Have you ever felt overwhelmed when searching for a therapist? Have you thought about giving up on starting therapy altogether, because you’ve had unsuccessful therapeutic encounters? If so, you are not alone. Fit is all-important in therapy, but it can be difficult to find the therapist who is the right fit for you.
In recent years, more and more people are starting to pay attention to their mental health and seek care. However, many people find it especially challenging to navigate the endless options of therapists. Scrolling through a list of therapists online is a decidedly un-therapeutic experience.
I know this firsthand. As a client, I have worked with 10 therapists, dating back to my teens (yes, aspiring and working therapists go to therapy to learn and grow, just like everyone else). Some of those therapeutic relationships ended because one of us was relocating, and virtual therapy was not mainstream yet. Others ended because I felt disrespected and unheard. And, of those ten therapists, only two truly helped me to become more confident and stronger.
Throughout all this time, I have sometimes struggled to find a compatible therapist, just like many of you. So I thought it might be helpful for me to share some thoughts and strategies about finding the right therapist for you.
When you are looking for an apartment or a job, you have some concrete ideas as to what you want: location, commute time, salary range, etc.
Similarly, it’s very helpful to narrow down your top 3 “must-haves” when looking for a therapist. That could be the gender of the therapist, location, age, or specialties—whatever is most important to you.
Shop online and pay attention to which therapists’ profiles you gravitate toward. But, just like apartment hunting or dating, while things might look good on paper, the real test is when you make direct contact via phone or in person (more on that later).
If you’re in New York City, you can match with a therapist for free through MyWellbeing. MyWellbeing helps you narrow down your top 3 “must-haves” and then matches you with a therapist based on your answers.
From my own experience working with multiple therapists, as well as speaking with many friends and colleagues who have been in therapy, I’ve seen that it’s more important to feel comfortable with the therapist on a personal level, and pay less attention to their titles.
I went to a seasoned psychologist (Ph.D.) in his 90’s, thinking that he was going to solve all of my problems because he’d been practicing longer than I had been alive! But it turned out to be a disappointing experience. He made consistent scheduling errors, and I often found myself listening to his life stories more than sharing my own experience. And, truthfully, as a younger woman, I found a lot of his worldview inconsistent with my own. Ultimately, I didn’t feel comfortable working with him.
The most important factor to a positive clinical outcome is the personal bond between you and your therapist.
Once you have a list of therapists, reach out via email and/or phone with some questions. Ask whether the therapist takes your health insurance, what their cancelation policies and session rates are, and how they would describe their clinical style.
Some therapists offer free 10-15-minute phone consultations, while others offer free in-person consultations. These consultation sessions are a great way for you and the therapist to see what it might be like to work together. And, if you don’t end up working together for any reason, ask if they have colleagues they can refer you to.
Generally speaking, a confident and ethical therapist will be upfront and clear about their session rates, policies, and clinical expertise when asked.
Ambiguity can lead to conflict; for example, one therapist I saw raised my session rate on her invoice without discussing it with me, and actually wanted to effective-date the increase to a month’s worth of previous sessions! When I confronted her mid-session, she lost her cool and threw me out of her office. That experience made me feel not only disrespected, but that I had lost some trust in the therapeutic process. It was some time before I was ready to seek another therapist, but I had learned a valuable lesson, as both a client and a practicing clinician.
Pay attention to how you feel when you talk to a therapist on the phone or in person.
Feeling a bit nervous is completely normal. But do you feel listened to? Does this therapist provide concrete feedback, or are you leaving the session feeling uncentered and emotionally raw?
You may not be able to decide if the therapist is a good fit for you right away. And that’s totally OK.
A general rule of thumb is that if, by the third session, you still don’t feel a connection with the therapist, then it may be time to consider other options.
To give another example, I once met with a potential therapist for a consultation. I was reminded multiple times during that session that I would have to meet with him every single week, allowing only 3 weeks off in a calendar year. More than that, and I would have to pay his full session fee if I missed a single session in that time, even if I provided advance notice!
Of course, I felt pressured by this strict policy, so needless to say, that relationship did not continue.
When looking for a therapist, it’s important to trust your gut. Fit is the most important indicator in whether the therapeutic relationship will work and, if a therapist doesn’t seem like the right fit, it’s okay to move on.
Therapy is hard work, and it can be quite painful at times. Trust me, I know! But, if you really want to heal, evolve, and thrive in your life, there are no shortcuts.
Chances are, at some point in your therapeutic journey, you will have a disappointing experience. Hopefully you can process that experience, and learn from it. And even when you do find the right therapist, there are going to be days you find challenging, but the insight you gain will last a lifetime.
When I feel lost or unmotivated in my own therapy, I keep reminding myself to trust the process, and look back at where I was a year ago (or even 3 months ago!). I find this reflection very helpful, and am grateful for the clear perspective it brings.
After all these years of therapy, in the many different stages of my life, I can say that it is the among the best investments of my life.
I hope my shared experiences can provide some validation, as well as insight into navigating the therapist search process. Hang in there, and don’t give up on yourself. Because your needs, and your presence matter. With hard work, and the desire to heal and grow, you can become the confident and kind person you’ve always wanted to be.
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Zi Wang is a licensed psychotherapist based in New York City. She specializes in confidence building and self-esteem issues, women’s issues, and social justice issues, working with both individuals and couples. By combining her personal experience as a competitive athlete with her training in sport and performance psychology, Zi helps her clients implement positive psychology skills, whether she’s working with athletes, performers, or the general public. She helps clients set realistic goals to aid them in reaching their full potential in their personal and professional lives. Zi holds masters degrees from Columbia University and University of Denver, in counseling psychology and sport psychology, respectively.