If you aren’t in the psychology field, it’s hard to know what you should expect from a therapist. After all, choosing a therapist is different from looking for a surgeon or chiropractor or dermatologist. Therapy is a unique process; one that requires you to be vulnerable. In fact, you might share things with your therapist that you’ve never shared with anyone.
So how do you know if the therapist you have or one who you’re considering is actually a good clinician?
In a previous piece we laid out five traits. Good therapists are: empathic; professional; skilled listeners and observers; fully present; and seeing their own therapist. Below are five more tell-tale signs.
Good therapists collaborate with you
Rather than telling you what your goals are or what you should do, your therapist works with you to identify them. Psychologist Rachel L. Hutt, Ph.D, shared this example: A good therapist doesn’t tell a young adult that he or she needs to go back to college. Instead, the therapist works with the client to understand whether attending and graduating college is actually the client’s goal—or whether it’s necessary for his or her future goals, she said.
Good therapists also work with you early on to devise a reasonable plan and time frame based on your concerns, said John Duffy, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist, parenting coach and author of The Available Parent: Expert Advice for Raising Successful, Resilient and Connected Teens and Tweens.
In other words, they are clear about when you should feel “some degree of change.” For instance, he said, your therapist might say: “Within a month, you should see your symptoms of anxiety diminish considerably. Within 3-4 months, you will have learned and mastered the tools to manage your anxiety effectively.”
Duffy also noted that good therapists often use scales to measure your progress, such as: “If your depression is at a 5 now, how can we bring it down to a 4, or a 4.5, within the next week?”
Good therapists don’t act or talk like they know better than you do
Instead, they offer “new skills and help clients to think for themselves using [those] skills,” said Hutt, the director of Parenting Services and the Young Adult Program at CBT/DBT Associates in New York City. She gave this example: Let’s say you want to leave your job. A therapist who thinks he or she knows better tells you, “I think it’s a bad idea to leave your job. It’s too impulsive. You won’t be able to support yourself. You need to think this through.”
In contrast, Hutt said, a good therapist would: understand the issues you’re having at your job; help you brainstorm different solutions, which include leaving your job; and help you pick the choice that is most effective for you.
“The client ultimately is the one who knows what is best for himself or herself, but he or she might need some help to get there.”
Good therapists both support and challenge you
In other words, they meet you where you are while challenging you to try difficult tasks to meet your goals. Good therapists recognize that exposing their clients to anxiety-provoking situations might be tough, so they start gradually, Hutt said. At the same time, the therapists also encourages their clients to try increasingly more challenging tasks, she said.
A good therapist will “point out gaps between what you say and do and will gently challenge you in order to help you grow,” said Susan Orenstein, Ph.D, a licensed psychologist and founder and director of Orenstein Solutions in Cary, N.C.
A good therapist is calm and effective
According to Orenstein, a “good therapist is comfortable in his or her own skin and doesn’t get overwhelmed [or rattled] easily.” Good therapists can take criticism and effectively manage conflict or silence, she said. They feel “like an anchor in the room.”
A good therapist has your best interest at heart
For instance, if you aren’t making progress on your treatment goals, your therapist will talk to you about it, said Elizabeth Penela, Ph.D, a psychologist who specializes in treating children with anxiety and mood disorders at Pediatric Psychology Associates in Coral Springs and Weston, Fla. And at the very least, good therapists “make hypotheses regarding the plateau of treatment.” They’ll talk to you about these obstacles, along with potential solutions, even if those solutions include getting treatment from someone else, she said.
Good therapists also will mention when it’s time to move on, Penela said. For instance, they might discuss this with you when you’ve made great strides and met your goals, she said. (Of course, if you want to continue going to therapy for support, you can discuss that, too, she added.)
Ultimately, it’s important for you to trust your therapist and feel comfortable with him or her. Sometimes, this means that you’ll see a few therapists before finding one that’s right for you. Please don’t get discouraged. Keep looking. It’s worth it. Therapy is truly transformative.