as much as you can, try to listen to your gut instinct.
The importance of this relationship is the reason most therapists offer a free phone consultation at the beginning of treatment. It serves as a chance for both of you to get to know each other better. A quick chat over the phone provides the perfect opportunity to discuss your needs, what you’re hoping to get out of therapy, and for you to see whether you feel that natural ‘click’. Try speaking to at least 2 - 3 therapists initially so you have a good point of comparison to work with when weighing things up.
In terms of the relationship itself, we like to refer to it as “The Three C’s”: Clarity, Communication and Comfort.
Your relationship with your therapist needs to be based on trust. It's important you feel comfortable sharing time and space with them each week. And that also means feeling comfortable enough to tackle the painful stuff too. When you find that level of comfort, this will naturally extend to the way you communicate with each other. Some things will be easier to talk about than others... It’s your therapist’s job to gently push you to explore new territories, whilst also maintaining that feeling of safety. This happens through a strong sense of communication and a feeling that you’re able express your own needs and boundaries during your time together.
You might find that the course of therapy changes and you end up moving down a different path to the one you initially set out on. Feeling like you can be completely clear and open with your therapist ensures that you feel happy to navigate these changes and voice whatever comes up along the way.
Finding the right therapist is a bit like dating. Don’t worry if you don’t get it right the first time round. Just gradually feel your way round each step again - and you’ll just know when you’ve found them.
Sometimes it's necessary to play the field a bit to find your perfect match.