By Anna Koops, MFT –
In this new year, maybe you’ve decided to look for a therapist. This is not a simple task. There are many different types of therapy with confusing names and acronyms (CBT, AEDP, EFT, DBT, psychodynamic, Gestalt, etc.), and, in the Bay Area alone, hundreds of practitioners of each type.
Therapy is a huge investment of time, money, and emotional energy, so there is a lot at stake here. The first step is always to meet in person with your potential therapist. Just looking at a therapist’s profile online will not tell you how you will feel around this person or whether or not you will work well together.
Once you’ve met, if you feel instantly confident that your therapist is a good fit for you, and this feeling continues for many sessions in the future, then wonderful! You probably don’t need to read any further. Conversely, if you have an overwhelmingly strong negative reaction to your therapist from the beginning and you are absolutely sure they cannot help you, it’s time to look for someone else.
Have I Found the Right Fit?
Most of us will have reactions that are somewhere in between these two and will wonder, sometimes for many sessions, “have I found the right fit?” This is a hard question to answer, mostly because the original question is all wrong.
The question “How do I find the right therapist?” suggests that a therapist and patient should immediately fit together like a lock and key, and that if you’ve gotten the fit “wrong” the therapy will fail. Conversely, if you’ve gotten it “right,” everything will click into place and you will get better quickly.
This sounds a little like our fantasies of romantic love: that there is a person, or multiple people, out there who can make us happy and fulfill all of our needs, and we just have to find them. Anyone who has been in a human relationship (all of us!) quickly learns this isn’t the case.
We humans are all deeply flawed, along with our relationships, and we have to do some hard work to communicate and receive what we need from one another. Although the therapeutic relationship is different from other human relationships, as there is a trained and experienced professional focusing solely on the patient’s needs and emotions, it is still a person-to-person relationship. This is what makes it helpful, but can also make it complicated.
In therapy, as in most human relationships, a good fit is made, not found. This means that it could take some time and work for you to feel helped by your therapist. The therapeutic relationship should be changing and evolving as you spend more time with your therapist and as the therapist learns more about you.
Just as a new parent has to learn how to interpret and respond to his or her infant’s cues and cries, and gets better at this over time, so too should your therapist learn to hear and respond to what you are needing as he or she gets to know you better. You are probably a very complicated person who might take some time to understand.
It doesn’t matter what “type” of therapy your therapist is interested in. Are they interested in you? Do you feel comfortable bringing up your concerns about therapy, or times when you felt your therapist wasn’t helpful? And, does your therapist seem interested in not only your life, but also how she might be impacting you? Is he non-defensive and curious if you do bring up concerns about the therapy? Even better, can you tell that she is keeping track of your experience of your work together? If you can answer yes to these questions, then I think you and your therapist are creating a good fit together in therapy and it’s worth sticking around.
If you can shift your idea of finding the right fit, to this notion of creating a good fit together in therapy, it will have a big positive effect on your other relationships and, in turn, the rest of your life. There is no special power or skill that a therapist has (sorry for the spoiler!), other than being capable and willing to thoughtfully attend to your emotional needs and muddle through your inner world with you.
To those suffering and needing immediate help, this may sound a little disappointing. In actuality, the idea of therapy as an adjustable and relational process in which a real person wants to understand you, learn about your needs, and be with your most difficult thoughts and feelings is quite profound. Many of us didn’t get this sort of attention and care in childhood when we really needed it, so have come to believe that others don’t want us to be messy, upset, or needy.
This adds to our distress when we are going through something difficult and sabotages our efforts to be in healthy adult relationships (which, despite what anyone tells you, will include plenty of imperfect, seemingly impossible moments that need lots of time and attention to sort out). Life will inevitably be painful at times, with most circumstances happening outside of our control, and it’s mostly our ability to be in intimate and helpful relationships that will provide solace and meaning.
By sticking with therapy long enough to create a good fit with our therapist, we can start to believe, deep in our bones, that these sorts of helpful relationships are possible, and we can learn how to create them in the rest of our lives. It’s not the quick fix many of you might be looking for, but it certainly will lead to a better 2016 and beyond.