Discover more from XO, MU by Melissa Urban
XOMU: How to find a therapist
And the questions to ask to ensure they're a good fit
As you know, I’m a huge fan of therapy. I’ve been going in some format (off and on) since I was 16, and have worked with a number of therapists in both NH and Utah. The bad news is that finding the right therapist can be a journey. The good news is that finding the right therapist is like 72% of the work—no exaggeration.
Finding a therapist who understands your specific history, culture, and context; who is informed and experienced in the healing modalities that serve you best; who will provide the kind of guidance you need to progress; and who you experience as safe and trustworthy is a huge step in actually working through your trauma, challenges, or feelings. The right person will make hard discussions feel accessible, empower you towards needed confrontations, make sense of the jumble of emotions or feelings swirling around in your head, and see breakthrough-worthy connections where you never thought to look.
As someone who isn’t a professional but has had to find a new therapist a number of times (and had many disappointing “first dates,”) here are my best tips for getting started in therapy.
Where to look
Start with your insurance. Therapy can be expensive, so start within your insurance network. Look up providers in-network, find those accepting new patients, and start exploring their websites and social media feeds.
Use your company’s EAP. Most large organizations (over 1,000 employees) and many smaller ones offer Employer Assistance Programs and an EAP counseling program. While EAP is typically short-term counseling, your EAP counselor can refer you to a psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist, and/or addiction specialist when the time is right.
Ask your friends. This isn’t a guarantee, because finding the right therapist for you isn’t like finding a universally good tailor. But if your friends have someone they like, and you’re a lot like your friend, that may be a promising place to start.
Look online. Sites or apps like Psychology Today, Amwell, or Open Path Psychotherapy offer online connections to therapists, sometimes at a lower fee. The benefit here is not being limited to a therapist in your local community, which may be helpful if you’re looking for therapist with a specific cultural or relevant competency.
Try a low-fee or free community mental health clinic. These spaces are staffed by licensed providers, but expand their services through supervised students pursuing social work or psychology degrees. (Here is a good resource round-up, and this site offers resources by state.)
Before your first visit, you’ll fill out some paperwork. (Yes, this is needed even before you determine they’re a good fit.) Be as detailed as you can with patient information—I suggest writing some general history, background, and goals in Notes or Word, then copying and pasting to each provider’s forms as a time-saver.
How to choose
Assuming you’ve read about their background, credentials, and licensing on their website, use your first visit to ask less technical questions. Treat it like a first date meets job interview, where you’re the employer. Don’t expect to get much actual therapy accomplished; this is just a “get to know you” session. As they’re the expert and have conducted more initial visits than you have, you can follow their lead, but feel free to ask questions of your own.
What kind of therapy do you practice?
How do those forms of therapy work?
Do you have experience working with (Black, LGBTQ+, disabled, etc.) people like me?
What are your views on (social justice issues, religion, gender identity)?*
What are your views on medication?
Do you consider your practice trauma-informed, and what does that mean to you?
Who talks more, me or you?
Will you tell me what you think I should do, or will you guide me to my own courses of action?
Do you give clients homework, readings, or journaling assignments?
How will I know I’m making progress in therapy?
What are you looking for in terms of my progress?
What is a reasonable timeline for meetings and milestones?
You can also ask questions specific to what you are looking for in a therapist. For example, I have always asked, “Will you call me on my bullshit?” I want to know if a therapist is a straight-shooter who won’t coddle me, and the way they answer this question tells me a lot.
*Note, some providers prefer not to answer personal questions, so you’ll have to decide how important these factors are in your therapist search.
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How will I know?
The biggest thing you’re looking for in this first visit is a connection. Secondarily, can you see yourself making real progress with this person?
Do you feel comfortable with this person?
Did you feel a click or sense of recognition?
If applicable, is their physical space comfortable?
Does it feel like it’s a safe space, physically or virtually?
Do they seem trustworthy?
Do the questions they are asking you feel relevant?
Do they seem to have empathy?
Do they project the kind of authority you are looking for?
Are they naturally dialing in on why you are here?
Much like with a first date, if you’re just not feeling it, even if you can’t say why, it’s likely not the person for you.
How to say no
One of the biggest concerns may be not clicking with a therapist, but not wanting to hurt their feelings by saying “I don’t want to see you again.” This happened to me in 2020, when I was searching for a new therapist. At the end of the session, he said, “So would you like to book another session?” I said:
“I don’t think so. I appreciate meeting you, but given our conversation today, this doesn’t feel like the right setting for me. Thank you for your time.”
You don’t have to explain why or give excuses, and don’t worry about hurting their feelings. They want you to get the help you deserve, and based on every therapist I’ve talked to about this, they won’t take it personally.
What if everyone feels like a no?
If you interview five, eight, ten different therapists and they’re all a no, that might be a sign that you need to revise your evaluation criteria. Therapy is scary, and it’s definitely not easy to open yourself up to someone new. Anxiety may appear as “this person isn’t right!” instead of “this is hard and scary and may take time, but I at least feel comfortable with this person, and I’m willing to give them a chance to get to know me, and for me to learn to trust them.”
I’ve asked several therapists for their best advice here, and they all gave me the same metric: “Give it three sessions.” If you find someone who may be a good fit, give them three sessions—and really make an effort—before you decide they aren’t a good fit. They also encouraged you to share your hesitancy. You can say, “I’m not sure this is the right fit, but I’m going to give it two more sessions.” That may prompt a good discussion over what success looks like to you, and provide valued feedback to your therapist about what direction to take next.
If you’re new to therapy, finding the right person can feel intimidating. But I promise, the right therapist for you is out there, and once you find them, it will make processing your feelings so much easier than trying to do it all by yourself. I want you to look forward to therapy the way that I do, knowing you have someone trustworthy and experienced in your corner, ready to listen without judgment and help you navigate anything you find challenging. I leave every session feeling SO much better, and with the right therapist, you will too.