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Why Choosing a Therapist Is Like Shopping For a New Car

Over the past 18 years, I’ve worked with close to a dozen therapists. While some of the clinicians I worked with literally saved my life, several of my previous therapeutic relationships didn’t last long. I’m fact, some only lasted a few months or even less.

I spent years thinking that all of those failed attempts were entirely my fault. Every time a therapist said they couldn’t help me or recommended a specific type of treatment, I heard, “You’re a lost cause,” and “Nobody can help you.” I took these therapeutic rejections quite personally, and they perpetuated the negative beliefs about myself that I already held onto.

When a long-term therapist “dumped” me almost two years ago, though, I realized something: Not every client-clinician relationship is meant to last forever.

Like most other things in life, therapists aren’t one-size-fits-all. In fact, therapists are human beings with their own personalities, beliefs and specializations. This means that not every therapist will be the best fit for you, and you may not be the best fit for every therapist.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that choosing a therapist is a lot like shopping for a car. I know this sounds silly, but hear me out.

Before you do anything else, selecting a therapist requires some careful consideration and decision-making on your part. Just like you’d decide what features and specifications you need in a new car, you need to decide what you want and need from your future clinician. You need to ask yourself what it is you hope to achieve during your time in therapy and what type of therapist will help you reach those goals.

For example, when I started searching for a therapist two years ago, I knew I wanted someone who specialized in treating clients with my specific diagnoses. I also knew I wanted a therapist who would continue to help me use the dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) skills I’d learned with my previous therapist, but would also introduce me to some new therapeutic modalities so I would continue to make progress. Most importantly, I knew I needed a therapist who would be willing to help me explore my childhood trauma because I’d avoided it for entirely too long.

Identifying these specific needs and goals not only helped me narrow my search for a new therapist, but it also helped me ensure that I selected a therapist who was on the same page as me from the start.

After I decided what I really needed in a therapist, I started researching clinicians in the area to find someone who fit my criteria. Just like I would do when researching a new car, I only looked at clinicians who would fit my needs. Then, I selected close to a dozen therapists who met my general criteria, and I took notes to help me keep track of the details about each one.

Unlike previous times where I simply called the first therapist I could find and scheduled an appointment, I decided that I would carefully weigh all of my options. So I emailed all the therapists who met my needs on paper and briefly explained what I was looking for in a therapist. I then asked if they felt like they would meet my needs and if they were accepting new clients.

This helped me even more than I imagined it would. Out of a dozen options, half of them weren’t taking new clients, one didn’t think she could meet my needs, and one shared information that helped me realize he wouldn’t be a great fit either. Instead of ending up with yet another failed therapeutic relationship, I very quickly identified four possible therapists who would be a good fit for me.

But just like any informed consumer, I didn’t stop there: I took each of the remaining therapists for a quick test drive by scheduling brief phone consultations.

I didn’t realize that you could do this, but most therapists will set up free phone consultations if you ask. During these brief 15 to 30-minute calls, I was able to share a bit about myself, hear each therapist tell me about them, and ask any questions that hadn’t yet been addressed. The phone consultations gave me lots of great info and helped me narrow down my options even more based on the information and my overall feelings about how each call went.

At the end of the day, I chose the therapist who both seemed like she would meet my needs and felt easy to talk to. And I can honestly say that, nearly two years later, I don’t regret my decision one bit.

For the first time in my life, I am working with a therapist who I trust completely. I’m making more progress now than I’ve ever made before, and I genuinely look forward to each and every session I attend — even the really tough ones.

Before my most recent therapist hunt, I never stopped to consider the fact that I had the say in who I chose as a clinician and what my treatment should look like. However, I now realize just how important patient autonomy is in ensuring therapy is successful. I spent so many years seeing myself as “untreatable” when really the issue was as simple as finding the right fit.

If you’re in the process of finding a therapist, don’t just settle for the first one you find. Think about what you want, assess all your options, and make an informed decision.

No matter where you are in your therapy journey, remember that above all else, therapy is for you. You have the authority to choose your therapist, state your needs, and voice concerns if you feel like your therapeutic needs aren’t being met.

Just like you need the right car to make it to your destination, you need the right therapist to make progress in your mental health recovery.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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