Choosing a Therapist

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Why see a counsellor or psychotherapist?

Some people think that seeing a therapist is an admission that something is wrong with them. This is an unfortunate misconception. Seeking support for one's self or wanting to fully participate in one's personal development is a positive affirmation of life, a creative undertaking that requires courage and curiosity.

From the outside it might appear that counselling or psychotherapy is just a bunch of talk, but it is much more than an exchange of words. Practitioners may use a range of techniques, yet therapy is more than someone practicing a set of skills or 'going through the appropriate motions'. So what is it that makes therapy truly effective and worth our while?

Human beings have an uncanny ability to intuit another person's capacity for understanding. A therapist may be appropriately educated and have completed relevant training, but this will never be enough. For therapy to be effective; a genuine connection is essential.

How will I know if a therapist is right for me?

This is a difficult question, but an important one nonetheless. For those who have the good fortune of finding a suitable therapist first time, this question may not even arise. For others however, it can be quite a different story. The search for the 'right' therapist is not unlike searching for the 'right' accountant, doctor, builder or hairdresser. Whether it be entrusting our finances, our health, our home or our hair to another person, few people would settle for just anyone.

However, many of us are seasoned procrastinators. We rarely seek anything unless we perceive or feel an immediate need for it. How many people do you know who can say that they have found a therapist but not yet engaged their services? As it happens, most people wait until they are suffering intense emotional pain or in the midst of a crisis - and need help right away. Such a time is probably not the best time to choose a therapist.

When discomfort is extreme, there is a great deal of pressure to find relief - and find it fast. These less than ideal circumstances can make it difficult to focus our thoughts and make sound judgements.

A typical scenario: After struggling for an extended period of time we finally 'hit the wall'. Desperate, we make an appointment with the nearest and first available therapist. At the initial meeting we discover that the therapist operates on a wavelength that is not compatible with our own. We sink into despair and disappointment. Unaware of alternatives, some of us opt to persevere - albeit half heartedly. Or we might become disillusioned and give up on the idea of therapy altogether. Neither of these outcomes is satisfactory; there is little joy in settling for mediocrity and perhaps even less in allowing ourselves to become jaded.

Factors that influence the client-therapist relationship

There is no universal fail-proof formula for choosing a therapist, but this needn't discourage us. Many choices in life require discernment and some deliberation. We identified ten factors that may impact on the therapist-client relationship. This list is by no means exhaustive, and is included here only to encourage you to reflect on your own experience.

1) Atmosphere. Therapists' rooms vary a great deal. And, though we are not all equally sensitive to our surroundings, we are all affected; just differently. For example, some people may feel constricted in a small space; whereas others may find the same room cosy and preferable to a larger one. Brightly coloured walls may be intimidating to some and inviting to others. Some of us are comfortable sitting on the floor; others would rather sit on a chair. These sorts of things will contribute to overall impression. Still, it is the quality of presence engendered by the therapist that ultimately sets the scene.

2) Gender. Does it matter whether the therapist is male or female? Gender won't be a critical consideration for everyone, but some of us will gravitate towards a particular gender. There are no rules here, just preferences.

3) Age. Though birth dates are part of the therapeutic equation, they need not play a big role in relationship dynamic. Some people may be apprehensive about a therapist who is several years younger or older, others may be delighted by an age difference.

4) Cultural background. Persons from vastly different cultural contexts may encounter some difficulty understanding each other, even if diversity is warmly embraced.

Although I try to be universal in thought, I am European by instinct and inclination. -Albert Einstein

5) Philosophical orientation. No two people share exactly the same views and values, we are each one unique. This truth doesn't seem to prevent us from carrying around the belief that others are or should be just like us. Many of our assumptions operate underground; this lack of awareness makes it difficult to see our biases 'at work'. Do you want your therapist to be a kindred spirit? In what way might this impact on your expectations around how therapy should proceed?

6) Personal attitude. Recent research indicates that personality has a significant sway on how we evaluate therapy. If we don't like the person we perceive a therapist to be, there is little chance we will want to engage this person on a meaningful level; especially if the aversion is particularly strong. This response may be tempered however, by a belief that the therapist can help. Does the therapist instill a genuine sense of hope?

7) Physical appearance, manner and voice. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, the judgements we make about another person are influenced by how we perceive his or her appearance, body language, and voice quality. When you are greeted by your therapist in person for the first time, do you find yourself being drawn forward or wanting to pull back? 

As we get to know someone, it is not uncommon for our perceptions to change. Someone who appears quite ordinary in the beginning may become beautiful in our eyes once we've spent time in their company. Of course, this can also happen the other way round.  Distance tests the endurance of a horse; time reveals a man's character.

8) Therapeutic approach. There are many schools of thought; the myriad possibilities can be daunting. Still, most of us find that certain modalities and methods appeal more than others. Whether we are motivated by strong feelings, a hankering to make sense of our experience, or swayed by the pragmatism of what works, we tend to lean towards a particular style. This may change from time to time; what appealed to us before may not be what we want now. There has been much research and even more written on the processes of learning. However, insights and shifts often occur when we least expect them, and in ways that defy explanation.

9) Academic accomplishment. While a therapist's university degrees and specialised training are important professional prerequisites, they offer no guarantees as to personal competence or compatibility. Be sure to ask a therapist about their qualifications and registrations with relevant government bodies and member associations.

10) Availability. Practical matters, like location, finding a time that is mutually convenient, and negotiating an acceptable fee may seem relatively minor concerns, but proximity, flexibility and/or affordability can turn out to be major deterrents.

'Good therapy' as a concept is meaningful because sometimes, therapy is not so good. Exactly how each person determines where on the good - not so good continuum a moment in therapy falls continues to baffle even the keenest of minds. This doesn't mean we should dismiss our yearning to understand. Quite the contrary: may we persevere in kindness and in truth, with ourselves and with others ... may we travel with intention in the direction of Understanding.

Asked about the difference between a well-made work and a masterpiece, Nadia Boulanger (a French composer, conductor, and teacher who taught many of the leading composers and musicians of the 20th century) replied, 
"I can tell whether a piece is well-made or not, and I believe that there are conditions without which masterpieces cannot be achieved, but I also believe that what defines a masterpiece cannot be pinned down. I won't say that the criterion for a masterpiece does not exist, but I don't know what it is."

Looking for a therapist? Please read this before you use Good Therapy's Directory

Just because a practitioner has a profile on Good Therapy's website, doesn't mean they are recommended or endorsed by Good Therapy Australia. While we do screen the applications of practitioners who register with Good Therapy, we cannot and do not vouch for the qualifications, services or competency of individual practitioners. 

When a practitioner applies to add their profile to the Directory, we do basic checks

If a practitioner is a Psychologist or Medical Practitioner, we check that they are listed with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency. Anyone can search for a particular Psychologist or Medical Practitioner, by surname or registration number on the AHPRA website

If a practitioner is a Clinical Social Worker, we check that they are registered with the Australian Association of Social Workers. The AASW website provides a search page that enables anyone to search for a social worker by name.

If a practitioner is a Counsellor or Psychotherapist, we require that they are a member of at least one of the Professional Associations on our list. There are a number of Australian and international psychotherapy and counselling associations, operating independently of each other.

The purpose of a Professional Association is to set professional standards for training and practice, and to take steps to ensure that their members meet these standards. Associations provide a framework within which member practitioners are required to continue their education, undertake supervision, keep up to date with developments within the field, as well as follow guidelines and regulations relating to ethics, professional indemnity insurance, and other important matters.

Besides checking professional eligibility, Good Therapy looks at a Practitioner's website to make sure that stated practice locations, phone numbers, qualifications, their photo, and general information are all consistent with their application. We may also call them for a chat about their credentials, experience and to ask any questions we might have. 

Although we have checks in place to safeguard who gets to be profiled in Good Therapy's Directory, we strongly recommend that you carry out your own checks.

What if a practitioner's circumstances change and they forget to update their profile?

It makes good sense not to base important decisions on assumptions... When it comes to asking a practitioner about their services and qualifications, don't be shy. Be thorough. Be discerning.

-- Ask a practitioner about their experience and areas of interest and expertise

-- Ask them which professional associations are they currently a member of

-- Ask for confirmation of a practitioner's address, fees, and professional indemnity insurance

Details such as these are especially relevant if you are making an appointment to see them.

Should you discover a discrepancy between the information on a practitioner's profile and what the practitioner says, be sure to tell them. And if you have the time and inclination, tell us too. We can then follow up to ensure that any necessary changes are made. You can write to us via our contact page. 

SEARCH Good Therapy's Practitioner Directory to look for a suitable psychotherapist, counsellor or psychologist near you.

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