Particularly if you’re new to the world of therapy, you might think that one counsellor is just as good as another. But no two therapists are exactly alike. The warm-hearted former pastor might be an ideal choice for an older Christian man, while a young liberal woman could find the same counsellor completely unhelpful. Research consistently shows that the therapist’s style, clinical training, or philosophy matters far less than his or her relationship with the client. Indeed, a functional and trusting relationship between a counsellor and his or her client is the single best predictor of therapeutic outcomes.
If you don’t like your therapist, know that there’s no such thing as an objectively good therapist. What matters is what your therapist does for you. Here are five signs you’ve chosen the perfect therapist.
You’re Able to Be Honest
We all have some skeletons in our closets, and we all struggle with shame about portions of our lives. Therapy can’t work if you can’t be completely honest—even about the facts that you wish were little more than dreams. A variety of factors influence whether or not you’re willing to be fully honest with your therapist, including his or her values, how well your therapist protects your confidentiality, and whether or not you feel judged. If you’re holding back, it may be time to find someone else.
You’re Making Progress
You’re not in therapy for your own amusement, nor are you pursuing counselling to line your therapist’s pockets. Therapy is supposed to improve your life, and the only way to tell if it’s working is to have clear treatment goals. Good counsellors discuss your goals for therapy from the outset; after all, the best therapists are uninterested in keeping you permanently dependent on them.
Once your goals are clear, it’s easier to discern whether or not you’re making progress. The rate at which you can expect to progress depends on your goals. Moving past the trauma of being raped, for instance, typically takes more time than grieving the loss of a friend. Ask your therapist how long you can expect to be in therapy, then regularly evaluate whether you’re getting better. If you’re not making progress, ask your therapist to try a different approach. And if you’re getting worse, it’s time to try another counsellor.
You Like Your Therapist
It might feel trivial, but liking your therapist is anything but. Good therapists help you feel valued and respected. They laugh at your jokes and support your goals—even if they’d choose much different goals for themselves. You can’t expect life-changing results from someone you don’t even like, and a therapist who doesn’t “get” you is unlikely to understand how you want to live your life. If you don’t like your therapist when you first meet him or her, odds are good you never will, so trust your instincts, and remember that you deserve a therapist you look forward to seeing.
Your Therapist Can Accept Criticism
No therapist is perfect. Maybe he forgets that you had a bad reaction to an antidepressant, or she doesn’t understand why your religion plays such a seminal role in your life. You can’t expect your therapist to be a mind-reader, and he or she may occasionally give you advice that doesn’t pan out. Good therapists are willing to accept criticism. Indeed, they solicit it, because a therapist can’t help you get your life on track if he or she doesn’t have a keen understanding of what’s working and what’s not. Next time something doesn’t work out like you planned, tell your therapist and observe how he or she reacts. Remember, therapy is your chance to work through emotional issues—not a way for your therapist to feel good about himself!
Your Therapist Supports Your Values
In a world rich with diverse experiences, people, and cultures, few values can fairly be labeled as right or wrong. After all, there are arguments to be made for atheism, religious devotion, and an array of political beliefs. What matters is not that your therapist shares your values—though shared commitments can help deepen your relationship—but that he or she supports those values.
Your therapist should not try to convert you to a religion or political ideology. He or she should also work to understand how your values inform your life and decisions. For instance, if you’re committed to the equality of men and women, a therapist who believes that the genders are inherently and unalterably different may not be a good fit. Your counsellor should discuss your values with you, then help you find ways to manifest these values in your daily life. If your therapist is unwilling or unable to do this, it’s time to find someone else.