A truly good psychotherapist or counselor can be an important help and ally in this wonderful and often confusing path of life. There have been times in my 41-year relationship with Joyce when we have been unable to move past a obstacle by ourselves, and the help of a good therapist has been invaluable. If you can't work something through in your own relationship, get help before you cause serious damage to the trust between you.
Occasionally, Joyce and I hear about great experiences with a therapist from people who were truly helped. Unfortunately, we also hear the negative side. We understand that a good therapist can often be an object of projection, and all that the client dislikes in him or herself can be ascribed to the therapist. Still, we hear from clients who did not feel understood or heard by their therapist, or given advice that made everything worse. We hear from couples where one of them felt judged or sided against, or even clearly disliked. This always makes us sad, for we know the vulnerability with which many people approach getting help with painful situations in their lives.
So how do you choose a good therapist (and for the sake of simplicity, I will use the term therapist to refer to both therapists and counselors)? After 30 years of practicing psychotherapy, here is what we recommend:
1. Start with a good recommendation from someone you trust. Listen to this person's personal experience, but listen more to your own feelings/intuition while this person is talking. They might be saying wonderful things about their therapist, but if your own feelings don't seem to correlate with what they are saying, ask someone else for a recommendation. Too many people listen to the words of a trusted friend while ignoring their own inner feelings, and then are disappointed with the therapist.
2. Therapy or counseling? Traditionally, a psychotherapist does not give advice while a counselor does. Many psychotherapists argue that giving advice weakens clients, whereas clients are most helped by finding their own inner wisdom. The counselor may argue that traditional psychotherapy can take too much time, and giving advice is like pointing out a new doorway. Clients still have to go through it by themselves, so it doesn't weaken them. Joyce and I feel the best therapist is a combination of therapist and counselor, and knows when advice will strengthen or weaken their clients.
3. A good therapist uses intuition. Beginning therapists often stick to the rules of their training. They're predictable. Good therapists will often surprise you by a response that perhaps at first doesn't make sense, but seems to cut through everything you're saying, to the heart of the matter. You feel you're going down a familiar road, and suddenly you're on a whole new road.
4. A good therapist never takes sides. If you're working out relationship issues, make absolute certainty that your therapist is impartial and clearly sees the contribution of each of you. Too many times we have heard complaints from clients who felt sided with or against, who felt betrayed by their therapist, or sided with at the expense of their partner.
5. Find therapists who walk their talk. If you're struggling with your relationship with your mother, you will not be really helped by a therapist who is not talking with their mother. If you're a couple, or an individual wanting help with your relationship, choose a therapist who has a good relationship. If you want help with an issue with your child, find someone who is a good parent. A good therapist uses self-disclosure. They know when it can be helpful to share something important about themselves, which can help you greatly.
6. A good therapist encourages independence. Sometimes therapists allow, or ever foster, a client's dependence upon them. Find a therapist who, from the beginning, encourages your independence, helps you to help yourself, and find your own inner power, wisdom and love.
7. A good therapist focuses more on your strengths than your weaknesses. Sure, you want your therapist to zero right in on your core issues and problems, but not to dwell there too long. Too much focus on your negativity and not enough focus on your strengths will only serve to weaken you and delay your healing process. You are a whole person with infinite goodness, not just a bundle of pathology. If your heart is seen as well as your mind, this balanced approach will quicken your therapy.
We now empower you to find the right therapist for you, based on the above suggestions. First, have the courage to ask for help. And second, have the courage to ask yourself if you are being helped by your current therapist. If not, find someone who can really help.