Starting therapy can be a daunting task.
It can be anxiety-provoking, overwhelming, and heavy with ambivalence. The first step on its own is hard enough: how do you even find a therapist?
While word of mouth has long been the way people connect with therapists, more and more of us look to the internet for answers to this question.
You might search for a type of therapy and location (child therapy in Santa Cruz), or the town you live in and the name of the insurance company you’re hoping to use (Oakland Blue Shield therapists). Many of these searches will result in aggregated, long, filterable lists from websites like Psychology Today.
This is a great place to start, but it can also pose the obstacle of abundance. With so many choices, how do you know who to pick?
After scanning some pictures, prices, and mini bios you might come up with a short list of several practitioners. This is where starting therapy can almost feel like dating.
Does making that call feel like too much? Do you call one person and put the others on hold until you meet with them? Or do you “get around” and meet with several therapists at once.
Most likely you’ll get a voicemail when you call, so do you just commit to therapy with whoever calls you back first? Or do you search and search but never find somebody who feels good enough?
Then when you finally meet with a therapist or psychologist, how do you know if they can help you? How do you know if you can work together? Maybe they seem nice, but aren’t most therapists “nice”? Is being nice even what will be helpful?
Or maybe they seem like they’re of the wrong age, or ethnicity, or gender, or culture to understand you. If you have doubts, should you just gut it out and see how it goes? Or is any bit of a doubt a sign that the match isn’t right, and you should bolt for the door?
You can probably hear in these questions that starting a therapy brings up many of the basic questions, beliefs, and struggles we have around relationships and life.
But what should I do?
Given all these questions and uncertainties, people ask me fairly often if I have any suggestions on how to find a good therapist. The one piece of advice I would give to anybody looking to start a therapy is this: trust yourself.
That can certainly be complicated. Many people come to therapy having significant difficulty trusting themselves in their decisions.
Some people come to therapy specifically because they feel like they are making too many bad decisions and want to stop.
Many more come to therapy not even truly knowing what they really want in general, let alone in a therapist.
We live lives filled with compromise and obligation, so how do you wade through that all to find what you, deep down, truly want? How do you prioritize multiple wants or needs, for example the desire to save money with the desire to find somebody who you truly connect with?
These are absolutely not mutually exclusive, but it’s also very common to hear stories of people who move from training clinic to training clinic, feeling like they’re never getting the help they need but also never feeling they should invest more in their therapy and themselves.
It can also be difficult to know whether a therapist is a good fit if you come from a background where you had to be wary of strangers or the people in charge. How do you tease apart which aspects of your reaction are about the past, and which is about the person who’s sitting in front of you?
Or do you even need to know? Maybe an important part of therapy is being able to tolerate ambivalence and not knowing?
So while there are many things that can complicate the act of trusting yourself to know whether this new person is somebody you can work with, I still believe it’s the most important part of making of deciding who to work with.
You are worth it
Therapy is an investment. It takes energy and work and thought. It asks you to feel difficult feelings, sit through unpleasant sensations, and have the courage to say things to another person that you don’t like admitting even to yourself. It’s not easy.
Because of this, I believe the foundation you build a therapy on needs to be one in which you can feel open to investing yourself in.
It’s certainly not unusual for a therapy to be spent working on fears around openness or discovering that what you thought was “open” was actually a very guarded, but without a basic level of connection or comfort or hope or trust, I don’t know that people can “show up” in their therapy in the way they need to in order to get the most out of it.
Years ago, one of my mentors was asked what makes people feel safe in therapy. Some people gave long answers to the question, noting all the different approaches and techniques that they use to facilitate safety in therapy. My mentor had a beautifully simple answer that has stayed with me:
“People know when they feel safe…”
As you seek out a therapist, trust in yourself that you will know when you feel safe. Pay attention to the feeling when you don’t.
You are worth it.