How to Pick a Therapist: Part One

By John Pajarillaga, a Doxa counselor.

Congratulations. You’ve decided to go to therapy. 

That’s a big step. But, making that decision is one thing and finding a therapist is a completely different one. 

Finding a good therapist can be hard. And the truth is, not every therapist is a good one. I’ve had too many clients tell me horror stories about something a former therapist said or did that made them stop coming to therapy for years.

If you have a little help though, finding a good therapist doesn’t have to be impossible. I only know that because I’ve been in your shoes before. Although I’m a therapist now, I wasn’t always. Back then I had never been to therapy before and I didn’t know the first thing about how to find one. 

It’s been years since that first session. Since then, I’ve been able to help friends, family, and even other therapists find a therapist that was a good fit for them.

I hope this simple guide helps you in your search.

1.     Start looking. 

A good place to start is with a simple search on Google for “therapists in (your city).” Doing that will easily give you 10-20 results. 

You can also find a therapist through any number of therapist directories. These directories are websites where people looking for mental health services can search for therapists in their area. Potential clients can access therapist profiles that gives them basic information about that therapist’s practice like what issues they focus on, the rates they charge per session, and their hours of availability. 

The most commonly used directory is Psychology Today but there are plenty of others like Choosing Therapy and Good Therapy. There are even directories if you are looking for a specific type of therapist like Therapy for Black Girls, the Asian Mental Health Collective, and LatinXTherapy

If you’re not shy about letting people know that you’re looking for a therapist, you can also ask people in your life for recommendations. People who have been to therapy and gotten a lot out of it are often the biggest advocates of therapy. 

Unfortunately, there is still stigma associated with going to therapy for a lot of people. So, if you do ask around, make sure you ask people you trust and who won’t give you a hard time about wanting to see a therapist or who would go around gossiping about you to friends, family or co-workers.

If you don’t mind people knowing that you’re looking for a therapist but you don’t want to go into detail about the reason, then keep it brief when you ask for their recommendation. You can say something like, “I feel stuck and think meeting with a professional would help. You’ve been to therapy before, can you recommend anyone?” or “I’m working on being a better ___________ (parent, spouse, etc…) and think I should talk to someone about it. Do you know any therapists?” 

If they try to pry into your life and you don’t feel comfortable sharing, then firmly saying “I don’t want to go into detail about it” is enough to get most people to back off. Say it two or three more times if they keep pressuring you. And if they still won’t stop after that, then end the conversation with, “I told you X times that I don’t want to go into detail about it. Stop prying. If you won’t give me a recommendation then just say so and I’ll leave.” 

Frankly, it’s no one’s business why you want to go to therapy. It’s completely up to you how much or how little you want to share with others. 

2.     Focus on specialization

Now that you know where to find therapists, the next step is to find one who specializes in the issues you need help with. 

Ask yourself, “Why do I want to go to therapy? What issues do I need help with?” Whatever your answer, you should go to a therapist who focuses on helping people with those specific problems.

Think about it. If your spouse cheated on you but you still wanted to save your marriage, would you rather see a counselor who specializes in working with people who struggle with eating disorders or a marriage therapist who works with couples on healing after an affair?

Even though all therapists are trained in the basics of counseling, over time we find our niche in the field.  We discover a passion for working with certain groups of people (single young adults, people going through divorce, stay-at-home moms, etc…) or helping with specific issues (eating disorders, religious trauma, blended families, etc…). We might be good at helping someone with typical issues like depression and anxiety but we are absolute rockstars when it comes to our specialty. 

For example, I do a lot of work with clients around issues related to race and culture, healing from trauma, and struggles with addiction and sobriety. I also love helping working with young adults navigate the struggles of that season of life: dating and relationships, their careers and figuring who they are and what they want out of life. I also enjoy working with couples and parents and helping them to develop deeper intimacy and to be better parents. These are my areas of expertise and where I do my best work. 

As you look for a therapist, you want to go with one who specializes in the issues you need help with. You get the most “bang for your buck” that way. 

3.     Consider demographics 

Once you know what specialization to look for, you need to start thinking about whether who a therapist is (their identity) will be a good fit for you. One of the ways you can do this is by considering your demographic preferences.

Here’s what I mean by that. 

If you’re a Caucasian woman, would you feel comfortable seeing a therapist who is African American? What if they were a man versus a woman? Would you care if they were in their mid-20s versus someone in their 50s? 

The labels that we identify with matter to us. It’s human nature. They don’t simply disappear when you are considering a therapist to work with. Because of that, you should think about who you would comfortable seeing. 

Ask yourself. Does a therapist’s race matter to me? Their ethnicity? Gender? Age? Religious affiliation? Sexual orientation? 

I’ve had clients of color come to me specifically because they felt that their former White therapists didn’t “get” some aspect of their cultural or racial identity but that I would. 

I’ve also had female clients meet with me because they were victims of trauma and the person who hurt them was a women so seeing a female therapist would be too stressful for them.

In each of the situations I mentioned, my clients had different reasons for choosing me as their therapist over someone else. None of their reasons were right or wrong. Preference is a choice and they simply knew who they would feel most comfortable working with. 

The caveat I want to give is that even if you have a preference, you may not be able to find the type of therapist you are looking for. 

For example, I am the only Asian therapist listed in the Asian Mental Health Collective directory and one of less than a handful listed in Psychology Today for the entire state of Mississippi. 

The reality in the mental health field is that most therapists are women (70%) and Caucasians (76%), at least here in the United States. Now, if you live in a big city like Chicago or New York, you could easily find a therapist based on your demographic preferences; but if you live rural areas or parts of the country that are less diverse, then your options are limited. 

Now keep in mind that just because a therapist is of a different race, gender, sexual orientation than you, it doesn’t mean they can’t help you. I’ve had gay clients see me despite knowing I was therapist who was a Christian because they knew I had done a lot of work with LGBTQ people in the past and had a reputation for not being judgmental or preachy towards clients. 

Despite that caveat, if having a therapist with your demographic preferences is important to you, then you should still try to find someone like that, just know that it may be harder and you may have to go with another option if you can’t find what you are looking for. 

In Part 2 of this article, I’ll further flesh out the decision making process that will land you with the right therapist of your choice.

John Pajarillaga is a Provisionally Licensed Professional Counselor, a Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor, and a Nationally Certified Counselor. His approach to therapy is shaped by his earlier work in community mental health where he developed a passion for helping people find hope and healing through all of life’s ups and downs.

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