Congratulations on being courageous, strong and powerful.
You’re courageous for stepping into the unknown, strong for looking in the mirror and recognizing that you need new tools, and powerful for turning to face the past and deciding that the legacy of hurt stops with you.
So, before we talk about how to find a therapist, I want you to agree with me on this important truth: You are worth being well. And part of being well is recognizing when you need the guidance of a professional—so you’re on your way.
Whether you’re dealing with grief or trauma or you’re navigating a difficult relationship, working with a good therapist can teach you how to relate to yourself and the people in your life, reconcile your past, and build a new future. I know because I’ve been there—on the receiving and giving end of therapy.
It’s a process. It will be hard. But it will also be worth it. So, let’s begin.
1. Think about what kind of therapist you need.
A good therapist is a teacher who will walk alongside you as you learn about yourself, how you interact with the world, and how you experience relationships. Research has repeatedly shown that the relationship between a therapist and a client is the most important thing—more important than any particular therapeutic modality (that’s nerd talk for the method a therapist uses). So, as with any other type of relationship, you need to choose someone you can really connect with, be honest with, and be vulnerable with.
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Here are some questions you can ask yourself as you start your search:
- Will I be more comfortable meeting with a man or a woman?
- Do I want to have online/telehealth appointments or in-person? (I’m biased toward in-person if at all possible.)
- Do I want someone who shares my spiritual beliefs and world view?
- Do I need someone who specializes in an area (like grief, marriage, parenting, aging, trauma or abuse)?
By knowing what you’re looking for on the front end, you’ll narrow your search and save yourself a lot of time.
Qualities of a Good Therapist
In addition to your personal preferences, there are a few industry-specific qualities I want you to look for in a therapist. I’ve been in the mental health field for over two decades, and here’s what I’ve learned to look for:
- A good therapist is a teacher. A therapist should never be condescending or unrelatable. They should rarely give you advice. Their job is to listen deeply, reflect, and teach you how to connect the dots across relationships and events. A therapist is not a mystic, healer or predictor of the future.
- A good therapist is not your friend. They’re not your buddy or a future romantic partner. Their job is to teach you how to be a good friend or romantic partner to the people in your life.
- A good therapist will challenge you. Therapy should be uncomfortable if it’s done right. A counselor should not always be neutral. They should be able to tell you the truth when you’re wrong. It’s their job to point you to new directions you haven’t considered or challenges you’re avoiding.
- A good therapist reflects you to yourself. A good therapist holds a mirror up to you, showing you how people experience you in the world. For example, a therapist might find that they feeling unengaged with a client. When the therapist feels bored, they might ask, “I’m struggling to stay engaged with you. Has anyone ever told you this before?” It might sound harsh, but when your therapist reflects their experience and shares truth (gently), it’s one of the most loving things they can do for you. If you truly want to develop skills of connection, you need to be able to accept honest feedback.
2. Ask people you trust for a referral.
Ideally, you can find a therapist by talking to people you already know and trust. Do you have friends, family or a trusted doctor who can give you a few names to research? Word of mouth is the best place to start, because you can find out about someone else’s experience with the therapist.
3. Check with insurance to find an in-network provider.
Therapy can be expensive (I wish this wasn’t true), and many therapists have so much business that they simply charge cash instead of going through insurance. If you have health insurance, hop on the phone or look online to see what coverage you can get from your provider. If they cover mental health, they should have a directory of providers who are in-network. Also, there might be a limit to the number of sessions your insurance will cover, so find out that information on the front end.
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4. Search online.
Maybe it goes without saying, but you can always turn to the all-powerful Google to research. You can learn a lot about therapists in your area by searching accredited websites and reading about their approach and their values. Here are a few databases to check out:
- The American Psychological Association
- The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy
- Psychology Today
- National Register of Health Service Psychologists
These are all accredited organizations that will connect you with trained professionals in your area.
5. Look into local resources.
With a little digging, you might discover a gold mine of resources in your city. And they might be more affordable than you think! Here are a few places to look:
- Community centers (think YMCA or state-run organizations) often have low-cost counselors and free mental health resources.
- Universities have a lot to offer. If you’re a student, you should have access to mental health professionals for free or a significantly reduced rate. And even if you’re not a student, you might be able to get counseling at a lower rate with graduate students who are working on getting hours for their accreditation.
- Your workplace might offer some counseling benefits. Check with your human resources department!
- Churches usually have counselors (or pastors) on staff who would be happy to meet with you.
6. Ask your potential therapist a few questions.
At some point in your search, you’ve got to just book an appointment and see how it goes. This doesn’t mean the search is over, however. Some therapists will use the first session to see if you’re a good fit. That’s because—once again—therapy is all about relationships, and relationships take time.
In your first session, here are a few logistical questions to ask that will help you make your decision:
- Do you accept my insurance?
- Can you help me with my particular challenges?
- Will we commit to this relationship for the next few months, or longer?
A note about credentials: There’s a wide variety of mental health professionals with different degrees. Some of the most common are Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs), Licensed Mental Health Counselors (LMHC), Marriage and Family Therapists (MFT), Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW) and Psychologists (who usually have a doctoral degree). Psychiatrists (MDs or DOs) are the only mental health professionals who are able to prescribe medicine. They very rarely do any counseling.
7. Don’t give up after the first session.
Unless your first meeting is total disaster, don’t bail after one session. In my experience, things start to click during session three or four. Or they don’t. The point is, you shouldn’t quit on therapy until you’ve actually put in some time and effort. It will be uncomfortable and hard, but it should also be healing and safe.
If you’re not connecting with them after three or four sessions, give yourself permission to leave and find someone else. As professionals, they know best of all that if you’re not connecting, your chances of success will be small. You don’t have any obligation to keep seeing a particular counselor just so you won’t hurt their feelings, but you do have an obligation to treat the therapist with respect and let them know if you decide to leave. Cancel your next meeting in a timely and courteous manner and communicate (politely) why.
8. Reflect on your first few meetings.
Therapy can be a lot of work. You might feel very tired after a session, especially your first few. This isn’t a bad thing—you just need to give yourself time and space to reflect on how things went. You’ll have homework, things to practice, and insights and reflections to bring back during follow up appointments. It’s all part of the healing and growing process.
After you leave the therapist’s office (or end the virtual appointment), take a few minutes and ask yourself:
- How did my body feel during the session? Tense? Relaxed?
- What emotions did I experience during the conversation?
- Did I feel listened to and valued?
- What questions did the therapist ask, and what statements did he or she make?
- What did I learn about myself?
As you make your final decision, I want you to keep these important truths in mind:
- You should not be in counseling forever. A counselor’s job is to walk alongside you, help you, and send you on your way. A good therapist should tell you something like, “My job is to work myself out of a job with you.”
- Be wary of a therapist who gives you a diagnosis in the first session. Mental health diagnoses such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and major depressive disorder are complicated and multifaceted. I’m immediately suspicious of a therapist who comes to a quick conclusion. You want to work with someone who’s patient and thorough.
- A trained therapist should not dig into the details of trauma in the first session. Your therapist should discuss a safety plan with you before you unpack trauma. You should feel in control—at all times—of that narrative.
Hope for a Better Future
I’ve got one last tip for you. I want you to think deeply about your life right now—all of the obligations you have, the roles you play, the history and traumas you’ve experienced, and the aches and pains and wounds and anxieties you carry. Then, I want you to paint a picture of where you’re going—the life you hope to have in the future.
Who do you want to become? What do you want your relationships, work, body, attitude and interests to look like? How will you feel? How will your relationships look? How hard will you laugh and sleep and hug? Visualize it. Dream it up. And keep that picture in mind as you enter therapy.
A good therapist is like a companion riding shotgun on a road trip. They help you navigate unknown terrain. They help keep you focused when you’re tired of the long drive. They listen to your thoughts and stories. They give you permission to be yourself. And they teach you how to heal and get where you want to be.
As you journey forward, I would be honored if you would check out The Dr. John Delony Show. It’s my podcast and YouTube channel where I take calls from people like you who are struggling with real-life problems. As you listen, you’ll be reminded again and again of one powerful truth: You are not alone.