Psychotherapy is a great treatment option for virtually any mental disorder or mental health concern, as well as life and relationship issues. Decades’ worth of research have proven its effectiveness, at least when you’re working with an experienced therapist who knows their stuff and uses empirically-backed techniques.
But what happens when you need to change therapists? We all need to change therapists from time to time, so how do you start over with a new therapist? Where do you begin? What do you do? And what do you look for in your new therapist?
Changing therapists can be a daunting, anxiety-inducing process. There is no “right” time to change therapists. You do it when you feel like you’re treading water with your current therapist, or you’re just not seeing the progress you’d like in therapy. With that in mind, here are 7 tips for changing therapists I recommend.
1. Tell your current therapist. Now.
This may seem obvious, but many put the obvious off until the last minute. If you haven’t already, you need to tell your current therapist that it’s time for a change. This should start near the beginning of your next session (don’t wait until the end, even though it may provoke some anxiety in you). While therapists are professionals, they are people too and can have a natural, human reaction to being dumped. While most therapists won’t take your decision personally, there may be some who do. Be prepared to answer some basic questions about your decision — Why are you changing therapists? Is there anything specific about your therapy that you found particularly rewarding? Unrewarding? Helpful? Not helpful?
Remember, this is your decision and technically it’s not up for “review” by anyone, unless you choose to share your reasoning behind it. There’s nothing that says you have to, but in most cases, it’s probably easiest to do so. And who knows? It may help your old therapist better help others in the future, especially if you’re leaving them because of a specific personality or interpersonal issue of the therapist.
2. You are legally entitled to a copy of your record — so get one.
Many therapists act as though your mental health record is their exclusive property. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the U.S., you are legally entitled not only to review your mental health record that your therapist keeps on you, but also to a copy of it. You may have to pay for photocopying costs, but the mental health record is actually yours.
You may want to review and have a copy of your mental health record before moving on. Your new therapist may also want to review your old mental health record and may ask you to sign a release form in order to expedite the process. Not all therapists will do this though, as sometimes these records have very little helpful information in them. I’ve seen progress notes that were no longer than 2 sentences long: “Patient showed up for session on time. We discussed patient’s current issues and therapist recommended following through on homework assignments.” This isn’t going to be particularly helpful to a new therapist to read through pages of similar material.
What does having a copy of your record do? It helps you understand the progress you’ve made to date, what goals you’re accomplished, and what areas may be of greater difficulty for you. Ideally, your treatment record will help you and your next therapist figure out where to pick up, and what sorts of things might be helpful to watch out for as stumbling blocks in the future.
3. If you still need a new therapist, ask for a recommendation.
Surprisingly, therapists who work within the same town or community tend to know one another, at least by reputation. Good therapists usually stand out, and even bad therapists will usually know who might be a good therapist who’s also a good fit for their patients who are looking for a change. If you’re leaving your current therapist because you question their ethics or judgment, then this may be a step you can safely skip.
Also, check out online directories, such as our psychotherapist directory here at Psych Central. They can help give you the basic background information about a therapist without having to lift a finger (other than to type your ZIP code in!).
4. Put your fear aside — this is a part of the therapist’s professional work.
Some people stick with the wrong therapist for them for far too long for one reason — fear. They are fearful to speak up for themselves, or to suggest something as seemingly drastic as leaving their current therapy.
Therapy doesn’t always work with a therapist you’ve chosen for a multitude of reasons, however. If you’ve tried your best, were open to change, and actively worked on changing your thoughts and behaviors associated with the problem that brought you into therapy in the first place, then it’s not your fault. Sometimes it just takes the right combination of therapist + patient = change.
As mentioned in #1, your therapist is a professional who should be trained and experienced in people leaving their practice from time to time. Expect to be treated in a respectful and professional manner when you’ve announced your decision. (And if you’re not, that’s just another sign it was the right time to move on!)
5. Consider taking a therapy break.
I’ve known people who’ve been in therapy for 3, 5, even 10 years at a time, sometimes even with the same therapist. We all need breaks from things — even helpful or beneficial things like psychotherapy. Consider taking a therapy break if you’ve been at it for years at a time, a vacation from therapy if you will. It doesn’t have to be long — a few weeks or months. It may give you a fresh perspective on what you most need and want out of your next therapist.
6. Prepare yourself for re-telling your story all over again.
Even if your new therapist has a copy of your old mental health records, they’re still going to want to hear it from the “horse’s mouth,” so to speak. So prepare to share your family history and life story up to the present, in your own words, to your new therapist.
This is probably one of the most frustrating parts of starting with a new therapist — picking up the pieces and getting the new therapist up to speed. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people upset about this prospect. And why wouldn’t you be? You’ve spent months or years cultivating the relationship and knowledge with your current therapist. Starting over seems like such a backward step.
Sometimes, however, taking a step backwards allows us to gain new perspective, or stop ourselves from falling over an edge that is closer than we thought.
7. Approach your new therapist from a fresh perspective.
Just as taking a break from psychotherapy might be helpful, and preparing to re-tell your life story might give you some new perspective, your entire approach to your new therapist is a chance to change things up as well.
In fact, consider the new therapist you choose from this fresh perspective, too. If you had a woman, maybe a male therapist might be more helpful this time around. The main qualities I look for in a therapist is someone who’s well-experienced, has prior experience working with my specific kinds of issues, and is someone I can connect with almost immediately from the first session. It’s kind of like a first date — you know there’s a connection there or not almost immediately. Give it up to 3 sessions to figure out whether your new therapist is right for you or not. If not, move on again. It’s much easier to do so sooner rather than later.
Changing therapists is not the easiest thing to do, but it’s sometimes necessary to move on for your own benefit. Don’t be afraid to take the plunge if you feel the time is right.
These are just 7 tips I’ve come up with for changing therapists. Do you have more (I bet you do!). If so, please add your tips below.