By this point, I am hoping I don’t have to convince you of the importance of therapy. Therapy literally changes us. In particular, it changes our brains – and not in a metaphorical way. If you don’t believe me, Google ‘neuroplasticity’. Our brains are clever, and very malleable.
According to psychotherapist David Richo, “our wounds are often the openings into the best and most beautiful parts of us.” So if you want to be the greatest version of you, embrace this practice. For all of us. We really want to see the most ‘healing-in-process’ and thriving version of you out there in the world.
Therapists are not these higher beings with all of their shit together, ducks in a row, T’s crossed, I’s dotted, etc. Their lives are like yours: messy, complex, painful, dynamic and exquisite. They likely just have better coping strategies than you – at least right now. In saying that, some therapists do just suck. And some will be great for your friend Sally but are not necessarily right for you.
The therapy process can make it easy for us to feel like passive weirdos. A tiny little person on this huge couch, with staged flowers and tissues on one side and a perfectly poured glass of water on the other awaiting our nervous lips at the first sign of the words, “So, how have you been?”
“Yeah you know, not too bad. Sort of, you know, I’m *sighs* okay,” you reply in between sips of lukewarm water. But behind the awkward smile you worry about needing to pee mid-session, and if they will psychoanalyse this as a demonstration of your avoidant personality.
So, I’m just gonna put it out there: finding a good therapist is like dating. Of course, this kind of relationship should always be a professional and therapeutic one. However, I think we so easily ‘settle’ for the first one who says “yes.” While I fully acknowledge that sometimes waiting lists can be exuberant for accessing therapy, it’s important to also hold in mind that a ‘bad’ therapist can do way more damage than good.
By ‘bad’ therapist, I do not mean someone who holds you accountable or asks tough questions. I mean a ‘bad’ therapist for you. For why you are seeking out therapy, for what you believe in, for what kind of wounds you carry. For the triggers you know you want to work through. For your history. For your belief systems. For the person you’re trying to grow into.
There is a thing called ‘unconditional positive regard’ which is the space most therapists are trained to hold their clients within. Which essentially means to be nice, non-judgemental and not think the worst of you. However, as with any industry, not all people are great at their jobs or challenged in positions of power, especially when their clients are physically or emotionally vulnerable. (Note: each therapy type has a code of ethics freely accessible if you ever need more info on this. Just look up ‘code of ethics’ and the country and type of therapy.)
We need to take therapists off pedestals, and be willing to critically ask ourselves if this person is going to be a guiding, beneficial source of wisdom and support for us. If not, try someone new – there’s absolutely no shame in this.
Step 1: Back to Basics
Some things to consider might be what kind of trauma you may have and what identity markers are relevant for you. For example, as a queer woman currently in a same-sex relationship who is a survivor of sexual trauma, finding a therapist that is not just ‘okay’ with my queerness but at the very least is an ally, and ensuring my therapist works from a trauma-informed practice, feels crucial to my success in connecting with and trusting them. I’m also adamant on avoiding therapists that remind me of my mum so I don’t fall into old childhood patterns.
Could you journal or map which parts of yourself you want to work with in therapy? Notice what identity markers, events and values come up as clear vehicles towards your emotional wellness.
Step 2: Practical Magic
Think about the practicalities of therapy. Remember going to therapy to talk to an empty chair that represents your inner demon ain’t always going to feel easy, so make it as easy as possible for yourself to physically and emotionally get there.
If you don’t drive, catching four buses home should be avoided, if at all possible. Be honest with yourself about what you can show up for, and what excuses you might make. If you do drive, find session times that aren’t going to mean driving to the other side of town in peak-hour traffic or attending a session after a full work day. Make the process as easy and enjoyable for yourself as possible.
It can be hard to go ‘deep’ in therapy if you know you have to sit under train lights for an hour and half afterwards with mascara all over your face, replaying your darkest hour. Work smart, not hard and keep the practical bits easy by allocating heaps of time and space before and after to unwind, integrate and veg out.
Step 3: New Therapist, New You
At the beginning of the therapy process, a big new beautifully enriching thing can often be shifting out of the victim mindset. A helpful step when starting this process is to not act from the place of a passive client who has no idea what they want and just wants someone (their therapist) to ‘save them’.
A good therapist should be supportive and excited by a client that wants to take an active and energised approach to their healing. Of course, a therapist does not need to share their personal details and really shouldn’t do too much of this, unless it is in service to you as their client. However, asking them things from the get-go is allowed and sometimes saves you a lot of time and money.
Step 4: The Big Q’s.
Using your experience, identity and life-mapping, work out what you give a shit about. Your therapist does not have to agree, but you can ask them to be authentic in their experience and the approaches they take in working through events that have played out for you.
There’s so many ‘types’ of therapists to do this kind of work with: a Psychologist, counsellor, psychotherapist, family therapist, couples therapist. Their school of study, personal bias, and how they manage their own life humps will inevitably show up in subtle (or not so subtle) ways when they work with you. While this is human and it is exactly this human-centred approach that often means therapy ‘works’, you still get to have agency in who you choose to work with and why.
Some questions you might ask in an initial session or phone call with a prospective therapist are:
1. How would you describe your style as a therapist?
This isn’t just about where they studied – get them to talk about how they like to support their clients. Are they gentle? A hard-ass? Neutral? Solution-focused? Deep listening-centred? Somatic-based? Is that what you want?
2. What are your time and accessibility boundaries as a therapist?
If you find yourself in a crisis, will it be easy to schedule a call or emergency meeting with them? Are you allowed to contact them between sessions with questions? What is their preferred communication method?
3. How many clients do they roughly see per week?
This may give you a feel for how easily you can get into see them and if they hold enough space around sessions to model self-care and boundaries.
4. Do they have any holidays coming up and do they take long breaks regularly? How much notice will be provided?
Therapists should, ideally, take time for themselves and their lives because compassion fatigue is real. However, how they navigate and communicate this must be ethical and fair to their clients, especially if undergoing specific therapies like DBT, CBT or other staged processes of therapy.
5. What do you enjoy about your role as a therapist?
Preferably they have a healthy relationship with their work so they can build a healthy relationship with their clients.
6. What do you do for self-care?
This is about as personal as you would get in a session, but it helps indicate if they model the practices they are likely going to encourage of you. If you both work out that you love boxing in the rain or slow beach walks or whatever, it’s a sweet landing place to come back to in a session if things get a bit intense in the therapy trenches.
7. Without needing details from you, have you experienced ongoing therapy yourself as a client?
They don’t need to go into specifics, because oversharing is not necessary in this space (from their side, that is) but if they have never been in therapy themselves it’s a BIG red flag. Do they even know themselves?
Your therapy process is yours. Your therapist is just there to help you navigate those ugly life moments, to help you get closer without turning away from yourself. Own the process. The right therapist will be grateful as fuck to know what you expect from them and what could be therapeutically co-created in the therapy room.
Be brave and ask for what you need, you gorgeous work-in-progress.