How to Choose a Counselor:
Tips for Finding the Right Therapist
Therapy is an organic, relational process, and no matter what psychological approach or model a given counselor uses everything ultimately rests on the connection formed between you and your therapist. I hope the below can help guide you in evaluating the quality of the relational connection you are experiencing with any counselors you are trying out.
Evaluating the Potential for Connection
The relational connection between you and your therapist is most fundamental—all of the helpfulness of counseling is dependent on it. A therapist could have years of experience and have gone through the best trainings, but if you do not experience them as able to connect with you then you might as well just find a good book instead. So as you read through various counselors’ websites, ask yourself: “Do I feel like I might be able to form a connection with this person?”
Of course, you cannot know for sure until you actually meet with them. But you can start to form an initial impression based on how they present themselves online. If they have a blog (or better yet, videos) read a blog post or two, or watch a few of their videos. Read their “About” page to see how they describe themselves and what they seem like as a person, as a fellow human being. Notice how your insides respond (i.e., your reflexive thoughts, feelings and embodied sensations)—do you feel yourself pulling back / feeling disinterested, or do you experience some level of curiosity and maybe even a little hopefulness. All you need to do here is just gage your initial impressions to see if your insides feel some inclination to approach this particular counselor.
Once you have one or more counselors that you sense the potential of connecting with give yourself the time and space to continue exploring their websites until you notice yourself feeling the impulse to want to contact one of them. At this point I recommend making an appointment with each of the therapists you feel inclined to try out. While it is not advised to try to work with multiple therapists simultaneously over the long term, it is very appropriate to try out several therapists at once as a way of helping yourself feel out who you connect best with. And there is no better way to see if you will be able to form a connection with someone than actually meeting with them.
Reflecting on Your Session(s)
After your first session with a therapist I recommend setting aside some time to reflect on the session (ideally within a day or two of the session, while your memory is fresh). Here are some questions to guide you in your reflections:
- How well did you feel heard, understood and engaged by the counselor?
- How well did the therapist give attention and time to the things that were important to you, which you wanted to work on?
Note that it is common in the first session (and even throughout therapy) to feel like there is so much more that you did not get to talk about, so what you want to be evaluating here is your experience of the counselor’s intentions (i.e., does it feel like they are helping you move toward topics that matter to you?). If it feels like they are giving time to topics that feel less important to you I recommend that you have a conversation with them about that at the beginning of the next session, and how they respond to that will give you a better sense of whether there was just a misunderstanding of some kind, or whether there might be a mismatch between your goals and how the therapist is trying to help you.
- What is your general, overall feeling about the session and your experience of the counselor?
Additional Qualities to Look for in a Counselor
The above section can give you a good, broad sense of how your insides are feeling about a particular counselor. But if you would like to dig a little deeper in your reflections, the below questions can guide you in that process:
- Curiosity and Compassion: How does the counselor respond to things that are new to them, things they don’t know? Do the questions they ask help you feel more known while also helping you delve deeper into making sense of things? In other words, do they seem to have a compassionate, curious spirit that helps you learn to be more compassionately curious about your struggles?
- Human Complexity and Uniqueness: Does the counselor seem able to engage with complexity, the richness of human experience, and how different and unique we each are?
- Reflective, Contemplative and Open: Do they seem to be working at their own growth journey? Are they a learner (i.e., are they continuing to learn)? If so, what are they studying, reading, and/or getting additional training in? Do they invite your feedback on the therapy process, and do they seem able to receive whatever feedback you offer?
- Unhurried: How well does the counselor create space for the session to “breath?” Do they take their time, or do they feel hurried/anxious? Does their presence feel calm? It is normal for you to bring your own anxious feelings into the session, so ideally you want to have a therapist who is able to remain calm in the midst of your emotions, and thus help you learn how to develop that calmness for yourself.
- Thoughts, Emotions and Embodiment: How well does the therapist help you tune into your emotional and embodied experience? Do they tend to just emphasize your thoughts, or do they guide and invite you to engage with the emotional and embodied experiences you find difficult to metabolize? In Western culture we love to think about our struggles, and there is a degree of helpfulness to addressing how and what we think. But real, lasting change can only happen via the deeper layers of emotions and the body—neurobiologically cognition cannot penetrate deeply enough to effect change in the ways that working with emotions and the body can. Note that depending on where you are in your particular struggles you may not experience significant emotional relief in your first several sessions, but you do want a counselor who can help you gradually build the emotional muscles that can bring relief and stability to your hurting parts (and thus your initial sessions with them should be moving in that direction).
- Relationships: How well does the counselor consider the relational context of your life? Do they seem curious about your relational interactions and patterns with friends, family, a significant other, coworkers, etc.? We all exist within a network of various relationships, and how we have learned to navigate those relationships is usually intertwined (sometimes in obvious ways, and sometimes very subtly) with whatever struggles that are bringing us into therapy. So ideally you want a counselor who is able to help you notice the patterns you play out across different spheres of your life, and make sense of how those relate to the things you are wanting to work on. Note that this therapeutic skill can be more difficult for you to notice/assess in the first few sessions, both because it can be more subtle and also your awareness of the counselor tuning into these dynamics is partly subject to the flow of the sessions (e.g., the therapist might be noticing things, but in the flow of conversation it has not yet made sense for them to draw your attention to them).
- Spirituality: Regardless of whether one ascribes to a particular faith tradition or not, we are all spiritual beings—we all grapple with various existential questions about life and meaning. Does the therapist seem comfortable engaging with you in these areas? If they are part of a faith tradition, do they seem able to hold space for your own spirituality if that differs from theirs?
Resources While You Search for a Therapist
Choosing a counselor and beginning therapy can feel daunting, even overwhelming. You may be tempted to tell yourself “Things aren’t that bad—counseling can wait.” But I want to encourage you to capitalize on the momentum and motivation that has already brought you to this page—something in you knows this is important (and that you are worth this effort). So do not let your instinct to seek growth and healing be ignored.
However, committing to follow this path does not change the possibility that choosing a counselor and/or beginning counseling may still feel like “too big of a bite.” So the following are resources and options to help you on your way to reaching out to a counselor.
- Deepen Your Self-Awareness: We only make changes (especially difficult ones) when our current way of doing things becomes sufficiently uncomfortable. Essentially, the discomfort/pain of staying where we are has to become greater than the discomfort (fear, etc.) of pursuing change. So things like books, quizzes (available on the Resources page), and checking in regularly with your emotions and body sensations can all be ways of becoming more aware of how you are currently experiencing yourself and your life (both what is working, and what is not). And that increased awareness can help you move closer to reaching out to a therapist for help.
- Engage With Podcasts and Videos: This option builds on the above by moving you closer to actual contact with other human beings while still feeling safer and more manageable than scheduling a therapy session (because a podcast or video allows you to experience another person without you having to respond). There are many, good audio/video resources freely available that engage with the challenges of being human. My blog provides a number of videos covering common individual and relational struggles. And I also recommend you visit the Ask Sean YouTube Channel where I explore anonymous questions about life, relationships and being human. Submitting your own anonymous question could be a great intermediary step towards eventually scheduling a counseling session with someone.
- Talk to Friends or Family: This option can be tricky in that some of what you may be wishing to work on in counseling may feel too “big” to share with someone you know. And yet, there may be bits of what you are going through which might feel easier to share with a friend or family member than scheduling a counseling session currently feels. The goal here is to continue to capitalize on the energy within you which is yearning for healing and thus to take whatever little step you can today. Maybe that is sharing the tiniest of personal details with someone. Maybe it is just thinking about sharing something. Do whatever you can that moves you toward taking the risk to open up to another human being, whether someone you know, or reaching out to a therapist. Just do what you can, trusting that your impulse to heal will gradually lead you where you need to go.