I have heard a few stories from horrified clients as they tell me tales of pervious therapists they’ve worked with. I remember a particularly interesting story of an out-of-state therapist who suggested my client’s husband (who was suffering from PTSD and multiple chronic physical issues resulting from car accidents experienced on the job) “drink wine” to manage anxiety since his medication was no longer covered by his insurance. Hmm… interesting theory as he subsequently (and not surprisingly) developed a dependence on alcohol.
Now, the important disclaimer for this article is that we therapists are human (shocking, I know), and can occasionally make mistakes or miss the mark. That’s completely normal. It’s also completely normal to not mesh well with a particular type or style of therapy, as there are about a billion ways to approach the same problem. Not every approach is going to match well with you, and that feedback is welcome within the therapy process. This is not the same thing as a clinician who is negligent or careless in their work. This also is not an excuse for you, the client, to make little effort in your treatment. No therapist has a magic wand and can fix your problems for you –you have to be an active participant!
But how can you, the consumer, know just how to find the right fit for you?
1) Ask questions!
Sometimes therapeutic interventions can be so subtle you don’t realize its happening. A truly skilled clinician can sneak interventions in all over the place without you realizing you’re being “therapized”. This is not an attempt to trick you, it is designed to challenge your current way of thinking in a non-judgmental manner and promote the change that you are seeking in a non-blaming way. But if you feel like you are attending therapy week after week without progress, speak up! Advocate for yourself. Check in with the therapist to see where they see the treatment going and give the feedback that you feel stuck. It amazes me to hear clients will spend years in therapy where they felt each week they went in and vented, but nothing changed. This is your time, money and life. Use this as an opportunity to find your voice and get what you’re paying for.
**Side note – sometimes the therapeutic relationship is used as a means for intervention. For example, if you are someone who is seeking therapy because you feel like a doormat in your own life, the therapist may intentionally be attempting to put you in the driver’s seat to practice assertiveness within a safe space. Speaking up and questioning the therapist may be a therapeutic challenge. So if you speak up, congratulations! You’ve just made a change!**
2) Phone a friend.
One of the best ways to find a good therapist is through personal referrals. Often we still find a stigma attached to going to therapy, so you may be afraid to ask around for fear of judgment by loved ones. But the reality is a good percentage of Americans today are in therapy! I worked at an agency previously where multiple members of the same family would all independently seek out treatment, having no idea that other family members were in treatment as well. It was hysterical when they all ran into each other in the waiting room! Don’t be scared to ask around and get honest feedback from your loved ones. If they have connected with a good therapist, chances are they would be happy to share their positive experience with you!
3) Do research.
When you work in the field long enough, you forget that the rest of the world doesn’t talk in therapy terms. A therapist may advertise themselves using all sorts of acronyms and initials that mean absolutely nothing to you. Look it up! Google can do wonders in helping shed light on some of these foreign terms. Or ask the therapist themselves as they can then tell you how this may apply to your work together.
Also, don’t be afraid to ask what degree the therapist has, where they went to school and what further areas of interest or trainings they’ve participated in. In Connecticut, the Marriage and Family Therapy programs all produce very competent and well-educated professionals. However, each program has a slightly different theoretical focus. When you combine that with a therapist’s personal area of interest, this results in many different spins on the same process. And while we all do the same work, a Social Worker comes from a different perspective than an LMFT or an LPC (Licensed ProfessionalCounselor). Just like flavors of ice cream, there are many choices to pick from, so try them all and see which you most connect with!
4) Be honest with yourself and take accountability for your treatment.
If you are someone who looks back on all the various therapists and therapies you’ve tried, but nothing EVER seems to work, it could be time to ask yourself if you’ve given the therapy an honest effort. Therapy can be a complicated journey, and sometimes even though we know we need to make changes, we just may not be ready to do so. And that’s ok. But it is not ok to blame 100 therapists or therapies for your life not changing. There are a huge portion of therapies that are evidenced-based, meaning they’ve been scientifically proven to be effective. It is not some fluke that it “just didn’t work” for you. At the end of the day, when you go home from therapy, you have to implement the changes you’ve discussed. Be honest with your therapist if you find that you are not implementing changes outside of the therapy room. The therapist is there to support you and find ways around the blocks you are feeling.
It is also not ok to discount the therapist because they are asking you to work. Sometimes our role is to challenge you to do things differently or experience uncomfortable feelings that you want to keep avoiding because it hurts. We get that. But we are not pushing you because we are mean. You are coming to us because you want to make changes, and sometimes that means taking emotional risks so you can heal. There are no tricks or magic therapies that will do the hard work for you. If you attempt anything in life at 50% effort, you are only going to see 50% results. The same goes for therapy. We know that the effort you make now to face your pain will result in the healing you are seeking. Our only goal is to help you. Trust us.
Finding the right therapist can come down to trial and error. We as therapists attempt to remain open and curious in an effort to get to know you as best we can. We educate ourselves and fill our tool boxes with intervention upon intervention in an effort to give you the most effective therapeutic experience possible. But we are who we are, and you won’t always like us. We may remind you of that awful 3rd grade teacher who never let you go to recess and there’s nothing we can do about that. Whatever it may be, you have the right as a client and consumer to find the best match for you. Our only expectation is that you enter our partnership willing to try. We’ve got it from there.