While finding a therapist can be a little daunting, figuring out which type of therapy is right for you can be even more confusing. There are dozens of therapeutic approaches and many therapists don't practice just one. Instead, they pull elements from different approaches and tailor their treatment according to each client's needs.
So how are you supposed to figure out which type of therapy is right for you?
As with most things, the answer is going to vary according to who you are and what your needs are. It might also vary for you based on where you are in your own journey; what you need during one part of your life might be different than another time—and that’s okay!
Maybe you’re dealing with job stress and want to work with someone who can help you cope and create actionable goals, while later down the line you might want to try couples therapy with a significant other. Or maybe you want help right now processing something that may have happened in your past, while later on your could find more support from someone who can help you embrace and validate your identity. Things will change throughout your life, so don’t worry about examining every possible angle; think about your needs now and how they might best be met.
If you’ve been to therapy before and have had a positive experience, you might want to reach out to that provider or check out their website and find out what type of training they had or what style they were using and try to replicate that. If this is your first time seeking support, there are a few things you can consider when figuring out which type of therapy might suit you best.
If you’ve never been to therapy before, here’s a thought exercise you can try: think about times when you have reached out to a peer or colleague or a loved one to troubleshoot or vent or seek comfort. What were those people like and what about those interactions were the most helpful for you? If it is challenging to think of someone in your life, that's totally normal—try choosing a TV or movie character who comforts or empowers you.
When you have reached out to this person or imagine yourself reaching out to this person for support, what could they do or have they done that has been the most helpful for you?
Maybe you feel the most grounded, empowered, and relieved when you’re troubleshooting and receiving concrete, actionable items to walk away and go do. Maybe they shared a similar experience they have had and gave you insight into how they handled the situation. Maybe they asked you questions and gave you space and time to process, allowing you to reflect and develop some of your own insight. Maybe they suggested that you go for a walk together or try something creative while you talked. Or maybe they suggested some ways to slow down how you react to stressful situations in the moment, like using breathing techniques or visualizations, and offered ways to cope after the stressful situation has passed.
These different methods can correlate to different styles of therapy. If you preferred one but received another, you’d probably feel a little bit dismissed, invalidated, unsatisfied, lonely, or empty, so figuring out which method of support is most empowering to you can be a good way to start to figure out which type of therapy might be best for you.
When it comes to technique, broadly speaking, something like cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is going to be a little more concrete and a little more action-oriented. Something like psychodynamic therapy or psychoanalytic therapy is going to be a little more relational, a bit more fluid, and look more at patterns, insights, and understandings. You’re not necessarily going to walk out of every session with a concrete to-do list or with exercises to do in between sessions.
If you feel like there’s a lot of pent-up stress or anxiety in your body, if you feel tremors or your chest is tight, or there’s tension around your eyes or in your jaw or any part of your body, and you’re having difficulty pointing to a particular triggering event or something upcoming that is stressing you out, you might not necessarily want to use language as the primary processing agent and instead work with a practitioner who has more of a mind-body integration or who is a bit more creative. So you might want to think about hypnotherapy, creative arts therapy, music therapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, which will help you actually find catharsis physically so you can release trauma and stress that is trapped in your body.
As we said before, your therapist could also use a combination of methods or tailor your care to you, so combining your awareness with what kinds of support you prefer plus knowing a little more about some available methods can give you a good jumping off point to figuring out which type of therapy might be best.
When it comes to identity, sometimes we feel that people who look or sound or feel similar to us are those who we might be the most comfortable with or the ones we could trust the most. Other times, there might be aspects of our identity that we’re still processing and accepting, and therefore we might want to work with someone who is actually quite different than us, which might allow us to have a safe space where we don’t feel like the part of our identity that we share are going to be a source of judgement or shame.
Again, you’ll want to think about and be honest with yourself about where you are in your journey. Is it important to you that you share a gender identity, sexual orientation, racial identity, or religious identity with your provider? Would you feel safest with a provider who actually has an identity that is different than yours? You can absolutely think about and prioritize those things in your search.
This is another area that might evolve over time for you as well. For example, if you identify as a woman and you’ve had challenging experiences with men in the past, in order to feel safer and like you can open up more, you might want to start working with a woman. Over time, you might feel that therapy could be a really safe space to challenge yourself to learn, grow, and start integrating relationships with different identity groups. You could start working with a man a bit later after you’ve done some of that healing, processing, understanding, and self-esteem work with someone who you feel safest with first.
When you ask yourself what you want, there may be a number of answers. Remember that what might best serve you right now can change over time, and that’s okay. Make sure you’re also transparent and open with the provider you choose, sharing the things that are important to you at this particular time in your life.
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Caitlin is MyWellbeing's Content Lead, a writer, speaker, communication coach, and the founder of Commcoterie, a communication consultancy. She teaches teams how to use professional coaching communication techniques in their everyday conversations, helps leaders engage their teams with effective and inclusive communication, and partners with service providers to activate their programs and offerings with their own clients through inspiring communication strategies. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.