You find a therapist online or through your insurance. Or maybe a friend recommends them. Either way, you call and make your first appointment. You start seeing this therapist for 50-minute sessions once a week.
But how do you know if your therapist is actually good? It can be tough to tell because therapy can seem like a mysterious, cloaked process. We generally know what makes a good primary care physician or a good dentist. But what do good therapists say and act like?
For starters, your therapist should have a graduate degree, said Deborah Serani, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist in New York. They also should keep up with the “latest scientific studies, treatments and trends.”
And they should have the appropriate training in whatever treatment they’re providing, said Rachel Hutt, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and the director of Parenting Services and the Young Adult Program at CBT/DBT Associates in New York City. For instance, if a therapist is offering dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), they should have gone through DBT training with an adherent DBT team, she said.
What else makes a good therapist? Below are five additional signs or traits.
A good therapist is empathic.
According to psychologist Elizabeth Penela, Ph.D, “This is arguably the most important attribute.” That is, you should feel like your therapist understands you—your experiences, your emotions—and doesn’t judge you, she said. This is vital because the more open you are with your therapist, without worrying about being judged, the more they can help you.
Keep in mind that it can take several sessions to figure this out, said Penela, who specializes in treating children with anxiety and mood disorders at Pediatric Psychology Associates in Coral Springs and Weston, Fla.
A good therapist is a skilled listener and observer.
“It’s important that therapy is about you, your needs and your goals,” said Serani, Psy.D, author of three books on depression, including Depression in Later Life: An Essential Guide. “A therapist who talks too much about himself or herself is not listening to you and can negatively impact your growth.”
In addition to listening to what you say, good therapists are attuned to your energy and emotions, said Susan Orenstein, Ph.D, a licensed psychologist and founder and director of Orenstein Solutions in Cary, N.C. She gave this example: You mention that you’re visiting your college friends and are concerned about your appearance. Your therapist picks up on this and helps you identify your underling fears about social situations.
A good therapist is fully present.
“They are not distracted by their own lives or emotional issues,” 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. Rather they “protect the requisite space and time to fully attend to the hour, and the issues with which the client presents.” In other words, they don’t let their emotional baggage—whether it’s a childhood issue or recent breakup—into your session, he said.
A good therapist has their own therapist.
Serani advises every graduate student she teaches to see a therapist before they become one. That’s because therapy is an involved, intricate and unique process, so it’s important for a therapist to know what it’s like to be a patient and how therapy really works, she said. In fact, if a therapist isn’t in therapy, Serani sees it as a deal breaker.
Also, similar to what Duffy mentioned above, knowing yourself helps therapists understand their personal issues and how they might affect your therapy, Serani said.
A good therapist is professional.
According to Serani, “creating an environment that is professional provides predictability, boundaries, safety and trust.” She mentioned these questions:
- “Is your therapist respectful?
- Are your phone calls returned in a reasonable amount of time?
- Does your therapist run late or keep timely appointments?
- Do they grab phone calls, texts or emails throughout your session? Or is your time uninterrupted and the session is solely focused on you?
- Do you get a bill for services?”
It can take time to find a good therapist you trust and feel comfortable with. It’s totally normal to shop around. Therapy is invaluable, so if you don’t feel a connection with the first, second or fourth therapist, keep looking.
Stay tuned for part 2, where we share five more tell-tale signs of a good therapist.