How to find a therapist

and how to recognize when you haven’t found one

Why is it that when my therapist looks at me with soft eyes, full of appreciation, I feel like no one has ever looked at me like this before?

I couldn’t pay someone to look at me like that. That look is genuine. She loves what she does. She has the capacity to love.

Money is exchanged on the surface of this relationship. She is earning a living. I am paying for a service.

If your therapist does not look at you like this, I think you should leave and find another one. I spent five years with a therapist who was much cheaper. She worked for a non-profit, community-serving organization. Very noble. But she did nothing but encourage more suicide attempts. Somehow, it was always about her, not me. She wanted me to think she was a good therapist. She tried to get my approval. She only approved of me when I was being sweet. It was so twisted, my gut was always twisted when I left her office, but I didn’t know any better. I thought therapy was like chemo — you were bound to feel bad.

No. You should feel good. Every single time. No therapist can take away your pain, but the feeling of being heard and understood is the beginning. I couldn’t believe it when I started up with a new, court-appointed therapist, and she made me feel wonderful. What? How can that be helpful? I doubted it at first. I thought there must be something wrong. How could this be “therapy?” It was love, it was kindness, it was understanding, it was helpfulness, it was non-judgmental, she never labeled me or pointed out what I was doing wrong. I thought maybe she was whacko.

I was so used to being judged. I was used to having my motives questioned. I was used to being criticized in the name of love. I was used to relationships always being about the other person. I was used to being too much for people to handle the minute I tried to get real. I was used to having to be nice to people so they would love me. I was used to them liking the nice me, and the real me was invisible, unknown, bereft, suicidal.

How did I get so lucky? She makes me want to be a therapist. I am too old to start now I think. But I am not too old to write about this. I am not too old to look at other people the way she looks at me. I am not too old to learn that I deserve love, no matter how I have behaved in the past. I am not too old to tell you that you do too. I am not too old to need love, or to learn to trust it and accept it.

I am not too old to tell you that love is not a two way street. It can come down a one way street. In fact, that is the best way for it to come. If we’d all had awesome parents, we would know this. People who’ve had good mothers probably do not need therapy, I don’t know. But then again, there’s death, there are wars, there’s politics — maybe everyone could use some therapy, some one way love. My mother may be reading this. I can tell her things honestly. She was young when I was born. She’d been deprived of love herself. What did she have to give me but her own confusion and pain, her own neediness? It wasn’t her fault.

But I could only forgive my mother after I found what I needed. I’ve felt so guilty for feeling so bad all my life. I had everything other people seemed to want. My life looked privileged on the outside. But there’s no replacement for love. Love is what you need. If you have to pay for it, don’t be ashamed. You can’t really pay for it anyway. The money is incidental. Real love is always freely given, and can’t be faked or bought.

If you can’t afford therapy, start with a Bob. Make up an imaginary therapist. Talk to him or her. Imagine it: someone who gets you, knows you completely, someone you don’t have to lie to, someone who only wants your good, doesn’t need anything in return. Someone who meets you exactly where you are and does not judge you. The world will always reflect your inner dialogue. If you begin the process within, an outer therapist will show up. Not every therapist works as a therapist. Probably most don’t. Many of the truly effective therapists in this world are dogs. Neighbors, co-workers, lovers, anyone can serve in that capacity. You know when you find one, because they make you feel good. Even if you are sad or angry, you feel appreciated, loved, understood, relieved.

A true therapist does not take on your burdens, does not get weighed down by you and all your problems, does not try to fix you. A true therapist allows you to unpack more and more of your pain because they don’t fall apart in the face of it. They hold their own position. They have learned to stand their ground while listening as deeply as possible. A true therapist does this:

To sense the client’s fear, his confusion, his anger, or his rage as if it were a feeling you might have (but which you are not currently having) is the essence of the perceptive aspect of accurate empathy. To communicate this perception in a language attuned to the client, which allows him more clearly to sense and formulate his fear, confusion, rage, or anger, is the essence of the communicative aspect of accurate empathy. An accurate empathic grasp of the client’s conflicts and problems perhaps contrasts most sharply with the more usual diagnostic formulation of the client’s experiences. The diagnostic understanding, which is so different but so common, involves the implication “I understand what is wrong with you.”

~ Carl Rogers

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