How to figure out if a therapist is the right fit

Abstract drawing of a brain, lips and a question mark with shapes and swirls overlaying them
Abstract drawing of a brain, lips and a question mark with shapes and swirls overlaying them

Making the choice to go to therapy is a big decision. It can feel vulnerable to ask for help when you’re struggling, and starting a new routine — even one you’re excited about — often comes with a learning curve. Plus, there’s the actual work of finding a mental health clinician that can help you meet your goals.

While the act of going to therapy itself plays a big role in your growth, psychological research shows the relationship dynamic between a person and their therapist can be just as important. “Trust and respect for a therapy provider might motivate you to take their suggestions seriously,” says Grace Dowd, a therapist in Austin, TX. “Plus, you're more likely to get something out of therapy — and want to go to therapy at all — if you like the person you’re working with.”

Most therapists would agree the right fit is important, but it can be tough to know where to start, and how to tell if a potential provider is the right fit for you. Here are some helpful tips to get you started, straight from two therapists.

When you’re looking for the right therapist, strategize your search

If you have an internet connection, you can start your search online. There are several sites that aggregate psychotherapy providers, such as Psychology Today, Therapy Den, Good Therapist, Inclusive Therapists, and Therapy for Black Girls. But before searching for a provider, you may want to think through what you’re looking for in your mental health journey. “For example, if you prioritize inclusivity or seeing a BIPOC therapist, it may help to search a more niche site rather than a generic one,” says Dowd.

Once you land on a search engine you feel good about, think through some other specifics that’ll help you narrow down your search; many of these sites have built-in filters you can use, and even if they don’t have filters, therapists often have mini-bios on their websites, or they will list things like their specialties or the types of therapy they practice.

Cameron Murphey, a California-based psychotherapist, recommends researching common therapeutic modalities — such as cognitive behavioral, acceptance and commitment, and psychodynamic therapies — and deciding which one you think might help you the most. You can also look for a provider who specializes or is interested in the issue or issues you are seeking support for.

“It’s better to have a therapist who’s really good at the thing you’re struggling with than a therapist who is decent at many things,” says Murphey. For example, if you need help with relationship issues, try to find a therapist who specializes in that. According to Dowd, you can also narrow down your search based on logistics, like location, whether they do in-person or virtual sessions based on your own preference, and whether a therapist accepts your insurance.

If you’d rather not scour the internet, your friends or family are good references, as long as you’re comfortable seeing the same person. “Other people might have already done the work of vetting a high quality therapist, which can save you some time,” says Murphey.

Next, do a vibe check

Narrowing down your search involves some recon work on a therapist’s “hard skills.” The next step is to determine that person’s “soft skills” — factors like their personality, communication style, and overall vibe, all of which can impact your experience in therapy.

If you want a little more info on someone before reaching out, Murphey suggests Googling the therapist to find their therapy social media page or website, which can give you a better idea of this.

Feel good about things so far? Consider reaching out. Many therapists, Dowd says, offer a free phone or video consultation before officially starting therapy with someone. “That’s a good time to feel someone out, ask questions, and figure out whether you want to move forward with a potential therapist,” she says.

Questions that can help you decide if a therapist is right for you

As with any interview, it can help to prepare some questions ahead of time. Your asks should ultimately hinge on what you’re looking for in therapy, but if you’re not sure how to steer the conversation, a few topics can serve as starting points. First, Murphey suggests inquiring about the therapist’s treatment strategy. “It can help to ask someone if they’re more structured and goal-focused, or if they step back and let clients explore during sessions,” he says. Neither is necessarily the “right” answer; it just depends on what you feel will be more helpful for you.

Some therapists give “homework,” which some people find keeps them on track and others may not want, so Dowd says you may want to ask the provider if that’s part of their treatment plan. The consultation is also a good time to check in about other logistics, like how long the provider usually works with clients, what a typical session looks like, and whether the person accepts a sliding scale if you need one.

Of course, the answers to these questions themselves can help inform your decision, but the therapist’s communication and personality should come out during this time, too. Check in with yourself through the process. Do you feel heard and understood? Is the therapist responding to you compassionately? Murphey says all these things can give you a sense of what your actual therapy sessions might look like, so trust your gut.

And if you’re just not feeling it, be honest. Therapists are used to it, and they want you to find someone you feel good about seeing — in fact, if that person is not them, they might even help you find that person. “It’s useful to remember you’re going to be paying a therapist for a service, so if you aren’t interested in moving forward, let them know,” says Murphey. “It’s our job to empower clients to make choices they think are best for them.”

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