If you’re seeking therapy or know someone who is, learning what is and is not effective in counseling can help you with your search.
When looking for a mental health professional — especially for the first time — it’s not that strange to wonder: “What do I even look for?”
With so many types of counseling services and counselors, knowing where to start isn’t exactly intuitive. Plus, it can feel overwhelming to find a counselor if you’re in the midst of a difficult experience or having symptoms of a mental health condition.
If you’re seeking counseling, it can help to know what makes a good therapist and how to make the most of your sessions.
Many mental health conditions and concerns benefit from specific therapies. For instance, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a highly effective talk therapy for depression and anxiety disorders.
But a therapist’s expertise in certain therapy types isn’t the only thing that makes counseling effective. After all, anyone can benefit from counseling.
Another key factor in counseling’s effectiveness — perhaps the most important one — is the relationship between client and clinician.
If your therapist is skilled in CBT, they may know exactly how to help you reframe unhelpful thought patterns and change behaviors. But if they don’t know how to gain your trust and genuinely connect with you, your sessions will be much less effective.
In fact, a 2018 article from the American Psychological Association’s (APA) journal, Psychotherapy, outlines how the therapy relationship is critical for making improvements in therapy.
It’s important that the therapist-client relationship is based on collaboration — where both therapist and client are equal partners in the therapy process.
This means that together, you and your therapist come up with goals and expectations for your treatment so you remain on the same page.
Overarching goals might include everything from setting boundaries to finding a new job to reducing your alcohol intake or managing depression symptoms.
An effective therapy relationship also includes resolving issues that arise. As in any relationship, you’ll run into disagreements in therapy — sometimes called therapy ruptures.
Research in 2018 suggests that resolving these ruptures can lead to better outcomes for you.
A “good” counselor is a mental health professional who supports you in making progress in your life and goals, whether that’s helping you overcome fears or improving your sense of self.
According to an APA article on continuing education, there are various qualities that can set a counselor a part from others to create better outcomes in therapy.
These characteristics include:
- being flexible and tailoring treatment to each person based on their cultural background, preferences, gender and sexual identity, and religious beliefs
- empathizing with the client or being sensitive to their emotions and experiences
- gathering feedback from the client and using that information to change up and improve treatment
- being genuine and consistent in their words and emotions
- expressing their genuine emotions, when appropriate
- managing their own emotions during therapy
A mental health professional can be a good counselor for one person — but not a good fit for someone else. At its core, therapy is about a genuine connection between you and your therapist.
When trying to figure out whether a counselor is good for you, consider asking:
- Do I feel comfortable with this person?
- Do I feel heard and understood?
- Does the therapist interrupt me when I’m talking?
- Do they make critical or judgmental comments?
- Do they take my feedback into account or brush off my concerns and perspective?
- Can I make the changes I’d like to make with this counselor’s help and support?
Therapy is going to benefit you the most when you’re an active participant in your treatment. So, you might find therapy more effective when you:
- show up to almost all your appointments, and on time
- are honest with your therapist, even about what you’re afraid to say
- give your therapist feedback about the therapy process, including what you find helpful and not so helpful
- work with your therapist to set goals for change
- work on the skills you’re learning in therapy outside of therapy
- keep going to therapy, even when it becomes difficult or uncomfortable
Some of these things can be hard from time to time. That doesn’t mean you’re a “bad” client, unmotivated, or that there’s anything wrong with you.
You likely have a good reason for why you’re not making as much progress as you would like, such as:
- a past bad experience in therapy
- history of trauma that makes it tough to open up to anyone
- an undiagnosed mental health condition, such as depression, an anxiety disorder, or substance use disorder
- feeling overwhelmed about making changes
If you find yourself getting stuck in therapy, consider exploring why. When you can name what’s standing in your way, you can address it and move forward.
That might mean talking with your therapist about changing your goals or finding a different therapist that’s a better match for you. Just because one therapist is not right for you, it does not mean another one won’t be a good fit.
Either way, try to be honest with yourself and your therapist. This is not easy, but even taking the smallest step toward expressing what’s going on can lead to tremendous growth.
Being vulnerable with people you don’t know, at least initially, may seem awkward and even overwhelming. But group therapy can be a positive, transformative experience.
In group therapy, you can:
- realize you’re not alone in your experiences and struggles
- gain validation for your feelings and symptoms
- acquire valuable skills to reduce and manage symptoms
- learn from individuals who have different perspectives
- constructively give and receive feedback from others
- become a better listener
But like in one-on-one therapy, not all groups are created equal.
As in any meaningful, fulfilling relationship, trust and unity are essential ingredients of effective group therapy. In psychology, this is called “group cohesion.”
Group cohesion occurs when:
- group members have similar challenges and struggles
- group members communicate openly and honestly with each other
- you feel a sense of belonging within the group
- disagreements are promptly and effectively resolved
Effective counseling is built on a strong relationship with your therapist. This can take time.
A good counselor will be empathetic, tailor treatments to your needs, and foster collaboration. Together, you come up with goals and expectations for therapy.
A good therapist will also not judge you or cross your boundaries.
However, sometimes a good counselor just isn’t a good counselor for you. If you sense your therapist isn’t a match, try to pinpoint why.
In some cases, talking it over with them can help to resolve any miscommunication or challenges. In other cases, you may just want to move on and find a different counselor to work with.
If you’re looking for mental health support, but you’re not sure where to start, you can check out Psych Central’s Find Help page.