How can I "shop" for a therapist and what are the essential qualities of a good therapeutic relationship?
These questions go hand in hand, although they are different in content. First, ask yourself: Do you feel more comfortable talking with a male or female therapist? Is it important to you if the therapist is heterosexual or openly gay or lesbian? Do you need individual therapy, couples, family, or group therapy? Are you looking for a structured therapy like cognitive behavioral therapy where you are expected to do homework addressing your problems or do you want a therapy that uses a more relational method?
You should be clear about all of these questions when shopping for a therapist. If, however, you are not clear about what you need, that’s OK too. Start the ball rolling by going to a therapist that has some of what you want. For example someone might choose to work with an openly lesbian therapist that specializes in substance abuse. Once in therapy, the therapist can further assess if the client needs additional help, such as, weekly AA meetings or harm reduction as the main treatment method in the therapy.
During the first session with a therapist, you will experience first hand how the therapist forms a good therapeutic relationship (or not) by how they interact with you. In that initial session, you can start by asking what the letters after their name signify, and what their training was in psychology. For example: an LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker that was trained in psychology, and psychotherapy techniques. An ATR is a registered art therapist that was trained in the psychology of imagery, psychotherapy, and the creative art process to help people express their emotions. If the therapist isn’t forth coming answering these questions or if the interactions feel too awkward or it just doesn’t feel like a good fit, then that therapist is probably not right for you. I often suggest clients initially come for three sessions to assess the fit. Usually, people know within the first or second session if it feels like a good fit. People are often anxious in the first session so it can be difficult to make an accurate assessment then.
The essential qualities for a good therapeutic relationship are a therapist’s compassionate warmth, professionalism, and transparency with how they are working with you. You want a therapist to be someone with whom you feel you can say whatever is on your mind without feeling judged or pathologized for expressing what you think and feel. A therapist is someone with whom you can feel heard, validated, and challenged by in a compassionately thoughtful way.
Jake H Jacobsen, ATR, LCSW works in Portland, Oregon specializing in working with the LGBTQ community, and people living with HIV/AIDS. Jake uses both online (Skype) therapy, and in-office therapy. For more information visit http://jakehjacobsen.wix.com/therapyinportland