How to Find a Good Therapist
The Search for Honesty, Kindness and Other Important Traits
When you begin the work of self-growth, you’ll be in a down position when it comes to recognizing helpful people. That’s why you need a therapist to begin with — to improve your ability to relate to yourself and others, and to grow your life skills. As the Minimalists like to say:
“You can’t change the people around you, but you can change the people around you.”
One of the most important people you can choose to bring around you is a therapist. A problem may arise, however, if (for example) you had to adapt to your childhood by “manipulating” your parents to get your needs met.
If your parents didn’t allow you to express your needs openly and honestly, but instead manipulated you to suppress yourself for their convenience, you’ll have a hard time recognizing habits of manipulation in others, including in a therapist.
In fact, you’ll actually be more likely to go toward such people because you’ve learned to be competent in dealing with them, and like everyone, you want to be competent. And you want to be competent in finding someone who will help you grow more competent.
How do you break out of this catch-22? You’ll be at least partially blind to the maladaptive traits you most need to see. You’ll be unconscious of them in yourself, you’ll be unconscious of them in friends, lovers, and people you choose to work with, and you’ll likely be blind to them in potential therapists.
This can be scary. Therapy and self-growth can throw our whole world into question. How do we learn to stop bringing the wrong types people around us? What if we have already surrounded ourselves with the “wrong” people?
What do you do when the person in question is a therapist with years of experience, a formal education, and authoritative letters behind his or her name? Can you trust yourself to decide which therapist to hire?
“Get back to your simple lived experience. … When you have that level of perspective, that level of sinking into the base evidence of your senses and what you’ve actually lived through in life, it’s … like you’re sailing through fog and that’s a very powerful thing.” — Stefan Molyneux
In my early experiences of therapy, I felt a lot anger, fear, and sadness during sessions and I was either terrible at expressing myself — because I so rarely had the opportunity — or I pretended I didn’t feel anything. Yet this habit of self-suppression was one of the things I most wanted to overcome.
Many of us have been forbidden to feel anger or express it as children, so this can be a major telling point with therapists. How do they handle anger? How will they handle it when you cry?
Are they curious about difficult feelings, do they discuss feelings in accepting ways, or do they reject, deny, ignore, and suppress — while denying their own avoidant behavior?
A therapist’s reaction to your genuinely difficult feelings will tell how much self-work have they done, how well they handle their own emotions, how aware of themselves they are, and how much self-knowledge they’ve achieved.
If you carry large amounts of grief, anger, and even rage at having to suppress yourself in order to earn “love” as a child, you need a therapist who knows better than you both how to express difficult feelings and how to be curious about them.
Most of all, you need a therapist who will sit calmly with discomfort — his and yours. You want one who will express himself and meet his own needs assertively. You want one who will interact with you in a kind, open, positive, and honest way, so you can learn those same skills.
The Therapist’s Job
The therapist you hire takes on the job of substitute parent, providing an example of treating you well. Your goal with therapy is to learn to treat yourself well, in the ways your parents either failed to or chose not to.
Regardless of the reasons your parents might give for their harmful actions, even while many therapists say otherwise, therapy is not the time to “forgive.” It’s your parents’ responsibility to earn your forgiveness. It’s up to them whether they try.
Your responsibility to yourself lies in handing their responsibility back to them so you no longer have to carry what doesn’t belong to you.
Therapy is the time to understand and accept the ways in which your parents harmed your ability to care for yourself, so you can grow in the areas where they stopped you from growing.
A good therapist approaches you from the position of experience as an adult who has grown beyond their own parents (whatever that means for them) and shows you how to re-parent yourself in three areas of need: emotional, mental, and physical.
No therapist is strong in all three areas. They may be strong in empathy, but weak in philosophy and clear mental thinking. They may ignore physical presentations of trauma and only approach you mentally.
They may spend your sessions pulling the authority card and giving advice. They may even lack curiosity about your feelings and actively disregard your needs.
At first, the worst therapists may be difficult to avoid, if they treat you poorly in ways you’re used to. This happens all too often! But it isn’t necessarily a bad thing because you are free to learn from the experience and—as opposed to when you were a child — fire the jerk, and keep looking.
How to Find Good People More Quickly
You may not choose well the first time. The good news is that you have philosophy to help you find the better therapists.
I went from therapist to therapist with little progress throughout my adult life. The experiences were often so disappointing that eventually I refused to see a therapist for a period of ten years, resolving that I could be kinder to myself than trained professionals could.
Since incorporating philosophy into my self-growth tools, I’ve worked with six different counselors, therapists and coaches and I’ve finally gained traction. With the last two, I’ve experienced 100% win-win interactions.
Philosophy helped me begin to learn what to look for, to have the courage to say “no” to people who didn’t meet my needs, and to eventually find confidence in saying “yes.”
Your goal is to find a therapist who, when you think of working with them, you think, “Hell yeah!” In the words of Derek Sivers:
“If it isn’t a hell yeah, it’s a no.”
As long as I kept discounting my own experiences and trusting everyone else over myself, I couldn’t achieve a “hell yeah” in just about any area of my life. I lived to please everyone but myself.
Only you can know when you’ve found your “hell yeah” therapist.
A Few Tips
Before you schedule your first session, ask for a free 30 minutes of the therapist’s time in a phone call. Hire them only when you observe the following — or your own version of this list:
- They say “yes” to an introductory phone call.
- They show genuine curiosity and ask you empathetic questions about what you’re looking for.
- They are open about their own life-long process toward self-growth. The best therapists will share rock-bottom moments from their own life.
- They answer with openness to questions about their childhood and their past and present relationships with their parents. It may be terrifying to ask such personal questions, but remember that you are paying them. You can ask anything! (You can preface it with, “I know this is really personal, and you don’t have to answer, but I’m wondering …” yada yada.) The worst they can do is become defensive or say they don’t want to answer. Their response may give you exactly the type of information you’re looking for. Their level of openness regarding their own childhood may be the most telling in how valuable they will be to your growth.
- How much assertiveness do they display in expressing their own needs in the therapeutic relationship? How do they handle any timing issues in the call? How do they bring up issues of scheduling and payment? Are they friendly and forthcoming about what they expect from you, if you hire them? Do they ask directly what you’d like from them?
- Finally, do they have an online presence? Google them. Look on the internet for evidence of their level of integrity. This final tip has perhaps helped me the most. Not every therapist will have, nor want, an online presence, but if they are confident about their abilities, in this day and age, I believe having some kind of online identity is a must. It shows they have more to offer than just their credentials.
The most recent therapist and coach with whom I’ve worked have been the ones I’ve had the most fulfilling relationships with. I hired them because they generously and publicly displayed their capacity for a positive relationship with themselves.
Finally, you want to hire a person who demonstrates success in both accepting and transcending their own worst moments of life. Their empathy level for themselves is a good indication of how well they will welcome you and invite the true you.
The person who has successfully gone where you want to go is the one who will go there with you.
What has worked for you in finding a good therapist? Have you struggled as much as I have? Leave a comment or write to firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know.