Trying therapy for the first time can feel like jumping off a burning building and trusting there will be a net below to break your fall. It’s hard enough to open up to close friends about mental health struggles; so entrusting them to a total stranger can seem terrifying.
However, once you do take the leap, you might discover benefits that far outweigh the initial discomfort. By utilizing scientifically-verified techniques, professional therapists can help you achieve emotional stability, improve your self-esteem, and more.
Studies have even shown physical changes in the brain after psychotherapy that are similar to changes achieved through medication.
The pandemic notwithstanding, nearly one in five Americans live with mental illness. Despite this, research consistently shows that few people look for timely treatment — in fact, people with anxiety disorders wait an average of 9 to 23 years to get help.
Looking for professional support doesn’t mean that there’s anything “wrong” with you — it’s perfectly healthy to seek support. What’s important is knowing what to look for in a good therapist.
Licensed therapist Cecille Ahrens, owner and clinical director of San Diego-based Transcend Therapy, told Greatist that most therapists offer a free 15-minute consultation before getting started. This is a great opportunity to see if they’re a good fit for you.
There are two key things to look out for: the ability of the therapist to empathize with and build a strong connection with you, and the ability of the therapist to get results through a scientifically verified approach to therapy.
“You want to get a vibe like ‘I think this is a person that I feel understands my issues and is someone I can learn to be open with,’” Ahrens said. “That initial contact is really key. Trust your feelings.”
It’s not enough for them to simply understand your issues, said Ahrens; they must also teach you the skills to make the changes you want to see in your life.
While chatting, see if you can identify the following personality traits in the therapist:
1. They’re non-judgemental
“Even though they may not fully understand or agree… a good therapist is able to put [their feelings] aside and be as unbiased as possible in their ability to support this person,” Ahrens said.
2. They’re empathetic
This might seem like a no-brainer, but your therapist must be able to see your point of view. A therapist who can’t at least understand your perspective isn’t likely to be as effective in helping solve your issues.
3. They’re culturally sensitive
Another no-brainer: You don’t want a therapist who makes insensitive remarks about your race, sexual orientation, culture, etc. This doesn’t mean they have to know or agree with everything — but they should at least be respectful.
4. They’re compassionate
“Generally, therapists genuinely want to help,” said Ahrens. “It’s why we got into the profession. There are always bad apples, as they say, but generally speaking, therapists are really compassionate, kind, caring, gentle people.”
5. They’re genuine
“You need to be able to trust your therapist to support you,” said Ahrens. “It’s much easier to do so when they’re confident in their own skin. If they appear comfortable being themselves, it can help you be yourself as well.”
6. They’re flexible
Everyone is different, and everyone requires a different treatment approach. “A good therapist must be able to tailor their techniques to their individual clients in a way that helps them succeed,” said Ahrens.
7. They’re “people persons”
Given all the discussions you’ll be having with your therapist, you’ll want them to have highly developed interpersonal skills. This doesn’t mean they have to be super talkative or overly casual — they just need to make you feel accepted, welcomed, and heard.
8. They’re self-aware
It goes without saying that therapists are people too — they have their own struggles to deal with. A good therapist should be aware of their personal struggles and avoid associating them with those of their clients.
9. They’re inquisitive and show strong attention to detail
Finally, it’s crucial that a good therapist not only shows interest in learning about you, but they’re also a stickler about implementing the best mental health practices. There are plenty of techniques; you’ll want your therapist to be knowledgeable about choosing the best tools for the job.
Keep it professional and productive
While it’s natural to want to make a connection with a therapist to the point of trust, remember that they aren’t your friends.
Also, keep in mind that while they might have personality traits that you don’t mesh with on a casual level, that doesn’t mean you can’t still nurture a productive, professional relationship.
Similar to personality traits, these learned skills are key to producing healthy changes. While some of these skills might be apparent right away during your consultation, Ahrens says it might take a bit longer than 15 minutes for others to show.
On top of these general skills, your therapist is likely trained in one of several different approaches to therapy, such as humanistic, mindfulness, and cognitive-behavioral therapies, among others.
These approaches have different beliefs on the origin of mental illnesses and different treatment approaches. Despite this, however, no one orientation is better than the others.
It’s crucial, however, that your therapist is able to employ one or more of these skill-based, scientifically-verified approaches instead of only listening empathetically.
Research shows that skill-based therapies are more effective than simply listening — although empathy is still incredibly important in building a productive relationship and in making more specific approaches work.
Below are some general skills to look for in a good therapist.
1. They listen actively
Ahrens highlights active listening as one of the most important tools a therapist can have. “We don’t listen as a friend or a family member would. We’re trained to listen differently,” she says.
Active listening allows a good therapist to comprehend your thoughts and feelings, retain information, and reply in a reflective and accepting manner.
2. They read nonverbal cues fluently
Ahrens said that a lot of important, healing conversations can start with a therapist picking up on nonverbal cues. “When you start to see different micro-changes in the face, I will check on that. I will ask about what happened… but it takes experience [to do it right].”
3. They manage conflict
Often times, a therapist might be faced with aggressive clients or situations of conflict. According to Ahrens, a good therapist must be able to navigate these scenarios and de-escalate accordingly.
4. They can reflect their client’s feelings
Working in conjunction with active listening, reflection makes up a huge part of a therapist’s communication with their client. By using empathy, a good therapist puts context around their clients’ feelings.
5. They can empower their client
“Therapists focus on empowering the client,” said Ahrens. “I am just trying to reconnect the client to their own power and inner wisdom.” By being an uplifting presence, a good therapist helps you to feel more confident and view yourself in a new light.
6. They practice unconditional acceptance
A good therapist is able to make their client feel unconditionally accepted and cared for, no matter who they are. This involves interacting with them using nonjudgemental words and regard them with respect.
7. They ask open-ended questions
Asking open-ended questions is a technique a therapist can use to give the client control over the conversation. This is a great way to start meaningful discussions while giving you the leeway to disclose what you feel comfortable disclosing.
“Most importantly, you want someone who gets results,” said Ahrens. “Therapy isn’t just about having somebody validate your experience. You’re there because you want something to be different, right? You want results, you want to feel better.”
6 questions to ask when choosing a therapist
- What licenses/certifications do you have, and how long have you been practicing?
- What is your philosophical approach to helping? What’s your style?
- How long are the sessions?
- How should I be preparing for our sessions?
- Have you worked with others facing similar challenges to mine?
- Are you geared more toward a skill-building approach, a listening approach, or both?
Choosing a therapist is much like the process of establishing any new relationship — gathering information and then paying attention to how you feel.
Ahrens notes that if a therapist makes you feel at home, that you’re able to trust them, and that the relationship can be a productive one — they might be the one.