First off, I’m a therapist. I’ve worked in outpatient settings, including a college, a school, and a private practice. I’ve also worked in crisis settings, like an ER and a psychiatric hospital. I can tell you one thing for certain: a good outpatient therapist is often the difference between someone who successfully maintains normalcy and health for the long-term and someone who is frequently in crisis. Despite their unique differences, most of my patients who are “frequent flyers” in the ER or in the hospital have one thing in common: they didn’t have a good therapist. Perhaps they didn’t have one at all, or they never had a good experience in therapy. Whatever happened, frequent hospitalizations were the result.
Despite their unique differences, most of my patients who are “frequent flyers” in the ER or in the hospital have one thing in common: they didn’t have a good therapist.
But what makes a good therapist? How can you meet someone once and gauge whether that person will be trustworthy, helpful, and beneficial to your wellbeing? It’s not easy to do, and often you really can’t know in one session. For that reason, I always suggest to give a new therapist a few sessions to get to know each other. Therapists are human too, and there are good ones and not so good ones. But there are red flags to look for right away, and I’m going to name a few. I hope these tips help you tell the difference, so that you can maximize your experience in counseling and experience fulfillment in your life.
There’s an important difference between your therapist and your best friend: you don’t pay to talk to your best friend. Therapists can have amazing relationships with their clients, but at the end of the day it is a professional relationship, and that should mean there are professional boundaries.
A good therapist may not answer her phone at all hours of the night. He won’t grab coffee with you before session. She won’t add you on social media (through a personal account). And he won’t ever, EVER indicate that he has any romantic feelings toward you (hopefully there aren’t any in the first place!) At least while you are working together or for the next few years after (depending on the state you live in.) You should never feel like your therapist is in too much of your personal life. If so, boundaries may be an issue.
Each type of therapist (counselors, social workers, psychologists, etc.) have a specific Code of Ethics for their particular profession within the mental health field. I’m not going to go into specific ethics too much, but here are a few things to keep in mind.
- You should feel safe around your therapist, emotionally and physically.
- You should not feel like your therapist is flirting with you or unnecessarily probing into sexual or romantic details.
- Your therapist probably shouldn’t barter with you for payment, like they give you therapy and you give them a haircut or something. (Bartering for services is legal in some states, and so I would consult state legislation and ethics codes if you’re interested in doing that. But personally, I like to keep away from those kinds of situations because they can quickly get confusing and feel unfair.)
- Your therapist needs to provide you with informed consent regarding the nature of your sessions, payment, and expectations.
- Your therapist needs to reasonably notify you and help you find alternative options if they’re going on vacation, cancelling sessions, or leaving their job entirely.
- Your therapist must report certain things to authorities, such as child abuse, elder abuse, you feeling suicidal, or someone else being in danger because you want to hurt them.
I recommend checking out the code of ethics that applies to your therapist every time you start with someone new, so that you know what to expect. If you’re curious, check them out here:
This is not necessarily flexibility in schedule or payment, but more flexibility within the actual session. Your therapist’s agenda should be you. Their goal should be to help you achieve your goals, not to see you achieve whatever they personally think is best. You and your therapist might have the kind of relationship where you ask them their personal opinion. Asking is okay, and a good therapist will answer the question respectfully and within their ethical guidelines. But your goal should not be to make your therapist happy with you, and a good therapist will never make you feel that way.
But your goal should not be to make your therapist happy with you, and a good therapist will never make you feel that way.
Therapists can be expensive! So if you’re going to shell out the cash, be sure you’re getting a quality return on your investment. What does this mean? Well, it doesn’t mean you expect your depression to be cured in 2 sessions. You and your therapist should discuss realistic expectations. What it does mean is that your therapist should make you think, challenge you, and help you grow.
This is just my opinion, but I’m more for therapists who give homework and push their clients a little bit, rather than therapists who just stare at their clients and listen for an hour. If I wanted that, I would’ve talked to a wall and lit a $100 bill on fire and saved us all a lot of time. However, just having the freedom to vent for an hour could be fantastic for some people. Others may feel that they won’t grow or change all that much from those kinds of sessions. Depends on the person. Think about where you want to be in life when you complete therapy, express that to your therapist, and set goals with them that will help you get there.
This is so at the core of the helping professions that you’d think no future therapist could graduate without a high-functioning empathy muscle. Sadly, this isn’t always the case. A not-so-great therapist may put assumptions on you. She might tell you how you’re feeling and not allow for corrections. He may treat your experiences flippantly, or give you platitudes like “someone else has it worse.” Yeah, of course, duh. But statements like that aren’t typically helpful and end up causing shame and guilt.
But a good therapist will really listen to you. She will do her best to slip into your shoes and understand what you’re going through. If he reflects back to you and it’s not quite what you’re feeling, he’ll take the time to correct his assessment and adjust with you. A good therapist will make you feel heard and understood, maybe more deeply than you’ve ever felt before.
I hear from clients all the time that one of the best things about having a therapist is having an objective person to talk to and receive professional advice from. They love that they can talk to someone who doesn’t have their own agenda, who won’t judge them or gossip about them, and who won’t see them at Thanksgiving dinner. And they’re right….objectivity is so important.
You should not have to take your therapist’s personal opinions into account during session. You might look for their professional opinions, because that’s part of why you pay them I’m guessing. But they should still remain objective and centered on your goals. Objectivity and good professional boundaries will generally reinforce one another as well.
Do you have other ideas about what makes a good therapist? Or experiences that seem a little in the gray areas? Share them in the comments!
It’s been my pleasure to guest post for MindLoft. Much love, friends!
Photo credit: BBC Bit of Fry and Laurie (that really great sketch when they both think they’re the therapist.)