How do I know if I’m seeing a good therapist? This is a common question asked both by people new to therapy and those who have had years of sessions. It is a crucial question, as a bad therapist can significantly stifle your progress.
I saw my first therapist for a year before I realized I wasn’t making progress. It might seem strange that I did not notice sooner, but recognizing that you are seeing the right therapist is not as easy as it sounds. I was blindsided by the fact that I was getting so much insight into myself.
When I entered therapy, I did not have much self-awareness. Over the course of the following months, I learned a lot about myself. I learned that I crave validation from powerful men because I never got that validation from my father. I learned that I am socially anxious because my mother used to shame me for being too loud. Every week I discovered more about my neuroses and where they came from.
However, at the end of a year of therapy, I noticed something strange. I had been doing therapy once a week and my anxiety had gotten worse. I still swooned all too easily at any sign of validation from male authority figures. I still felt as in need of help as I had when I’d started.
The problem was that I gave my therapist all the authority when it came to what was best for me. It would have helped to have known much earlier what I needed to look for.
Here are some guidelines to help you decide if you are seeing the right therapist.
They set goals
Therapy generally takes place on a fairly abstract level. You interrogate your past and present to find meaning and direction. You deal in the realm of thoughts and feelings. As such, it is easy to forget that therapy should have concrete goals.
My first therapist never brought up the topic of goals. She listened, made observations, and helped me come up with fascinating insights. But we did not speak about where therapy should be taking me.
Therapy goals can be harder to define than, for example, exercise goals. You can measure exactly where you want to be when it comes to physical fitness. But measuring where you are mentally is much more subjective.
Nonetheless, therapy needs concrete goals, both abstract and measurable. The former might be to find meaning in life. The latter might be to make friends or to stop sleeping during the day or to find hobbies that you love. Both types of goals are necessary. Otherwise, you are paying a lot of money without any way to measure whether it is helping.
They check in with those goals
It is all very well to set goals at the start of your therapy journey. But that does not mean the therapist is right for you. If your goals are forgotten once those first sessions are done, your therapist is not focused on helping you reach them.
Good therapists check in with those goals so that they can measure how well the process is going. They look for feedback so that they can make decisions about how to better serve you. Therapy is never a one-size-fits-all endeavor, and the only way they can decide how to proceed is by exploring where the current strategy is taking you.
My first therapist never checked in about whether I was making progress and that should have been a major red flag.
They discuss the length of treatment
The topic of when therapy should end is a controversial one. Some therapists believe that it should be an ongoing process, if not always with the same frequency. Others believe that therapy should have an end date. Neither approach is necessarily better than the other.
However, regardless of which approach your therapist takes, they should discuss it with you. They should be upfront about it in order to help you set your expectations. Therapists who are not willing to do so make it impossible for you to assess the process.
My first therapist seemed to expect me to keep seeing her forever. When I decided to leave therapy with her, she told me that I still needed it but was not willing to discuss how much longer I would need it for.
They listen to your apprehensions
A good therapist listens to your apprehensions without getting defensive. Every person has an ego, even the best therapist. However, good therapists don’t let that get in the way of receiving feedback.
When I told my first therapist that I did not think I was making progress, she was not willing to hear it. She got upset and, instead of hearing my concerns, blamed me for not taking the process seriously enough.
This is a sign of a particularly bad therapist, as they should never turn your apprehensions against you. Fortunately, I was able to see through this and promptly found someone new.
Where do I go from here?
What do you do when you realize you need to find another therapist? The good news is that most therapists are willing to hear you out. Speak to them about your concerns, and if any of the above statements are true, it is wise to end the process with them.
Finding a new therapist was actually easier than I expected. I knew what to look for (and I could recognize red flags). With my new therapist, we spoke about goals from the start and she told me that her approach was for therapy to have an end date. Over time, she regularly checked in with my progress, bringing up my goals when she felt I needed to be reminded of them.
Perhaps the most important lesson was that I had more agency than I thought. By considering the above points, you can determine whether therapy is working without having to rely on the “expert” opinion. If you notice a red flag, bring it up immediately. Don’t wait to see how it plays out. A good therapist will accept your feedback with openness and warmth.