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5 Tips For Finding Your Perfect Therapist

January 30, 2015


What Does it Mean to Be a Good Therapist?

Many members and friends have come to me over the years and said they’ve had a bad experience with their therapist.  It breaks my heart to hear this, because often times after a bad experience, people will never go back.  Sometimes, a bad experience can be the result of not finding a therapist you “click” with.  Other times, the therapist is more directly responsible.  Either way, I think it’s important to share with people what they can and should expect from a therapist.  Also, there are qualities that distinguish a good from a bad therapist—whether they are a physical, occupational, recreation, art, music therapist or a psychologist, licensed counselor or social worker.


Here Are 5 Tips to Keep in Mind As You Search For A Therapist That is A Good For You!

1. A Good Therapist Will Not Pretend to Have All The Answers.

In the old days, Western medicine followed the medical model, which stipulated that the doctor was in charge, and it was the patient’s job to listen to and obey whatever the doctor told them to do.  While the medical model still influences the relationship between healthcare providers and clients, the “father knows best” attitude is quickly (thankfully) being replaced by the concept of patient-centered or client-centered care, which I elaborate on in another post. Under this, more enlightened and empowering paradigm, healthcare providers are expected to get to know their patients, understand their patients’ goals, and collaborate with them to reach those goals.  Someone gave me the metaphor that, “the patient steers the ship of their life; the therapist just stands by and helps navigate for awhile.” 

-----> Under the paradigm of patient-centered care, you should expect:

  • Your therapist should proactively ask you what your goals and wishes are for therapy
  • Respect your goals and work with you to achieve them
  • Demonstrate commitment to collaborate with you on your therapy goals as an equal partner, not a superior expert
  • Ask your permission before giving you advice
  • Give you the ultimate responsibility for creating the changes you seek


2. A Good Therapist Challenges, As Well As Comforts

A friend, mentor and fellow therapist once defined “idiot compassion” as mindlessly validate everything their patient tells them without providing honest feedback or insights.  Members and friends have complained to me that some therapists’ and listeners’ responses feel “canned” or superficially demonstrative of care without providing real empathy.  Repeated responses like: “how did that make you feel?” or “that must be awful” don’t do anything to advance the patient/client/members’ understanding of complex problems. 

At best, they provide sympathy or pity, which is ineffective at relieving suffering.  Novice therapists and listeners sometimes use idiot compassion because they are afraid to admit they don’t know the answer, or they fear not being able to relate to a difficult situation.  Seasoned therapists resort to idiot compassion because they are burned out or suffering from compassion fatigue.        

-----> In Addition To Not Providing Superficial Displays of Compassion and Sympathy, A Good Therapist Should Always:

  • Give you honest feedback
  • Address and identify your emotions, especially if you seem sad or angry
  • Challenge you to think beyond your current concepts and assumptions, especially if you seem to be “stuck”—but do so in a respectful way
  • Openly admit it when they don’t know or seem perplexed
  • Provide you with cognitive tools and demonstrate their use, and then encourage you to adapt, think for yourself, and draw your own conclusions.


3. A Good Therapist Sets and Maintains Boundaries

Once a child family member had a therapist who gave her toys, stuffed animals and baked goodies every time she saw her.  Was this sweet and kind, yes.  Was it therapy, no.  A good therapist can provide comfort without being your mother, advice without being your buddy, and discuss difficult truths without becoming your mean older brother.  Therapists have an obligation to delineate themselves as professionals. 

When the lines between therapist and friend/family/lover become blurred, the potential for healing and growth stops.  Patients often test boundaries; it is the therapists’ responsibility to set good boundaries and maintain them.  Not every boundary violation is catastrophic, but over time, some therapists can lose a sense of their mission and purpose.  A paradox of being a good therapist is that to serve our patients well we must both demonstrate compassion and empathy while at the same time exercise a sense of clinical objectivity and detachment.  In this way, our personal problems don’t become a burden to our patients, and our patients problems don’t become enmeshed and confused with our own.  Good boundaries are defined differently based on the state, country, culture or setting, but here are some things to expect:

-----> A Good Therapist Will Not:

  • Be your Facebook friend or connect on other social media
  • Accept gifts from you except a small, home cooked item
  • Buy you gifts
  • Hang out with you, socially
  • Ask to date you, flirt with you, or try to have sex with you


4. All Therapists—Good and Bad—Are Required to Follow The Law and Their Own Professional Code of Ethics

Each profession’s code of ethics is different, but if you feel you have been mistreated in any way, you can make a complaint to your therapists’ state licensing board, and the complaint will be investigated.  Generally speaking, you have the right to privacy and confidentiality of your files and records, the right to be free from abuse and harassment, and the right to be free from financial exploitation.

-----> Your Therapist SHOULD NOT:

  • Push their values or beliefs on you, or discuss their personal religious or political beliefs with you
  • Verbally, emotionally or physically abuse, harass or intimidate you
  • Talk behind your back or share confidential information about you

-----> As a Trained Professional, A Good Therapist Will:

  • Clearly articulate their scope of practice and the limits of their practice
  • Not perform any technique or method for which they are not trained, competent or qualified
  • Refer you to other professionals if and when it is warranted
  • Explain methods, techniques, practices and interventions to be used in the course of your treatment using straight forward, laymen’s terms in your primary language.


5. All Therapists Should Demonstrate Good Therapeutic Use of Self

Different therapy professions have different tools and perspectives they rely on to facilitate health and healing.  Therapists typically have graduate-school-level training in these sophisticated techniques and theories.  But the one thing they never teach in school, is the most powerful tool of all, the therapeutic use of self.

-----> Therapeutic Use of Self Means:

  • Actively listening
  • Accepting the patient without prejudice or negative judgment
  • Understanding and respecting the patients’ values and beliefs
  • Taking the time to establish rapport
  • Valuing trust, respect, and kindness over being right or being in charge
  • Respecting the role of gender identity, culture, race, and ethnicity in a patients’ life, and acting accordingly
  • Doing no harm, and actively working to benefit the patient


Written By 7 Cups Listener: EmpatheticDude