I went ahead and plopped my zip code in the I went ahead and plopped my zip code in the

How Do I Choose the Right Therapist for Me?

Woman with documents at laptop computerI went ahead and plopped my zip code in the GoodTherapy.org therapist directory today. What a maze of faces and profiles! I started clicking away, comparing smiles, adjectives, and an endless list of therapeutic terms and jargon.

I suppose there is a certain educational process taking place as I peruse each therapist’s descriptions of their work. But really, it feels more like an online dating service than anything else. Shouldn’t there be a little more science to this search?

As a therapist, I’m familiar with most (but certainly not all) of the terms that are used. Yet this knowledge helps only a little as I try to narrow my search. The real gems, I know, are hidden in the rough. Here are some guidelines that may be of some use for those of you attempting to find the right partner for your personal growth.

The ‘Pretty Face’ Approach to Choosing

Browsing faces, we see the surprising fact that all therapists seem to live in Hawaii. The trees in the background all seem effused with a similar glow and the air is thick with tropical flowers. A warning signal from the back of our mind recognizes the tell tale signs of Photoshop express. Blemishes erased. Halo effects inserted.

We know instinctively these are not really faces but professional reconstructions of what started out as faces. The same goes for the therapist’s website design. At first blush, it seems a nicely nuanced container for pertinent information about their practice. Yet some part of our mind recognizes the medium has its own message: “I am hip.” “I am old school.” “I am casually popular.” “I hobnob with the elite.”

With the choice to start therapy come our hidden misgivings and aspirations about joining any group. What would it say about me, if I found myself sitting in that therapist’s lobby? What kind of people will be sitting next to me? Would this be a step up or down in my personal status?

Do we ever grow beyond the anxiety experienced while choosing a place to sit at our high school cafeteria? Some parts of us never do.

So let’s be honest. It’s more fun to ogle at the commercialization of the image than it is to dive into the supposed substance of their written language. The image tells us in one graphic instant the intended values of the person behind it. They did choose that portrait, didn’t they? What were they thinking?

Hopefully this need only be the first, not the final, filter used in our decision. After all, the larger part of our mind knows that there is more at stake in this decision than status. We need specific help and we are looking for a real human being with skills relevant to the task of helping us.

Set Your Intention with Room for Surprises

Whether the problems that prompted your search are specific (“I have to stop this habit”) or general (“I’m just not liking who I am”), you’ll want to start by defining those problems. Since you are a multi-dimensional person it makes sense that the problems you face will be multi-dimensional as well.

Your struggles in one area of your life may seem like only the tip of the iceberg. Still, it’s good to be able to have words for that tip. You may have very few words or they may seem legion. Either way, try putting those words on paper before returning to your search. One way to start this process is to imagine yourself in the near future as more the person you wish yourself to be. Now, still inhabiting this imagined future, name the issues—one by one—that got resolved as you became this person.

In the advanced search option, you’ll see the forms to select your “Concern” and “Type of Therapy”. You can use the “Concern” menu to hunt for words matching the personal issues you have already identified. You may find new concerns to add to your list, or maybe one that seems to be at the root of them all. But don’t lose your original list. Your problems are best stated in your own language and you’ll want to stick with that language when speaking about yourself. There is no carbon copy version of your issues. You are un-pigeonhole-able.

But What Do We Really Do in Therapy?

The Type of Therapy menu item is the real tricky part. It is supposed to help show the actual stuff, called “treatment”, that will take place while you sit with your chosen therapist. Talk about jargon! Here you will discover the motherlode!

There is no real way to categorize these treatment orientations without minimizing their potential usefulness or misconstruing their reach. Like herding stray kittens into different cages at the pet store, the founders of each therapeutic approach would scratch and bite me for daring to typecast their work. But cage them we must, if only temporarily, so that we can refine our options.

The categories listed at the bottom of this page may help somewhat in choosing a treatment approach that fits your personal interests and goals. I’ve offered my own fuzzy interpretation on the expected length of each type of therapy: short, medium, or long term. Although so much depends upon the nature of your goals, we can generalize that some treatment modalities are oriented toward meeting immediate outcomes (six to 10 weekly sessions), some toward addressing more prolonged, long-standing issues (12 to 20 weekly sessions), and some toward allowing for deeper more characterological changes (sessions may occur over a period of years).

Setting the correct expectations for your work should be one of the first topics addressed when consulting with your potential therapist. Though goals may change over time, it’s your therapist’s responsibility to give you realistic assessments about the expected length of therapy.

There will be as many interpretations of treatment practices as there are practitioners so please take my grouping below with a grain of salt. The only intention here is to give some broad outlines to your decision making process. If in doubt, throw all this aside, trust your gut, and pick the therapist that looks most like your favorite grade school teacher. That’s pretty much what we all do in the end anyway.

The following therapies are listed in alphabetical order so as not to show preference.

Express Yourself (short to medium term): You may already know and hunger for the kind of emotional release that comes through a specific expressive art form. You only need to sit down and schedule time for it. Or perhaps you are looking for a new container for what lies within.

  • Art Therapy
  • Authentic Movement
  • Bibliotherapy
  • Dance/Movement Therapy
  • Drama Therapy
  • Eco Therapy / Nature Therapy
  • Journal Therapy
  • Music Therapy
  • Poetry Therapy
  • Psychodrama
  • Wilderness Therapy
  • Yoga Therapy

Control Your Behaviors (short term): We’ve come a long way since Pavlov’s dog. Many current treatments to change behaviors include spiritual components (ie. mindfulness) which respect that you are more than a biological network of stimuli and response.

  • ACT – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
  • Anger Management
  • Autogenic Training
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Conflict Resolution Therapy
  • Contemplative Psychotherapy
  • Core Process Psychotherapy
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy
  • Hypnotherapy
  • Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction
  • Neuro Linguistic Programming
  • Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy
  • Solution Focused Therapy
  • Sport Fitness Psychology
  • Transactional Analysis

Deal with Emotional Spiritual Depths (medium to long term): In order to get to know the underlying dynamics that make you who you are, these treatment styles take a broad view of what it means to be human while focusing on managing immediate experiences.

  • Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy
  • Coherence Therapy
  • Depth Therapy
  • Dream Analysis
  • Existential Psychology
  • Gestalt Therapy
  • Guided Therapeutic Imagery
  • Hakomi Experiential Therapy
  • Process Oriented Psychology
  • Reality Therapy
  • Self Psychology
  • Shamanic Journeying
  • Transpersonal Psychotherapy
  • Voice Dialogue

Synthesize and Transform Lessons Learned from Childhood (long term): Some changes require reflecting on patterns that have existed since childhood. Natural curiosity and a desire for transformation lead the work.

  • Adlerian Psychology
  • Control-Mastery Therapy
  • Depth Hypnosis
  • Jungian Therapy
  • Lifespan Integration
  • Narrative Therapy
  • Object Relations
  • Positive Psychology
  • Psychoanalysis
  • Psychodynamic Therapy
  • Regression Therapy

Develop Your Child’s Self Control and Self-Esteem (short to medium term): A variety of philosophies here, each with a very different focus on how to reach your child. Let your knowledge of your child, guide the approach you choose.

  • Applied Behavior Analysis
  • Equine and Animal Assisted Therapies
  • Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy
  • Family Attachment Narrative Therapy
  • Filial Therapy
  • Play Therapy
  • Sand Tray Therapy
  • Theraplay
  • Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

The Body Knows Best (short to medium term): Be prepared to enlist your sensory awareness as you learn to regulate your thoughts and emotions.

Exploring the Client / Therapist Bond (medium to long term): These approaches utilize a variety of methods but with a focus on the underlying nature of the therapy relationship.

Couples, Family, or Group work (short to medium term): With more than one person in the room, the relationships become the client.

  • Emotionally Focused Therapy
  • Family Systems (Bowen)
  • Gottman Method
  • Imago Relationship Therapy
  • Nonviolent Communication
  • Parent Work
  • Pragmatic Experiential Couples Therapy
  • Satir Transformational Systemic Therapy

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jonathan Bartlett, MA, MFT, Relational Psychotherapy Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Drew

    March 14th, 2014 at 3:52 AM

    For me this would have to be a time where I would need to go with my gut instinct. I think that I would know within the first five minutes or so of talking with someone if this would be a person that would be right for me and whether or not I would be comfortable in the long term opening up to this person

  • Hank F

    March 14th, 2014 at 1:29 PM

    Well, I think that’s just it- you have to know what’s going to be the best fit for YOU. What might work best for Alice right down the street might not always be the right choice for you and that’s okay. You might have to try out a few people, give it a few tries before you find someone who meets all of your needs. This isn’t always a one stop shopping deal and I think that any good therapist knows this and expects this. I think that they will also tell you that not all clients are going to be a good fit for them either. But they are always going to try to work with you to figure out the very best solution for you in any given situation. I think that the most important thing is that you can’t give up. This is something that you have to consistently work on and be mindful of, keep trying to improve and change and eventually you can make some positive steps toward improvement in life.

  • kav

    March 15th, 2014 at 7:11 AM

    I might would start by getting a referral or a few names from people who I know and trust. Someone form that list of frineds could work out for you.

  • Regina Sewell

    March 15th, 2014 at 6:25 PM

    I got excited by the title because I am actually looking for a therapist. I have to say that not one of the websites or ads looked like someone from Hawaii. And I try not to judge, but most of the photos were a notch above dreadful. Perhaps on the East Coast, things are a bit different.

    That being said, I have found it to be a dreadful and arduous process. The therapists that I know are really good I cannot see because either I or my wife have been in psychodrama training groups with them or otherwise know them professionally. The ones neither of us know…. I started with the insurance list. Ruled out everyone who lists CBT and psychoanalysis as a specialties because I have analyzed myself and know that I have distorted thinking — that my thoughts aren’t true, etc. But I also know that I am experiencing all the symptoms of depression as listed in the DSM 5. And I know that I need help.

    The most important variable in the success of therapy is the relationship between counselor and client. In my search, what I have found to be most relevant is how do they sound – at a gut level, how do they respond to me? Are they warm? Are desperate… hungry…. demanding? Do they sound like they need therapy more than I do? Are they cold and dismissive? Do they sound angry – like it is inconveniencing them that they have to return my call? Do they sound compassionate? Do they sound judgmental?

    An as a therapist myself, I understand that self-care is the underlying variable that impacts the way that I can “hold” my clients’ pain. So I think that it’s fair to ask about self-care.

  • Lisa

    March 17th, 2014 at 4:03 AM

    I hope that we could look beyond what someone looks like to make a decision about who to work with, but we are all just a little shallow that way, or at least I know that I still am, and this is unfortunately the first thing that you will see and the first thing that you are going to have an opinion based upon. Most of us are smart enough to move past all of that once we get to know someone but the reality is that this is naturally the way that most of us will end up making our initial decisions about someone.

  • Harold

    March 20th, 2014 at 4:01 AM

    You can’t be so rigid that you are unable to see something good even if it doesn’t necessarily fit into what you originally had in mind for you or for this experience. Many times we have all had one thing in mind and one thing only and even when something could have worked out well for us it might not on the surface seems like what we were originally looking for and therefore we will easily dismiss it even though it could have been the perfect answer from the beginning. This is something that you have to keep an open mind about because when might look right may not be, and what might look all wrong could be the diamond in the rough that you should pay just a little more attention to.

  • Sam

    June 16th, 2016 at 6:24 PM

    I think an attractive professional therapist website design is also an excellent indicator of a practitioner’s seriousness and professionalism. But I am a little biased as I work here: insession.io :)

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