How searching for a therapist can be like searching for a mate
Friends and acquaintances often ask me whether I can recommend a psychotherapist. This question fills me with the same eagerness and desire to make a good match as a matchmaker feels when faced with a new suitor (incidentally I am a good matchmaker). I believe that trying to match a person with a potential therapist requires similar skills to matching a person with a possible mate due to the centrality of a good relationship between therapist and client in fostering a helpful, transformative therapeutic experience.
When considering embarking on a course of psychotherapy, many potential clients will have read up on or found out about the different therapeutic approaches; they may have thoughts about why CBT could help them more than another model or why psychoanalysis is not what they are looking for. However, in 2002, the American Psychological Association (APA) found that: “the therapy relationship… makes substantial and consistent contributions to psychotherapy outcome independent of the specific type of treatment” (Steering Committee 2002, p.441). This research showed that with so many different psychotherapeutic approaches available, it is the relationship between the client and therapist that impacts the effectiveness of the therapy most often rather than the type of therapy one is receiving.
For this reason, matching a client with a therapist requires similar skills to that of the matchmaker, in that I will consider which therapists I know that this person is most likely to connect and feel at ease with. I will attempt to match temperaments and modes of being such as matching a naturally practical person either with a similar therapist or a therapist who is the opposite depending on what they are looking for or feel they need. In addition, I may also ask about how important location and cost is (the cost is where the matchmaking analogy fails a little). Moreover, I like to explain to people who are looking for therapists about their right to say when something doesn’t feel right or good.
Many people setting out to find a therapist for the first time make the assumption that the therapist is the “expert”, that this is somebody who is providing a service and no matter how they feel when with that person the therapist must “know” what they’re doing. This could not be further from responsible “therapist finding”. As a potential client it is you who is “assessing” your therapist, not the other way around. The quality of the relationship you and your therapist manage to build determines how helpful and therapeutic your relationship is. If following your initial sessions, you do not feel that the relationship is working, as with finding a mate; there are plenty more fish in the sea and you do not need to settle. So here is my list of questions anybody looking for a therapist should ask him/herself when assessing a possible match, if you answer yes to most of these you’re on the right track:
Do I feel at ease with this person?
Do I feel like this person is trying to understand/understands me?
Do I feel safe in the room with this person (emotionally, psychologically and physically)?
Do I feel able to give this person honest feedback when they say things that don’t resonate or feel unhelpful?
Do I feel that we have a shared sense of why I am coming and what I am looking to get from the therapy?
Do I feel like this person can hold, contain and manage what I am talking about?
Do I feel like this person cares about me?
Does the journey or cost fit into my life?
However, as with matchmaking, sometimes it just doesn’t work no matter how hard you try. In these cases you are well within your rights to call it quits and embark on a new search, because when you find someone you click with therapy suddenly makes sense.