Beginning therapy and developing a relationship with your therapist is all about your comfort. Take the time to think about what you might prefer to look for in a therapist, and let these therapists shed some light on the decision-making process:
Lynn Somerstein, PhD, E-RYT: People have different comfort levels and may have preferences about working with certain kinds of therapists, such as male or female, straight or gay, older or not. Those preferences should be respected, if possible, because they help ease the social part of beginning therapy, which promotes a calmer relationship that can help you overcome the scariness of beginning a therapeutic relationship. What matters most of all when choosing a therapist is your gut feeling that the two of you click.
When I began seeing a therapist, I knew that I had to see a woman because I felt I would feel safer and better understood by a woman than a man. At least, that is what I thought at the time. I never regretted making this decision, but did feel that I needed to work with a male therapist too. Later in my training, I studied with a supervisor—a male therapist—who became my mentor.
People who have experienced sexual abuse often prefer to work with someone who is not the same gender as the predator; this is a wise choice to defuse the terror and mistrust that will probably come up in treatment. When therapy progresses and lasts, however, it can become clear that the sex, gender, sexual orientation, or age have less to do with successful therapy than we might think. A good therapist will reach out to the person in treatment and develop a mutual understanding and ability to be helpful. The skillfulness, training, and experience of the therapist are important. So, I would say that ultimately sex or gender are not so important, but it can take a while to reach that understanding, and if you have a preference for a certain kind of person, go with that inclination. And always listen to your gut feelings. Is this therapist the right person for you? How do you feel talking together?
Damon Constantinides, PhD, LCSW: I’m trained in both clinical social work and sexuality education, so I think and teach a lot about gender. What I’ve learned is that there are as many gender expressions as there are people. I have had clients choose to see me specifically because I’m a man. For them, my gender makes me easier to talk to, or less threatening; or perhaps they think I’ll understand what they’re saying better than a woman would. However, for other clients, my gender has not been a deciding factor in their choice to work with me.
There are many things to take into consideration when looking for a therapist who is a good fit; gender is only one part of that equation. Other factors such as ethnicity, experience, modality, specialties, or location might be more important. Many people have different levels of comfort with different genders. This can be because of past experience, personal belief systems, or communication style. Most importantly, you want to feel like your therapist understands you. For you, does gender play a role in communication and feeling understood? What are the key components you need to feel connected with another person? Is gender one of them?
Norma Lee, MA, MD, LMFT: One of the biggest determining factors if therapy will be successful is how well a person is able to connect with their therapist. A person needs to feel that their therapist is nonjudgmental, interested in what they have to say, and accepting of them exactly as they are. So, depending on the issue(s) that brings someone to therapy, the sex/gender of the therapist can make a significant difference. You may be aware of these issues, or you may not. For example, if someone was mistreated by their mother growing up, they may have difficulty trusting a woman, especially if she is of the age the person’s mother is. If a girl or woman has been sexually abused or assaulted, she would likely prefer a woman therapist, as most sexual abuse/assault incidents against women are committed by men.
The majority of therapists are women, and the majority of people in therapy are women. In general, women have more of a need to talk things out than men do. Men often don’t want to talk about a problem—they just want to fix it. This is not a judgment or a bad thing, but rather just a difference between the genders. Men who choose to become therapists typically do not have this mindset as they know people have usually tried to help solve their problems before coming to therapy and have been unsuccessful. Sometimes in couples therapy, a male and female therapist may work together so that each member of the couple can feel that someone truly sees their perspective.
© Copyright 2009 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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