*This is a work of nonfiction based on actual events I witnessed firsthand; used with permission.
Many years ago, I was in a new-ish relationship with someone I cared deeply for. And when my would-be partner asked to make our relationship exclusive — I froze. But rather than running away, I went to therapy, so began one of the most consistent and enduring relationships of my life — with my therapist.
I wish I could say that I found my right-fit therapist the first time out, but that’s not how it happened. In my experience, finding a therapist is a lot like dating. Meaning, you might have to kiss a few frogs. But when it comes down to it, it’s all about listening to your “hut.”
I know what you’re thinking, “what in the hell is a hut?” Great question! The hut is a phrase coined by Alexandra Franzen, a writer, consultant, and entrepreneur based in Hawaii. And it stands for heart + gut.
“Your hut is not the voice of reason, logic, or Excel spreadsheets. Your hut is the voice of instinct and intuition, that inexplicable feeling of what’s right for you and you alone. Your hut doesn’t always speak in words. Sometimes it speaks in feelings, tingles, an invisible hand on your shoulder, a fire in your belly, tears in your eyes that won’t stop.” — Alexandra Franzen,
When choosing the best therapist for yourself, there is no better way to go than trusting your hut. But first, you need to know what you’re looking for. And the best way to do that is to get a clear understanding of what will not work. It’s just like seeking a partner — kind of.
Of course, there are other things to keep in mind, as well. Below, I have highlighted some tips to help you choose a therapist that will best serve your needs.
What are your no’s?
As I mentioned before, figuring out what won't work is a great place to start. But even that may feel like a tall order if you’ve never been to therapy before. So here are a few items on my personal “no” list that may help you to get clear on your own:
- Inauthentic — realness is essential because it is so much easier to be yourself when you’re in the company of authenticity. When people pretend to be someone they aren’t, it creates mistrust. And when you don’t trust someone, you will feel compelled to defend yourself, which you don’t want to do in therapy.
- Distracted or Fidgety — when you’re in session, the therapist has one job — to listen to you. If they are busy checking their phone or looking around the room, you will not feel relaxed enough to share. Your therapist is the one person required to provide you with their undivided attention. And if they can’t do that — they aren’t the one.
- Inappropriate Behavior — therapy should feel like a safe space. The environment should feel professional. Your therapist should never touch you without consent. Flirtation, criticism, and political views are also hard no’s. Anything that feels abusive or out-of-pocket is unacceptable.
Keep in mind that your no’s are boundaries that should be respected at all times. It doesn’t matter how long you work with someone; crossing the line is never okay.
Believe in chemistry
Chemistry matters. The ability to be vulnerable and fully expressive is the crux of what therapy is all about. And it’s so much easier to relax and let your guard down with someone that you’re able to connect with.
When it comes to therapy, a few things create ideal chemistry, such as personality, background, specialization, learning + teaching styles, and past experiences. The bottom line is you want to work with someone you like as a person because it’s hard to open up to someone who rubs you the wrong way.
Consider their background.
This is especially important if you are a BIPOC, LGBTQ, or member of any other marginalized community. You may need to work with someone in your in-group. Working with someone who can understand, relate, or empathize with your personal experience can make it easier to be vulnerable.
There are also benefits from working with someone in your out-group, meaning that their personal and life experience contrasts with your own. Someone in your out-group may see your blind spots more clearly, which is extremely important to the healing process.
A good therapist can listen without prejudice, but we all view the world through the lens of our own experiences. So you want to choose someone who can be a safe space for your wholeness.
Don’t be afraid to offend.
Although you want to work with a therapist you like — your therapist is not your friend. And you’re in therapy because you are working through your shit. Some of those things may be offensive in public spaces — but therapy is private.
Your job is not to worry about what your therapist will think about what you have to say. So if they can’t handle it, you need to find somebody else.
You don’t want a cheerleader.
What you do want is someone who can be a placeholder for what you need to work through. The job of a therapist is to guide you toward your truth, even the unsavory bits. It’s about personal accountability and the reconciliation of your inner world and your outer reality.
You also can’t work with someone who you can’t perceive as an ally. If your therapist criticizes you or your experiences — they are not an ally.
To do this work, you need someone impartial and honest, but also kind and respectful. If you feel judged or shamed — find a new therapist.
Beware of the person who gives you answers.
While you should be learning new things through therapy, it is not a class. Your therapist is not there to give you the answer. What you need is someone who questions you and helps you find your answers.
A good therapist will support you in unlearning false truths about yourself and the world. All while helping you to integrate any splintered self-perception so that you can acknowledge and accept all of your parts.
Just like in dating, it takes time to get comfortable. So your first few sessions may feel a bit cumbersome and clumsy for you. I mean, you’re still getting used to sharing deeply personal things with a virtual stranger. Awkward, right?
If you’re on the fence, give it a few more sessions because you might be reacting to the thing you need to work on. And truth be told, the deep shit always comes with a bit of resistance.
So if your hut felt resonant at the start, don’t abandon ship at the first sign of discomfort. Give it some time, and if it doesn’t get better, find someone else.
Remember, you are not obligated to continue working with someone who isn’t a right fit, even if they were a proper fit at first. You’re allowed to change your mind — anytime.
Beware of happiness.
I often leave therapy feeling relieved and lighter. Then there are times when I feel like I have been wrung out like a washcloth. And yes, there are also times when I feel content and joyous. But therapy is not my happy place. It’s where I go to make my happy place more accessible.
If you’re going to therapy and you’re leaving happy, that might be a warning that you’re not doing the work.
The work is not easy. Heavy emotional lifting is part of the process. You should leave each session a bit more clear than when you arrived. Remember, “fixed” is not the goal — the point is to feel and be better.
Naturally, other things might be important for you to consider when looking for a therapist. I hope these things will help you get started. But above all else, use your words and be your own advocate.
Your mental health is just as, if not more, important than your physical health. Because unprocessed emotion is not benign, the energy of what we feel must find a way out; otherwise, it becomes something else. Think about how stress shows up in your neck and shoulders.
I highly recommend connecting with a therapist before you hit a rough patch if at all possible. Therapy can also be preventive medicine. And it’s much easier to find a therapist that’s right for you before a crisis hits. It’s like having emotional support on speed dial.
Originally published at https://medium.com