When you think of therapy what comes to mind? A couch and a shrink? A stern psychiatrist who sits protected behind a desk while asking you or your loved one multiple questions? Do you think of a cold, dark office or an overly positive office with positive quotes all over the place? However you think of therapy, there has been something in your life or something said that has influenced the way you perceive therapy. All of your perceptions of therapists has a great deal to do with how you view therapy. It also could have something to do with your own experience or someone else’s experience. Either way, I want to debunk what you think therapy is and help you develop a more realistic, healthy view.
When I first began my journey in this field, I was a recent graduate with years of education under my belt and years of varied clinical experience. I had worked in schools, in clinics, in hospitals, in residential treatment facilities, community mental health centers, and even juvenile delinquent centers. I had seen and experienced so much that I felt burned out completely! After taking a few months off to find some direction and re-gain a passion for my work, I was able to do some extensive interviewing of families and clients. Most of the information I received from people who emailed me online, posted questions and concerns to articles I had published, called into radio shows, or even spoke with while giving a presentation in local venues, all included some sort of negative view of therapy. Could I blame them? No! There are many things wrong with this field, but there is also some really great things about it. Believe it or not, there are very authentic and caring professionals in the field. After jumping back into the work environment, I met with so many clients (children and adolescents) and their families who either had complaints about past therapeutic experiences or felt something went really well in their therapeutic experience. For many of you, I’m sure you can share both positive and negative experiences. Like anything else in this world, intense research (word of mouth and a personal interview) is needed to determine the right fit.
I pride myself on being honest and authentic with my clients (with appropriate boundaries). I aim to do that here as well. That being said, I will admit that there are some therapists, and even psychiatrists, who are very far removed from their clients and the families they see. They either don’t know how to relate or simply don’t care. There are also some professionals who simply should not be in the field. Everyone has strengths and sometimes a person’s strengths are not found in this profession. Other people are very intelligent but lack a lot of emotional intelligence. Still, others get into this field to understand themselves or those around them and have very little interest in actually helping. Whatever the reason, there are those of us who thrive in this field and those of us who don’t. As a result, it’s important to be able to identify the qualities that make a therapist successful at what they do. “Successful” might include being able to relate to clients, validate their feelings, show compassion and true concern, and be interested in learning about the person behind the label (i.e., a diagnosis or long history of problems). Overtime, I have developed a listing, based on families and clients, of qualities that make a good therapist. Here are the 7 things that contribute to a strong therapeutic relationship:
- Authenticity: Out of all the personality characteristics that can be faked, authenticity is one that cannot be faked. You are either honest and raw or you aren’t. Kids are really good at picking up on “fake people” and people who are natural. Some of us adults are also good at this. Heck, even pets are good at spotting a phony! No matter how much a therapist might smile, laugh along, and feign an upbeat tone of voice, some of us can identify that they are not being themselves. One of the most desired characteristics in a therapist is authenticity. Why would you want to open up to and talk to someone who doesn’t even respect themselves enough to be themselves?
- Boundaries: Boundaries are difficult to not only understand but utilize at times. I have often found myself struggling with reminding others of my boundaries. For example, because I like helping others, I have previously been overworked. I soon found out that I was killing myself! A good therapist has boundaries that they set up from the start of the relationship. They give you days and times they receive calls, rarely if ever call you after business ours, reinforces respect in the relationship, and lets the client guide therapy.
- Kindness: Everybody is different and life experience have a way of shaping who we become, how we think, and interact in the world. Kindness is sometimes difficult for some people to show. But a therapist should certainly be kind and show compassion. Someone who doesn’t seem invested in you, willing to help, or even interested, run.
- Experience: Believe it or not some therapists are rookies at their position, despite how long they have worked. There are those therapists who are just graduating from school (I was one at one time!!) and requires a lot of experience in order to find themselves. For some people, a beginning therapist might be the better therapist to seek counseling from because they are fresh and motivated. However, some people might prefer a therapist who is still somewhat new to the field, but has a level of experience that doesn’t necessarily make them a rookie. Either way, it’s important to consider what level of experience you want your therapist at because level of experience can determine the type of personality, techniques, and even relationship you will receive. For example, for some people, someone with 55 years of experience might be tired and boring or have “old school approaches,” while someone who has 6 years experience might be a bit more motivated and interested in trying new things. Of course, we don’t want to prejudge a therapist based on years of experience or age, but we all know that age and experience have a lot to do with style and belief system.
- Emotional intelligence: Some therapists simply don’t get other people and lack the ability to relate. While personality and life experience can have a lot to do with how you or your loved one will be treated by a therapist in therapy, we cannot forget the ideas behind emotional intelligence. Just like intelligence, emotional intelligence is necessary for appropriate communication with others. If you think of a sociopath and the lack of empathy they have, you can see how a person, without emotional intelligence, might treat you. A person like this may offend you, speak harshly to you, and have an overall disinterest in how you feel about things. You want a therapist for yourself or your loved one who can not only relate to you, but experience what you experience. You want a therapist who understands how you feel (despite whether how you feel is right or wrong).
- Emotional control: There are some therapists who are so “authentic” that they become strange. This type of person may cry with clients at times, hold your hand in session, or stand way too close to you. They lack the ability to control their emotional reactions to you. There is no respect for boundaries and no ability to see issues with their own behaviors. It’s great to have a therapist who feels what you feel or shows some understanding of how you feel. But a therapist who cries with you, wants to hold your hand during a session, or who doesn’t respect personal space, is possibly having trouble in their own life or needs some knowledge on how to relate to clients.
- Direction: I like therapists who are spontaneous at times and creative. What about you? Would you prefer a therapist who is structured in their approach or unstructured? Depending on your personality, you might choose the therapist who is very laid back and self-controlled, or you might choose the therapist who is very rigid and schedules everything. Either way, both therapists have some idea of where they are trying to take you or your loved one in therapy. They both have some thoughts about you and what goals they want to help you achieve. Just because you are laid back or rigid doesn’t mean you don’t have direction. A therapist who meets with you or your loved one and seems confused, forgets your name, or simply doesn’t seem to be knowledgeable about your case, should probably not be a therapist.
Finding a therapist is a tough challenge. It will take quite a bit of research and experience. Use your intuition and really seek to find a therapist who can not only help you (or your loved one) explore problems, but also feel comfortable and welcomed.
I wish you well